Essay on the work of Amelia Bristow, by Sinead McHugh, May 2002
HOW ARE THE JEWS PORTRAYED IN THE ENGLISH LITERATURE OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY? WITH SPECIFIC REFERENCE TO SOPHIA DE LISSAU AND EMMA DE LISSAU BY AMELIA BRISTOW.
The nineteenth century was a time of great improvement for the Jews of England. Gradually they were becoming more and more accepted and their wealth and status improved immensely, as did their numbers. As in centuries before and those since, ‘the poet, the novelist, and the dramatist reflect the attitude of contemporary society’ (Jones, 1939: VII), and societies attitudes towards the Jews is reflected in the literature of the nineteenth century. Their ‘portrayal changes with the economic and social changes of each decade’ (Jones, 1939: VII). Generally, the literature of the early part of the century portrays the Jew as quite a dark and sinister character and as each decade progresses the image of the Jew is slightly improved. A very important question that Howard Mumford Jones asks, is ‘Does the hostility towards the Jews…originate in experience or in literary convention?’ (Jones, 1939: XIII-XIV). That is, is real life experience responsible for the changing attitudes towards Jews, or is it literature that first becomes more accepting and then society that follows? It cannot be denied that they work simultaneously together, obviously with a few exceptions. However, ‘Does art imitate nature, or does nature, as Oscar Wilde hinted, imitate art’ (Jones, 1939: XIV), is something I feel unqualified to answer. I do intend to explore however, the ‘authenticity’ of what Bristow claims to be a portraiture of the Jews of the nineteenth century, illustrating their manners and custom.
I am also going to explore other literature of the nineteenth century concerning the Jewish people and their representation, to see how far they compare and contrast to Bristow’s portrayal. Bristow’s portrayal only suffices to cover the representation of the Jew in the early part of the nineteenth century.
Although only fours years between publication of one another, Sophia De Lissau and Emma De Lissau are quite different in their portrayal of the Jews. Sophia De Lissau is certainly more condemning and bias of the Jews behaviour. The reader only witnesses bigotry and intolerance on behalf of the Jewish nation, it is never portrayed as being inflicted upon them. All Christians represented in the novel are accepting, tolerant and just towards the Jews. Most of the Jews represented are entirely bigoted and unjust towards not only Gentiles but members of the lower classes of their own religion also.
Emma is the most pre-dominant Christian in the novel and although in disagreement with the Jewish religion, she never pre-judges on account of it and it never effects her behaviour towards other. She is continually forgiving and she keeps one of the greatest of God’s commandments, to love thy neighbour, regardless of race or religion.
The other Christians in the novel are Sydney and his aunt, Mrs Archer. Neither are very significant characters, but again, religion never effects their behaviour towards others.
The predominant Jewess in the novel ought really to be Sophia, she is however quite a subordinate character in her own tale. She is sweet tempered about her religious views, although she is quite intolerant to those who openly proclaim Christianity. After Sydney had openly professed Christianity, she ‘evidently shunned his society…her former frank address, and sisterly manner, had quite disappeared, and in their stead was substituted a distant politeness, and cold civility’ (Bristow, 1824: 189). Sophia, although greatly attached to Emma she could not even converse with her on the subject of Christianity.
It is not Sophia’s behaviour that is significant however; it is the behaviour of characters like her mother. From the very first chapter of the novel, Anna’s harsh temper and intolerance is detailed. She has ‘a violent hatred to the Lord Jesus Christ, and his real followers…a race she would gladly have swept at once from the face of the earth’ (Bristow, 1824: 9). We witness her put her bigoted religious views before her own child, Emma, who she cannot accept as her own because of her religious views.
Anna is allied with Rabbi Colmar who is also intolerant towards Christians. ‘His natural disposition closely resembled that of Anna De Lissau, and like her…his spirit was haughty and dictatorial…he utterly detested the followers of the Lord Jesus…he would gladly have thought it meritorious to slay them with his own hands’ (Bristow, 1824: 34-35). In fact, most of the Jewish characters we are introduced to throughout the novel are described as bigoted and frequently brutal.
