Nadia Valman’s monograph makes an invaluable contribution to recently launched conversations within and across the fields of Victorian and Anglo-Jewish studies. Intertwining and recombining the perspectives and frameworks of gender theory, new historicism, cultural studies and narrative theory, Valman produces an original approach to a historically informed reading of the figure of the Jewess in nineteenth-century cultural discourse. The Jewess in Nineteenth-Century British Literary Culture builds on Bryan Cheyette’s seminal work on semitic discourse and Michael Ragussis’s study of the trope of conversion in British literature and historiography. Adding to their understanding of the interplay of religion and race in British representations of Jews and national identity, Valman’s dazzling new argument elucidates the ambivalent response to the so-called Jewish Question along the axis of gender. Valman examines how a variety of contemporary critiques of Judaism were translated into the literary form of “an ideological, aesthetic and temperamental battle” (7) between the patriarchal and materialistic male Jew and the sympathetic, spiritual Jewess. Valman’s study thus investigates the complex relation between Jewish and women’s identity: in particular, the ways in which Enlightenment and Christian traditions tended to oppose Judaism’s overall archaism to Jewish women’s potential for improvement and redemption.
In the early nineteenth century, in the context of debates over political rights for minority denominations, Evangelical millennialists saw the Jewess as the ideal convert and spiritual redeemer of her errant tribe and, by extension, the instrument of broader salvation for the Christian nation. In the 1830s and 1840s, liberal-minded arguments for tolerance and inclusion figured the socially responsible Jewess as a model citizen. In the 1860s and 1870s, with the full socio-economic integration of the Anglo-Jewish bourgeoisie, the specter of cosmopolitan capitalism was projected onto the Jewish man of commerce, while the Jewess became the vessel of eclectic culture or patriotic awakening. Finally, in late-Victorian and Edwardian fiction, feminist liberalism invoked racial science to account for the degeneration of the patriarchal Jewish man while positing the emancipated Jewess as biological and cultural regenerative force.
Such gendered ambivalence toward Jews and Judaism was, Valman points out, built into British theological, philosophical, political, and scientific discourses in the nineteenth century. Yet, the rhetorical appeal of the Jewess in fictional texts hinged on readers’ existing identifications with the Evangelical conversion novel. Tormented suffering owing to a conflict of allegiances purified the Jewess into “an ideal version of the Christian, the patriot or the artist” (211). Thus, the passionate Jewess undergirded religious narratives and their secular variants: confirming the triumph of Christianity in conversionist prose, or embodying the spirit of Jewish collectivity in Anglo-Jewish revisionist texts, modeling affective national bonding, or resisting religious bigotry and economic instrumentality through aesthetic sensitivity. Whereas virtuous suffering valorized the feminine Jewess, her masculine counterpart was castigated for his religious oppression and economic exploitation.
The first chapter examines unresolved contradictions in the Enlightenment narrative of religious tolerance in which reason and the secular state should join forces to fight superstition and prejudice. In illuminating readings of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) and Anthony Trollope’s Nina Balatka (1867), Valman exposes how the political failure of national inclusion was mirrored in historical romances in which the Jewess’ “repellent beauty” constitutes the limit case for liberal tolerance. Rather than entering into the allegorical marriage union as an emblem of political reconciliation, the Jewess is sacrificed into the romance of women’s friendship, thus neutralizing her disruptive sexual, racial, and religious features.
The second chapter turns to the genre influence of Evangelical women’s conversionist narratives. Written between the 1820s and 1840s, these writings figure the Jewish woman’s conversion experience as a traumatic rebirth from oppression in order to articulate the morally superior character of middle-class Christian Englishwomen. The next chapter introduces Anglo-Jewish fiction of the 1830s and 1840s, which uses Evangelical conventions to oppose conversion to Christianity and advocate Jewish political emancipation. Crucially, Anglo-Jewish women writers use "female" genres partly to encourage universal female solidarity. Grace Aguilar’s fiction portrays the self-sacrificing Jewess who models spiritual and moral values shared with the culture of Christian England even as she heroically professes the “Hebrew faith” (128). By contrast, Celia and Marion Moss plug into the liberal tradition of abolitionist writing in order to affirm a proto-Zionist political vision of liberty-loving Britain supporting the diasporic “Hebrew nation” (128).
In a chapter on the mid-Victorian realist novel of the 1870s, Valman addresses British novelists' ambivalent responses to the "pleasures and perils" (171) of speculative capitalism. She persuasively demonstrates how realist novelists transform the tropes of the Evangelical conversion narrative into secular plots about culture which pit the vulgar Jewish parvenu and confidence man against the artistic Jewesses trapped in the clutches of parochialism and greed. In her reading of Trollope's The Way We Live Now (1875), Valman points out that the imaginative Marie Melmotte, figured as an antidote to her scheming father, undertakes a sober renunciation of the corrupt English social order by emigrating to the United States. Turning to Daniel Deronda (1876), Valman argues that George Eliot, departing from Matthew Arnold's valorization of universal humanist culture, contrasts Alcharisi's artistic egotism and cosmopolitan deracination with Mirah's passionate clinging to religious tradition and national future.
In the 1880s and 1890s, anxieties over capitalism, imperialism, and national character assumed increasingly Orientalist and pseudo-scientific tones. The immigration of Eastern European Jews renewed public debate on the assimilability of this “tribal” group (173), resulting in narratives that transformed Christian conversion into secular accounts of racial degeneration. As Valman's innovative readings of Reuben Sachs (1888) and Dr Phillips (1887) show, liberal feminism, racial science, and eugenics converge in the racial romance of Jewish social life to "articulate a tension between the liberal possibilities that modernity seemed to offer and the suspicion that the determinism of 'race' would undermine them" (204). While in Julia Frankau gender and race intersect in the crisis of the imperial nation exposed to contamination by “Eastern virility” (197), Amy Levy mobilizes the figure of the “adaptable” (193) racially redemptive Jewess as a critique of capitalism and patriarchy. In the concluding chapter, Valman looks into the transmutation of the rhetoric of conversion and the scene of female reading in Israel Zangwill's autoethnographic fiction, exposing irresolvable uncertainties about the politics of intermarriage and the universalist anticipation of the “development” (208) of Judaism into an ecumenical religion.
The central argument of this study relies on tracing “the privileged status of both Jews and women” (213) in semitic discourse back to Evangelical theology, the source of Jewish as well as gentile nineteenth-century writing. Evangelical influence also explains the singular conflation of spirituality and culture with femininity, and consequential masculinization of Judaism in nineteenth-century Britain, unlike in continental Europe. Perhaps the most provocative issue to explore in further research would be the parallel deployment of the traditions of Judaic theology and Jewish Enlightenment in Victorian-era polemical and literary articulations of religion, race, and gender.
In the highly engaging conclusion, Valman turns to modernist literature, tracing the blindspots of twentieth-century feminist theory back to Dorothy Richardson’s liberal fiction, with its opposition of aesthetics and Judaism, individualism and communitarianism. By contrast, James Joyce’s celebration of a hybrid and feminized Jewishness anticipates the blurring of boundaries in queer and postcolonial theories of identity and belonging. Valman, however, warns against endowing Jewishness with the power to undermine fixed categories of identity, underlining how representations of the Jewess can either reaffirm or question dominant religious, political, and racial narratives and usually do both. Just as the literary Jewess was defined in relation to “the Jew,” so the outlines of Englishness and Christianity emerged in interaction with the Jewess.
Zia Miric is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her dissertation examines Anglo-Jewish and canonical British literature in the light of nationalist and cosmopolitan articulations of empire and diaspora.