Academic journal article Shofar

The Rebel Queen and Constructions of Jewish Identity in Late Victorian Britain

Academic journal article Shofar

The Rebel Queen and Constructions of Jewish Identity in Late Victorian Britain

Article excerpt

This essay examines The Rebel Queen, a novel written by Walter Besant and illustrated by Adolph Birkenruth for serialization in The Illustrated London News in 1893. The text and images tell the story of Francesca Elveda, a young woman who does not know that she is Jewish because her mother-estranged from the faith herself-keeps her identity from her. The turning point of the narrative is Francesca's realization that she is in fact Jewish. As her heritage is revealed to her, tensions arise between the visibility and invisibility, the stability and the instability, of Jewish identity. This paper argues that the complexity of The Rebel Queen rests in the way it relies on a racial worldview even as it contests antisemitism. Equally multi-faceted is the novel's representation of patriarchy: although the author is attracted to Jewish culture because he admires its preservation of male dominance, his female characters are more developed and more sympathetic than his male characters. While realist in style, the philosemitic dimension of The Rebel Queen imparts an undercurrent of Orientalism.

For Walter Besant the following questions were deeply urgent. Do Jews look different from other Europeans? Can one tell that they are in fact descended from an ancient Oriental people? Is Jewish identity "stamped" on a person's face, marking him or her as a member of a different religion, a different culture, even a distinct race? Can one be Jewish without knowing it, or would a mirror inevitably betray this difference? These questions are all posed by Walter Besant's The Rebel Queen from 1893. This novel invites an exploration of the construction of Jewish identity in late Victorian London, specifically the nature of identity itself and its ability to be both fixed and fluid, legible and illegible. Besant's meditation on identity occurs within a realist text, which incorporates some aspects of Orientalism while disavowing others. Prior to its publication in book form, The Rebel Queen was serialized in The Illustrated London News, accompanied by Adolph Birkenruth's chalk and wash drawings, which were reproduced photomechanically using half-tone blocks. From January to June 1893, a new installment appeared every week. Together the text and images tell the story of Francesca Elveda, a young Spanish-Jewish woman living in contemporary London who does not know that she is Jewish because her mother, a celebrated feminist, has abandoned her religion and her husband in a rebellion against Jewish patriarchy, hiding her daughter's Jewish identity from her and pretending they are both Moorish. As the narrative unfolds, Francesca is introduced to the beliefs and cultural practices of Judaism through her friend Clara (who turns out to be her cousin) and eventually discovers that she herself is Jewish. At the end of the story, Francesca embraces her Jewish identity, renounces the feminist ideals that she had learned from her mother, is reunited with her father, and embarks with him on a trip to Palestine. The ever-impending revelation of Francesca's Jewishness is the driving force of the narrative, and the central question of the story is whether Jewish identity is visible on the body. Throughout the story there are many references to vision such as mirrors and a scene involving drawing, and the many illustrations do much to further the emphasis on visuality.

Orientalism within Realism

At first glance, it might seem odd to consider Besant's story in terms of Jewish Orientalism. After all, both the text and the images are decidedly realist. Orientalist novels and images tend to be escapist fantasies, mysterious and timeless tableaux filled with exotic people, costumes, and settings. On the contrary, works in the realist idiom take place in the author's or artist's own time period, focus on ordinary life, and are often politically engaged, addressing current events.1 The Rebel Queen, like all of Besant's novels, takes place in the familiar terrain of late Victorian England, not in the distant and romanticized lands of the Middle East. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.