It must not be ignored however, that the most significant male Jew represented in both novels, is the most benevolent of characters, Solomon De Lissau, who possessed the ‘most amiable traits which human nature…is capable of’ (Bristow, 1824: 5). However, it is also remarked that Solomon is set apart from his Jewish brethren, he ‘differed strikingly from the generality of his nation’ (Bristow, 1824: 7) and Mrs Archer, Sydney’s aunt asks, ‘Is it possible that this man is a Jew!’ (Bristow, 1824: 183).
Emma De Lissau however, does show more amiable Jews, showing that Solomon is not alone in his benevolence. We get a greater insight into the character of Rabbi Joseph Wertheim, ‘an amiable and learned Prussian Jew…though sincerely devout, he did not consider bigotry a necessary appendage to his religious profession’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. II, 36).
What is more significant however, than the introduction of amiable Jewish characters is the introduction of bigoted Christians along with their views and behaviour towards Jews. We hear a tale told by another amiable Jew, Elijah Davis, of when he was on a ship that was caught in a storm. The men, who had control of the lifeboat, ‘obstinately refused to take him, because he was a Jew…these cold-hearted Dutchmen, bearing the names of Christians, but practically proving they never knew the Lord’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. II, 243).
We also witness, the injustice of Louise, who, after receiving the kind hospitality of Solomon and Emma, still ‘could not bear to ally herself to a Jew, however opulent or respectable’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. II, 230).
It is however, the events involving Colonel Douglas that I believe to be most significant. On believing her to be a Jewess he ‘received Emma with a great politeness, but he would not wholly lay aside a certain reserve, inspired by his intuitive dislike of her nation’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. II, 172). On discovery that she like him is a Christian, he is much relieved. Emma is aware of this and so confronts him about his evident prejudice towards what she still classes as her nation, ‘You appear to have conceived a mistaken idea of my nation’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. II, 175). Emma’s father, Solomon, then goes on to repair this mistaken idea further. The Colonel, after saving Emma’s life, is invited to stay with the De Lissau’s, and after his departure, he writes to inform that Solomon ‘had done much by his conduct, towards dispelling the antipathy, he had ever felt for the very name of a Jew’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. II, 176).
It is evident then, that the two novels clearly portray the Jews, along with the Gentiles, quite differently. This could be for a number of reasons. The rapidity of change for the Jews at this time was immense. People were becoming more tolerant towards them, as they were becoming more tolerant to others. Bristow identifies this when almost excusing the early views of Colonel Douglas. She claims that many ‘Christians have felt the same antipathy’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. II, 172) towards the Jewish nation, but she proceeds to identify that things are much improved. Although this novel is only set twenty-five years before its publication Bristow points out that, this feeling of antipathy towards the Jews ‘has greatly subsided, and numbers of professing Christians, are devoting their time, talents, and money, in a way supposed by them, to be most calculated to advance the best interests, of their Jewish brethren’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. II, 172).
This improvement in the treatment of the Jews in English society could then be responsible for the improvement in the treatment of them in the literature of the nineteenth century. Is it then accurate for Bristow to call these works, ‘authentic’ (Bristow, 1824: 4) ‘realities’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. I, iv)? When Bristow refers to these works as such she is indicating that the habits, behaviours and the tales she tells are truthful, but if this is so, it will reflect real life in every way. So, is Bristow’s depiction of Jewish life ‘accurate’?
