Magazine article Midstream

Intermarriage in Anthony Trollope's Fiction

Magazine article Midstream

Intermarriage in Anthony Trollope's Fiction

Article excerpt

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), in three of his novels, dealt with love and marriage between Jew and Christian in a way that broke with the stereotypical fixation on this subject stemming from Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (1589) and William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (1592). Numerous later authors perpetuated the model in which a beautiful Jewess accepts a Christian lover and converts to Christianity in defiance of her utterly vile, money-grubbing Jewish father who frequently comes to no good end. (1)

Even Grace Aguilar, the distinguished Jewish writer and apologist, cannot entirely refrain from this theme. In The Vale of Cedars (1850), set in Spain during the Inquisition, the Jewish heroine, who had dutifully given up her Christian suitor to marry her cousin, resists conversion to Christianity in the face of torture to the point of death. Still, on her deathbed she professes her love to that Christian suitor. In Ivanhoe (1817), Sir Walter Scott deviates somewhat from the pattern by having Rebecca, the beautiful and magnificent daughter of a cringing and avaricious moneylender, remain steadfast to her religion and choose exile with her father rather than have her consummate a romantic attachment between herself and the gallant knight, Ivanhoe. Indeed, Scott, when queried about this, defended his decision by noting that although such an attachment might have been romantically more satisfying, it would have been unrealistic for those times.

In each case, the affair is between a Jewish woman and a Christian man; Christian women are never tainted by love for a Jewish man (shades of the plantation culture in the old American South). Trollope overturns this taboo in three of his novels where three vastly different Jewish men woo Christian women; one successfully, one unsuccessfully and one disastrously.

By the mid-19th century, Jews had permeated many strata of English society--from upper class financiers, stock brokers, and manufacturers, to middle-class businessmen and professionals, to artisans, petty merchants, and peddlers. They varied from the Sephardim, descendants of Portuguese exiles who had come two centuries earlier by way of Holland, to the recent Yiddish-speaking refugees from Germany and Poland. Jews were slowly awarded full civil liberties in Victorian England, and unlike their compatriots on the continent, they were never harmed physically nor were they so threatened. They provided a rich tableau from which Victorian writers could pluck them--in novels, plays, and poetry as well as essays and commentaries. They were frequently subjected to antisemitic jibes and slurs but also on occasions to vigorous and impassioned panegyrics. But always they were viewed as outsiders. It was in this environment that Anthony Trollope inserted Jewish characters into his novels.

With 47 novels and more than a dozen volumes of other writings, Trollope was by far the most prolific of those giants of English fiction who reigned under Queen Victoria. He was an indifferent student and obtained a position in the British postal service only through family influence. At first, he performed ineptly, until eventually he took hold and advanced to high positions in the service, being posted throughout Britain and the Empire as an administrative trouble shooter. It wasn't until 1847, at the relatively advanced age of 32, that his first novel was accepted for publication, mainly through the influence of his mother, herself a successful author. He then pursued a dual career, as postal official until 1867, and as a writer of prodigious energy and discipline.

Trollope married, had a good family life, traveled widely and when in London lived as a gentleman in close friendship with the intellectual elite and with fellow novelists at the peak of the London literary world, authors such as Dickens, Eliot, and Thackeray. Just as so many others, his literary reputation has waxed and waned. …

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