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Israel at Vanity Fair: Jews and Judaism in the Writings of W.M. Thackeray.

Many late twentieth-century readers of Thackeray are disconcerted by his pervasively hostile representations of Jews. No major work is free of the blemish and many of the author's minor works are squarely founded on what to the modern eye looks like clear anti-Semitism (Catherine, for instance, which is narrated by the odious 'Ikey Solomon Junior'; or Miss Lowe, in which the ingenuous hero falls into a Jewish sexual trap). Of the major Victorian novelists, only Trollope rivals Thackeray in the numerousness and apparent virulence of his anti-Semitic caricatures--verbal and pictorial. And Trollope (as did Dickens with Riah) made partial amends with Brehgert in The Way We Live Now. No noble Jew is found anywhere in Thackeray's fiction.

It's an uncomfortable subject, and one which most commentators prefer to pass by in silence. S. S. Prawer is the first to consider Jews and Judaism in Thackeray's works at all extensively. He sets up his project with a deep chronological sweep through the works. The result is an extraordinarily thorough catalogue which Prawer calls, without exaggeration, 'fascinating and disturbing'. Each example is looked at on its merits, then put into place as evidence of evolution in Thackeray's views on Jews and Judaism. Prawer's tone is studiously unexcited. Painful as Thackeray's depictions may be to the post-Holocaust eye Prawer is careful to weigh all mitigating factors. Are Thackeray's caricatures and slurs against Jews different from his 'satire' against Indians, mulattos, the Irish, the French, or the English bourgeoisie? In many cases, no. Is Thackeray any more anti-Semitic than Victorian contemporaries of his age and class? Probably he is, but arguably not excessively so. Does Thackeray balance negative depictions with positive? Sometimes in his later work. (Prawer cites the example of Sherrick in The Newcomes at length.) Is there any 'improvement' in Thackeray's attitudes towards Jews and Judaism as he matures as an artist? Yes--or at least so Prawer would argue.

In Thackeray's early writings Jews figure most prominently as degraded figures in the urban landscape--old-clothes men, sponging house-keepers, seedy bailiffs' men, boxers (where the setting is Regency England), raffish actors and comedians (where the setting is contemporary). Typically, Thackeray applies the epithet 'greasy' to these background Jews, and his cartoons emphasize hooked noses, bulbous eyes, thick lips, plentiful jewellery, and tight-curled hair. Above all, Thackeray's Jews are 'dirty', in line with the sale juif stereotype.

As foreground figures, the depiction of the Jew splits in Thackeray's early fiction. One recurrent type is the belle juive--typically derived from the most famous literary workings of the type in Shakespeare's Jessica and Scott's Rebecca. (Becky Sharp is one interesting variation, with Amelia as the stupidly beautiful Rowena anti-type.) Thackeray loved Ivanhoe from childhood and in various ways rewrote it throughout his career (most hilariously in his 'continuation' of Scott's novel, Rebecca and Rowena, 1850). The other foreground Jewish stereotype in Thackeray's fictional world is the Jew trickster or crook. These types converge in the plot of Miss Lowe, where the beautiful Minna (the daughter of a German banker, Moses Lowe) entrances the hero, Fitz-Boodle. As a favourite target of Thackeray's Punch years (effectively 1841-51) Disraeli is the focus of the 'Jew-as-trickster' repertory of slurs. Thackeray himself, however, was ostentatiously polite in his attributable reviews of Disraeli's 'Young England' trilogy in the 1840s. And even his burlesque, 'Codlingsby', is good-naturedly satirical. There may have been a reason for Thackeray's pulling his punches. Although Jewish and a Tory, Disraeli had made it to the top of the greasy pole. He was the premier politician in the land, and a novelist who (had Thackeray lived to see it) would earn the highest ever price paid the profession--[pounds]10,000 for Endymion in 1880. It may be that Thackeray had a manly admiration for Disraeli and his heroic achievements. It is more likely that he was wary of attacking someone who was, by proven merit, his better. Thackeray, in other words, truckled as much as any Snob of England would. So too with the Rothschilds with whom Thackeray began to visit in the early 1850s (Baron Lionel de Rothschild was a particular friend). He seems to have been very polite about them--at least to their faces and to their friends. It is, as Prawer wryly observes, 'interesting' that Thackeray should have been so willing 'indeed eager' to enter the social orbit of the family whose head he had lampooned in 1833 as the greasy compound of donkey and pig.

For whatever reason, the virulence of Thackeray's depictions of Jewry abated in the years after Vanity Fair. The mellowing may have been part of larger change in Thackeray. As has been noted by Gordon Ray, the writer underwent a profound 'change of heart' around 1847. And as his friend Edward FitzGerald noted, his satire was generally moderated (partly, FitzGerald thought, because Thackeray--suddenly famous--was now hob-nobbing with the aristocrats and grandees who were his former targets). Vanity Fair was the first sizeable work that Thackeray wrote under his own name; he was no longer shielded by pseudonymy, or the anonymity of Punch and Fraser's Magazine. This too may have restrained him.