Much of the literature of the nineteenth century, concerning the religious and domestic habits of the Jews is criticised for being inaccurate. Grace Aguilar in Women of Israel claims that the 'characteristics so often assigned to them [the Jews] in tales professing to introduce a Jew or a Jewish family, are almost all incorrect.' (Modder, 1939: 186-7). It is argued that the general public received an exaggerated, distorted depiction of their culture. However, it must not be ignored that Amelia Bristow herself was a converted Jewess. The habits and behaviours she details must be reflective of her own experiences to some extent. The religious ceremonies and customs that Bristow details are extremely thorough and accurate, they could not have come from the textbook but from one’s own experiences. It is also impossible to ignore the close relationship between the author and narrator, and the narrator is extremely involved and passionate about the events and characters detailed. As a Jewish convert to Christianity (Amelia Bristow), writing about a Jewish convert to Christianity (Emma De Lissau), it must be impossible not to include personal experience. Also, very interestingly, the author maintains that her characters, Emma and Sophia, are based on real people and therefore suggesting that Emma’s trials and sufferings, are based on real experience, Bristow actually calls them ‘events with which she was intimately connected’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. I, iv). If the detailed events of these novels are based on real life events, then the views and ideas exercised in these novels must also be reflective of real life.
If taken for true then, many things had improved for the Jews, even in the early years of the nineteenth century. In the character of Solomon De Lissau, I believe that Bristow is exploring how and why this improvement has taken place.
In Bristow’s portrayal of Solomon, we see an amiable Jew who is set apart from most others of his nation. He is liberal in his views and does not adhered strictly to ‘the endless, and often absurd, traditions imposed’ (Bristow, 1824: 6) by Judaism. His benevolent hand stretches to any in need regardless of class or creed. It appears that theses are the kind of qualities that Bristow identifies with all amiable Jews. This behaviour is however condemned by Solomon’s wife, Anna. ‘Oh this hated England!..this centre of Nazarene worship! your fatal intercourse with these enemies of the Holy One has fearfully perverted you’ (Bristow, 1824: 32). If these qualities that Solomon exhibits, make one a better person, then is Bristow suggesting that to be a better person you must be less of a Jew. This is what the unknown author of Count Teleki (1869) suggests, that these English habits that the Jews were acquiring were damaging to Judaism. He argues that the improvement in the treatment of the Jews meant they were free to act as they pleased.
‘Parliament is open to us; we are free from all Jewish disabilities; high civil offices in the state are occupied by these of our faith. The clouds of opposition are fast rolling past, and, as a race, I say we have much to be hopeful for. But, as a sect – rigid and exclusive – we have much to fear’
‘To fear?’ said the Count.
‘Yes; to fear – not from without, but from within – not from Christians, but from ourselves. The very liberality we enjoy is detrimental to the purity of our religion…Formerly, when persecuted and oppressed, our people clung together, united in one bond. There was sympathy in our seclusion…But now that the arena of life is open alike to Hebrew and to Christian, the result is that the former is rapidly losing that exclusiveness of religion which is the very essence of Judaism. Surrounded as we are by Christian influences, social, moral and spiritual, - dwelling in a Christian atmosphere – our habits of thought and feelings have unconsciously become much modified. Our race has in this country studied Christianity more than ever before…In many instances we are Christianizing our Judaism’ (Modder, 1939: 273).
In his speech to the Count, Dr. Hermann Bauer criticises all of Solomon’s characteristics that Bristow praises, his liberality, his morality and his religious habits which have become more modernised. Perhaps then, Solomon is an amiable character because he has been Christianised by English society. Bristow is not presenting an amiable Jew then, but a Christianised one. We see then that it is not the English Christians that have become more tolerant, the change of behaviour is entirely on the part of the Jew.
A unique novel, although very late, in the turn of the century, concerning the Jews, is Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Scott ‘encourages understanding for the Jew not by changing the image of the Jew, but by changing the attitude towards that image’ (Naman, 1980: 19). Scott’s Jew, Isaac of York is described similarly to any fictitious Jew of the century, with ‘an aquiline nose, and piercing black eye; his high and wrinkled forehead, and long grey hair and beard’ (Scott, 1901: 47) mark him out in the novel as a Jew. In Ivanhoe, ‘physical, moral, and personality stereotypes of the Jew that are traditionally used to condone prejudice' (Naman, 1980: 20) are used, but somehow, in this representation, Scott is asking us not to prejudice, but to understand. The Jewish characters are also set out by their dress, ‘a young woman, richly dressed in the Jewish fashion, while an old man, whose yellow cap proclaimed him to belong to the same nation’ (Scott, 1901: 211). Jews, at this time were evidently marked out more by their physical appearance than their actual religion.
