Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Jews of Charles Dickens

As has been frequently reported, anti-Semitism is on the rise.

Beyond strengthening our own Jewish identities, what can we do? There are often simple, non-threatening actions that can make a difference. The following is the tale of how one woman’s letter-writing had a positive affect on a celebrity author.

In Victorian England, there was no more popular author than Charles Dickens. While Dickens was known as a great social reformer, his 1838-39 newspaper serial publication of Oliver Twist demonstrated the deep societal anti-Semitism of Dickens' time. Fagin, a major character in the story, is an underworld criminal who trains small children to be pickpockets. He is a very unseemly character and, more often than not, he is referred to derisively as “the Jew.”

In 1863, Dickens received a letter from Eliza Davis, a Jewish woman whose husband had purchased Dickens’ home in 1860. Davis wrote to Dickens that his negative portrayal of Jews "encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew." Dickens immediate reaction was defensive, but the letter had an obvious affect on him. The episodes of Oliver Twist were in the process of being printed in book form. Dickens halted the publication to make changes. Unfortunately, 38 chapters had already been printed and in these the reference to “the Jew” remain. In the final 15 chapters, however, Dickens altered approximately 180 such negative references.

Additionally, his next major book, Our Mutual Friend, included a favorable character named Mr. Riah, who is the manager (but not the evil owner) of a money-lending establishment. While it is widely assumed that Mr. Riah was created as an apology, he is, unfortunately, so good, kind and humble that he becomes two dimensional.

Despite the enormous celebrity of Charles Dickens, Eliza Davis reached out and expressed her concern, and made a difference.

(Today is Dickens' birthday.)

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.


Rebekah Dorris said...

Have you ever read "A Child's History of England" by Charles Dickens? It's excellent; he explains how despicably the Jews were treated by so-called Christians, like King Richard who did so much to blacken the name of the followers of Christ. Based on the tone he takes in this epic work, it's obvious he was not as anti-Semitic as Oliver Twist makes him seem.

Rebekah Dorris said...

P.S. Here is an excerpt from the book, which you can read at the Project Gutenberg Website at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/699/699-h/699-h.htm

"He [Richard] was crowned King of England, with great pomp, at Westminster: walking to the Cathedral under a silken canopy stretched on the tops of four lances, each carried by a great lord. On the day of his coronation, a dreadful murdering of the Jews took place, which seems to have given great delight to numbers of savage persons calling themselves Christians. The King had issued a proclamation forbidding the Jews (who were generally hated, though they were the most useful merchants in England) to appear at the ceremony; but as they had assembled in London from all parts, bringing presents to show their respect for the new Sovereign, some of them ventured down to Westminster Hall with their gifts; which were very readily accepted. It is supposed, now, that some noisy fellow in the crowd, pretending to be a very delicate Christian, set up a howl at this, and struck a Jew who was trying to get in at the Hall door with his present. A riot arose. The Jews who had got into the Hall, were driven forth; and some of the rabble cried out that the new King had commanded the unbelieving race to be put to death. Thereupon the crowd rushed through the narrow streets of the city, slaughtering all the Jews they met; and when they could find no more out of doors (on account of their having fled to their houses, and fastened themselves in), they ran madly about, breaking open all the houses where the Jews lived, rushing in and stabbing or spearing them, sometimes even flinging old people and children out of window into blazing fires they had lighted up below. This great cruelty lasted four-and-twenty hours, and only three men were punished for it. Even they forfeited their lives not for murdering and robbing the Jews, but for burning the houses of some Christians."