Amy Levy and the "Jewish Novel": Representing Jewish Life in the Victorian Period

Article excerpt

In the last month of 1888 Macmillan brought out what was to become a controversial novel within the Jewish community on both sides of the Atlantic. Amy Levy, a twenty-seven-year-old Jewish woman who had already made something of a name for herself as a writer of poetry, non-fictional prose, and fiction, was the author of this book, Reuben Sachs. It was her first published work of fiction about Jewish life. The question of how to represent Jews in fiction had evidently been on her mind for a long time, for in 1886 Levy had published in the weekly Jewish Chronicle an article, "The Jew in Fiction," in which she had criticized the treatment of Jewish characters by a number of different novelists.

In this article Levy takes jabs at Dickens' unpleasant Fagin but is no more pleased by his idealized Jew, Riah (in Our Mutual Friend); she reminds us that Thackeray too has Jewish characters who are entirely negative; and she speaks disparagingly of a now-forgotten novelist, a Mr. Baring-Gould, who, she charges, "follows the old Jew-baiting traditions" in his novel Courtroyal. She dismisses Lord Beaconfield's (Disraeli's) idealized Jewish characters as unmemorable, and, with considerable emotion, complains that another novel of the day, L.L. Clifford's Mrs. Keith's Crime (1885), is "offensive" in its "condescending" depiction of Jewish people (a reading of this book reveals that its Jewish characters, while likeable, are minor and used only for comic relief).(1) What is perhaps surprising is that Amy Levy includes in her critique the Jews in George Eliot's "Jewish novel" Daniel Deronda (1876); Eliot's book had been hailed by most literary Jews of the time and many since, as a model for how to treat Jewish people in fiction.(2)

In Reuben Sachs, Levy followed up on her 1886 critique of George Eliot by explicity satirizing the idealized depiction of Jews in Daniel Deronda, and, in doing so, rejected a way of representing Jewish life that had become one of the conventions for treating Jews available to the Victorian novelist, especially the Anglo-Jewish novelist. Dispensing with this convention allows her to raise the question of what it means to be a Jew and to probe the moral nature of the Anglo-Jewish community. At the same time, she uses George Eliot's last book to widen the significance of her own Jewish novel, and she relies on the resonance created by the intertextual relationship between the two books to make the novel accessible to the mostly gentile reading public. Moreover, as we shall see, Levy's dissatisfaction with George Eliot's approach to the representation of Jews in fiction, together with her criticisms of other novels with Jewish characters, may have led her to depart in Reuben Sachs from what is now often called "classic realism."

In "The Jew in Fiction," Levy had called for a serious treatment of Jewish life and character. Like most literary critics today, she admires the impulse behind the idealized portraits of the important Jewish characters in Eliot's novel but finds them impossibly virtuous; therefore she asks rhetorically, "[W]hich of us will not acknowledge with a sigh, that the noble spirit which conceived Mirah, Daniel, and Ezra, was more royal than the king?"

Toward the end of her article Levy asserts, "No picture of English 19th century life could be considered complete without an adequate representation of the modem son of Shem." The point which emerges (albeit implicitly) is that the Jews are an intrinsic part of British society and must therefore be neither romanticized nor trivialized in British fiction. Seeing the Jews as thoroughly English although singular in many ways, she dismisses Daniel Deronda as "no picture of Jewish life, that of the little group of enthusiasts, with their yearnings after the Holy Land and dreams of a separate nation" (emphasis mine).

George Eliot's saintly Jews are in tune with what British critic Bryan Cheyette calls the "apologetic" tradition of nineteenth-century fiction about Jews. …

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