The creation of this stereotype, was Charles Dickens intention when creating the character of Fagin. The Jews had a stereotypical identity and that is what Dickens wanted Fagin to appear like. The portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist received much attention however, when the general public first received it in 1837. Fagin is one of the darkest, bleakest characters in literature and Dickens brands him a Jew. However, in Dickens favour, we as readers must recognise that Fagin never performs any religious ceremonies, nor does he particularly behave like any other members of his nation. He is not bigoted as Bristow portrays her Jews to be, he is simply a bad person and when ‘some rabbi visit him in prison, he drives them away’ (Modder, 1939: 218), and so as good as renounces the religion he has been attached to. In answer to a letter received from Mrs. Eliza Davis, a Jewish lady, Dickens claimed;
that Fagin is a Jew, not because of his religion but because of his race…but I make mention of Fagin as a Jew because he is one of the Jewish people, and because it conveys that kind of idea of him, which I would give to my readers of a Chinaman by calling him a Chinese’ (Modder, 1939: 220)
Dickens here has stumbled across a problem that Bristow identifies in her preface to Sophia De Lissau, that the Jewish people are ‘a nation within a nation’ (Bristow, 1824: 3). It is then problematic when describing a person of Jewish origin, when Jew can refer to their race or religion. However, if Dickens motive for calling Fagin ‘the Jew’, was to conjure an image for his reader of the appearance of Fagin, why, in chapter nine, only the second chapter in which he is presented to us, does Dickens instead of using his name, call Fagin the Jew some twenty-nine times, whilst including very little description about the appearance of the character. ‘The Jew’ being reiterated so many times, leaves the reader in no doubt of Fagin’s origin, and why should his origin be of any relevance to the reader as it is of no relevance to Fagin or the direction of the story. Also, the character Bill Sike’s is equally if not more sinister than Fagin, yet Dickens does not feel the need to constantly remind his audience of his religion or origin. Dickens maintained however, that Fagin was not intended as a representative of the Jewish nation, but ‘the Jew’ referred to his physical appearance and origin.
Bristow’s depiction of the individual Jewish character is not so dark and sinister as other Jewish characters of the nineteenth century, like Fagin or Maria Edgeworth’s three sinister Jewish character in the compilation of Moral Tales, Solomon, Mr. Carat and Rachub of El Arish. The condemned characteristic is bigotry, which although detailed on both parts in Emma De Lissau, it is a characteristic that she generally attributes to the Jewish nation. We see how the Jewish characters in these novels could in fact help themselves. Events that point to the Jewish nation segregating themselves as opposed to being segregated. The most prevalent instance is the refusal of Julia, who ‘could not be persuaded to touch nourishing food if prepared by a Christian’ (Bristow, 1828:Vol I, 53)! This refusal seems entirely unreasonable, as without this nourishment she was so close to death. If not for the repeated humanity of the Christian lady, Mrs. Austin, in writing to Julia’s parents, she surely would have died. The union that this ‘act of humanity’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. I, 56) creates between the De Lissau family and this Christian lady is soon broken, with the bigotry and stubbornness of Eleazar, as he ‘revolted at the thought of owing an obligation to a Nazarene’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. I, 56).