Prawer concludes that Thackeray was never 'a programmatic anti-Semite'. Much of his obsession with Jews goes back to his Christian quarrels with the severity of the Old Testament. Apart from his grandee friends he never knew Jews beyond casual glimpses in the London streets, shops and theatres, or encounters with them as pawnbrokers, money-lenders, and bailiffs. In this last character, they were indelibly associated with his own early financial disasters. Prawer also suggests, convincingly, that Thackeray may have used the services of a Jewish procurer on the Continent in his earlier years, and have associated the race with his own, despised, sexual delinquencies. Thackeray knew nothing of the social or religious organization of Jewish life--as he knew, for instance, Ireland and the Irish. For Thackeray, Jews were ubiquitous, but marginal: 'his novels add to Victorian literature no supervillains like Fagin or Svengali; no superheroes like Sidonia.' After Thackeray began to mix socially with distinguished Jews like the Rothschilds his depiction of them in his fiction moderated. He was, for a while, very irritated by Samuel Phillips, the Jewish novelist and critic who reviewed Henry Esmond harshly in The Times, so 'killing' that novel's sales. But even this irritation did not, according to Prawer, interrupt the drift towards tolerance in Thackeray's later years.

Israel at Vanity Fair is an admirable work of scholarship. It is, I believe, one of the few books which all students of Victorian fiction should read and keep by them. And yet, there are some questions which remain after reading it. Arguably, Prawer is too fair to Thackeray. While it is true that he abated his depictions of Jews and the Irish in later years (the latter partly as the result of vociferous resentment at his 'No Irish Need Apply' slur in Pendennis), his general racism by no means lessened. Thackeray inherited from his background an instinctive contempt for Indians. This was exacerbated by the fact that he had a half-sister by his father's native concubine. It was further exacerbated by his step-father's losing his fortune (and thereby much of the young Thackeray's fortune) in the collapse of the Indian agency houses in 1833. Thackeray blamed corrupt Indian financiers and distilled his blame into the venemous portrait of the Merdle-like arch-villain, Rummun Loll (who in addition to his other vileness has a taste for European women). After his first visit to America in 1853, Thackeray's attitude towards blacks hardened. 'They don't seem to me to be the same as white men', he told his mother, 'Sambo is not my man and my brother; the very aspect of his face is grotesque and inferior.' Thackeray's distaste for people of colour was heightened to loathing by the Indian mutiny, resulting in the obnoxious creation of Captain Woolcomb in Philip. This hardening occurred while his view on Jews was becoming more 'tolerant'. The question arises whether racism is divisible.

Another question is whether Thackeray grew out of his early anti-Semitism (if that is what it was) or whether he simply hid it better as he got older. We have very little record of the intimate conversation of Victorian gentlemen, which is why Henry Silver's Diary of what was said at Punch dinners, 1857-70, is such a valuable document. Silver's records have been transcribed and most usefully edited by Constance Smith (Diss. St Louis University, 1987). As Dr Smith's account shows, the topic of Jews came up fairly often at the Punch table. On 23 February 1859 (an occasion when Thackeray was not present) the proprietor of the magazine, F. M. Evans, declared that 'the Jews govern the world' and proposed a large cartoon on the subject. 'We don't half pitch into the Jews', John Leech ruefully observed. On 20 November 1861 Thackeray was 'indignant at this Jew's [i.e. Disraeli] coming forward as the champion of the Christian Church'. (Shirley Brooks spoke up in favour of 'Dizzy'.) On 24 September 1862 Mark Lemon proposed a toast to Thackeray and the Rothschild family, reported by the Telegraph to have been socializing together at Folkestone. 'Jews very nishe people', retorted Thackeray jovially, 'Simple and artless, and speak such exshellent English.' 'Simple and artless' is, of course, heavily ironic. Thackeray means that the Rothschilds are cunning and deceitful. And the jeering at accents is the crudest playground humour. It seems a churlish way to repay years of hospitality. But there seems little doubt that this outburst at the Punch table (a few months before his death) is the true, Jew-baiting, unregenerate Thackeray, for all the urbanity with which he doubtless conducted himself at the Rothschild table.

In passing, on page 418 Professor Prawer refers to Melmotte, the financier-villain of Trollope's The Way We Live Now, as a 'Jewish crook'. This is an error, but an interesting error which contains a sizeable grain of truth. As Trollope makes clear in the later pages of his novel, Melmotte is Irish-American (the son of a forger called 'Melmody') and not Jewish. But in his earliest notes for the novel Trollope first conceived of his villain as 'S. Treegrene [crossed out] Melmotte the great American [crossed out] French swindler'. His wife was, less equivocally, 'Madame Melmotte--fat Jewess'. Treegrene is a clumsy Anglicization of Grunbaum, and the initial conception was evidently of an American-Jewish character. This was overlaid by the French conception--hence the (incongruous for an Irish-American) name, 'Melmotte', which has overtones of Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer and de la Motte, the villain in Thackeray's Denis Duval. One of the weaker points in Trollope's great novel is the chronic vagueness as to Melmotte's national origins: he seems Jewish and French, not Irish-American, and the revelation of his actual origins is confusing rather than enlightening for the reader.

JOHN SUTHERLAND University College London
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Author:Sutherland, John
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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