Again we see ungratefulness with bigotry, on the part of a Jew when a union is attempted to be made by Emma with Rosa Gabriel. Emma visits the poor girl a week after her wedding to present her with a gift, which Rosa would not accept, professing ‘there could be no blessing in the gifts of an Apostate’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. II, 201). This event is followed by an explanation that ‘these and similar mortifications’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. II, 201), Emma was called to endure, on account of being a Christian. In Bristow’s narratives then, the persecuted race we are presented with is in fact the Christian race. It is Emma who is abducted and imprisoned on account of her being a Christian; it is she who sits in silence, without judgement while her religion is condemned. This is then not an affecting reality in English society of the nineteenth century, in which we are led to believe that the Jewish were the persecuted. Undeniably then, we can see that Bristow is calling us, not to sympathise with the Jewish nation but to witness their behaviour when the hand of a Christian is held out in peace. However, it is the Christians who are saved in the end, and the bigoted Jews lost.
This Christian behaviour of Emma towards the Jews, is what Scott was urging his readers to display. Scott calls on Christian nature, as Rebecca calls on Rowena’s Christian nature, ‘in the great name of the God whom they both worshipped’ (Scott, 1901: 213). As Rebecca’s plea works with Rowena, ‘we cannot as Christians leave them in this extremity’ (Scott, 1901: 213), Scott’s plea appears to be effective with his reader. The representation of the Jew is not changed, only how to perceive it as Christians.
The prevalent message in all of the novels concerning the Jewish nation, of the nineteenth century appears to be, that the same God that both Jews and Christians worship, made them all and that they must be considered individuals and not judged by race or religion. This message is not always overt or clear, but everywhere there appears to be exceptions to generalisations about both Jews and Christians. Solomon being the chief exception in Sophia and Emma De Lissau, along with Rabbi Wertheim, Elijah Wood and many others. Fagin it appears is also an exception. Although of Jewish origin he possesses no Jewish manners or behaviours, he is like Bill Sike’s simply evil, regardless of race or religion. Emma is represented as the benevolent Christian, but we witness in Elijah’s tale, the cruelty of the Dutchmen, who claimed to be Christians. We also witness the cruelty of Christians in Ivanhoe, in the early refusal of accompanying the Jews through the woods, ‘if they rob only such as thee, who rob all the world, I, for mine own share, shall hold them right honest folk’ (Scott, 1901: 212). There is a message in these works as a whole that ‘the Great Father who made us all, Jew as well as Gentile, Israelite and Ishmaelite’ (Scott, 1901: 65) must be considered when toleration and compassion to one another is required.
Let us now turn to evaluate the literary value in Bristow’s Sophia De Lissau and Emma De Lissau. Although only published four years apart and both concerning the same people, time and issues, these novels are very different to one another. Emma De Lissau contains a great deal more literary value. It is justifiably called a novel, as it contains a plot and a structure and it written better than Sophia De Lissau which, was not ‘written merely to amuse; it has an higher end in view’ (Bristow, 1824: 4). Therefore, in Sophia De Lissau no really significant events take place and no other important themes are raised other than the tedious portrayal of the ‘religious and domestic habits’ of ‘the Jews of the nineteenth century’. Although titled Sophia De Lissau, the novel contains very little detail regarding the young Jewess. The content page makes this clear from the outset. There are sixteen chapters in the novel, all of which are titled with a Jewish festival or ceremony, for example;
CHAP 6. The feast of Confirmation
Sophia De Lissau certainly concentrates on being more instructive than entertaining, however, as Bristow said, it ‘was not written merely to amuse’ and so she was successful in what she set out to achieve.
Emma De Lissau, whilst still being very concerned with the ‘manners and customs’ of the Jews is certainly more entertaining and book-worthy. Most of the tedious detail included in Sophia De Lissau is not duplicated and most that is, is confined to the explanatory notes. Instead, we get detail of personal interaction. It is more a tale of Judaism and Christianity living together in peace. This is represented through the paternal bond portrayed between Solomon and Emma De Lissau. They live in harmony together regardless of their differing religious views, ‘the interview between this indulgent parent, and his daughter, was truly affecting’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. II, 176). When Solomon passes away, Bristow describes how ‘to attempt depicting the agony of Emma, at this unexpected catastrophe, is needless. What language could describe it?’ (Bristow, 1828: Vol. II, 246). Emma is truly attached to Solomon as Solomon is to her. They never impose views upon when another and when it comes to worship they do not interfere with one another’s.
However, these books do work exceptionally well in conjunction with one another. I believe in Sophia De Lissau, Bristow wants to convey to us the ‘domestic habits, and relative duties, [which] are but imperfectly known, and lightly appreciated’ (Bristow, 1924: 3) of the Jews. This she certainly does. The merit then in Emma De Lissau is that it is a continuation of what Bristow intended. Now that her readers are aware of the religious habits of the Jews, she aims to show how Jews and Gentiles could live in harmony with one another, as she portrays in the relationship between Solomon and Emma.
This latter novel is certainly more entertaining and more powerful.
Something that is very interesting in these novels, is the gender reversal role. Howard Mumford Jones argues that literature concerning the Jews in the nineteenth century is ‘generally inimical to the male Jew and generally tender to his wife and daughter’. There are many relationships in these novels that do portray this, such as the Sophia and her brutal husband Leoni, and Julia and her brutal husband Wilna. However, what we must recognise is that this was not only a tradition for Jewish characters. The rights of wives and daughters were very poor in the nineteenth century and this is reflected in all novels of all genres across the century. However, what is more important is the reversal of gender roles in the relationship of Anna and Solomon. Instead of being tender, Anna is brutal, ‘no feminine softness mingled with her address’. It is Anna who is the persecutor in these novels. Her husband Solomon is always portrayed with great tenderness and care. It is he who saves Emma from the persecution of her wicked mother and it is he who saves Sophia from the brutality of her husband.
In this sense, Bristow’s novels do differ from other novels of the century concerning the Jews. Perhaps this is because she was a female writer, whereby many of the other writers concerning themselves with the Jews were male. Or perhaps Bristow herself suffered at the hands of a woman, perhaps this is autobiographical and it is her experiences that she details when describing Emma’s sufferings. As Bristow never directly connects her own experience with Emma this can never be known, but as already mentioned, it is impossible for a Jewish convert to Christianity to write about a Jewish convert to Christianity and not include some personal experience.
In conclusion then, it is fair to argue that Bristow’s portrayal of the Jews of the nineteenth century is accurate, informative and instructive. Her aim is to present a ‘portraiture’ of the Jews and their habits, not as it may appear, to portray them in a negative persona. In the two novels Sophia De Lissau, followed by its sequel Emma De Lissau, what we see is firstly a manual about their daily lives and religious ceremonies and then a guide as how to accept one another. This could be used as a guide for any religions but it is specific to the Jews and the Christians of England.
As for Bristow’s novels being representative of the other novels concerning Jews in the nineteenth century, it is only fair to argue that they are only representative of the Jews of the early nineteenth century. As we have heard, the nineteenth century was a time of great change and improvement for the Jews and the intolerance between the two religions was greatly decreased as the century progressed. However, it must be recognised that Bristow’s literature may have been a tool in this improvement.
The Jews in the literature of the nineteenth century are generally portrayed as persecutors and tyrants. Maria Edgeworth’s characters in Moral Tales along with Dickens’ Fagin and Bristow’s Anna and Rabbi Colmar are not however entirely representative of the Jews of the nineteenth century, but more of the stereotype that others have of them. As the literature of the century progresses, we see this stereotype dispelled. Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington before Bristow, does a great deal to repair the damage she has done to the Jew in moral tales, then Emma De Lissau, in the portrayal of benevolent characters also does much to dispel this stereotype that the prejudice towards the Jews is based on. Bristow is not bias however, and shows how all denominations need to dispel his or her bigotry and prejudices before everyone can live together in peace. This is perhaps why ‘the peace of Jerusalem’, which Bristow prays for in the preface to Sophia De Lissau is still not attained today, almost two hundred years later. Not until religious bigotry and racial prejudice is dispelled can we achieve true peace.
AN ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY