Society, prison and anti-Semitism in Victorian fiction

This is a slight departure from my usual post, because I am not here going to recommend any particular novel for a place on your ‘must read list’. Except that I do think that Victorian novels are worth the time it takes to read them, and I am an avid and enthusiastic reader of novels by writers that have long since gone out of fashion – George Meredith, Charles Reade and the Grand Project author Edward Bulwer-Lytton. But I am forcibly struck by the importance of Society (with a capital letter) as a background for many novels, prison as an ever-present threat and an egregious anti-Semitism which defies description.

It is probably true to say that Society in Victorian Britain was at it most rigidly stratified by class as at any time in the previous centuries. If you were a man your status was defined by breeding, money or work and if a woman, by parentage, money or work. The situation was changing during this period, but Society itself was slow to change. Aristocracy and landed gentry mixed freely, but as a man your status did not alter perceptibly, unless you made a fortune in which case the rules all changed; there were opportunities for the enterprising – industry, war and speculation and a combination of all these could provide the entrée into a higher society than the one you were in. If you were a labourer, especially on the land then change was more difficult and the gradual move to an industrial work-life balance made a change in your conditions though not in your class.

For women, marriage was pretty much the only way to alter your status and this could affect you in both directions. Marry up and your might enjoy all the fruits of Society at its most class-ridden; marry into a lower class EXCEPT for money and your fortunes will follow suit, many is the tale of a woman who married for love and lost her reputation and postion. Worse still, the woman who gave herself too freely in the expectation of marriage and ended without either the ring or the reputation, Tess of the D’Urbervilles being the classic example. However, a moneyed man marrying into the aristocracy or the landed gentry was a suit much to be desired, though many a match was made on the understanding of wealth that proved false.

For the working class, whether industrial or rural, alterations in class generally came only through sudden and undisguised benefactors, as happened to Pip in Great Expectations though the money came from a rather different source than the one he imagined, and many an orphan or by-blow child rose from obscurity into the ranks of Society through an advantageous marriage. Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair being a case in point, but woe betide the man or woman who relied on “expectations” to see them through…

This is, of course, a gross simplification. There were notable imposters. Augustus Tomlinson (Paul Clifford) managed by his own account to penetrate the parties and soirées of the great and the good, and even danced with a duchess but he was eventually unmasked and summarily dismissed.

To deal next with the elephant-in-the-room. Anti-Semitism appears one way or another, either directly or by implication in pretty much all of the Victorian writers that I have covered, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, George Meredith and Edward Bulwer-Lytton all draw characters who are by implication, or by birth actually Jewish. The most obvious and well-know is, of course, Fagin. When Oliver Twist first came out in periodical form, Fagin was described specifically as a Jew:

a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair.

I have read somewhere that at one point Dickens removed the delineation ‘Jew’ from later editions, but it is back in print now in all the editions I have ever read, but I have also read that Dickens felt embarrassed by his portrait of Fagin the Jew and in a later novel, Our Mutual Friend, he portrayed a different and more sympathetic character. Dickens, himself maintained that he had no personal animosity against the Hebrew (which I think is on a par with anti-Semites who say “some of my best friends are Jews” after they have just made a derogatory remark about the stereotype – grasping, money-grubbing etc.etc) Riah, the character in Our Mutual Friend, it is true is a money-lender, but one with a kindly and protective nature, and later in the story is shown to be the slave of the ghastly and rapacious Fledgeby.

In his notable portrait of society, William Thackeray describes Rhoda Swartz, one of the pupils of the Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies, as

…her bejewelled hands lay sprawling in her amber satin lap. Her tags and earrings twinkled, and her big eyes rolled about. She was doing nothing with perfect contentment, and thinking herself charming.

It is only when George Sedley refuses to marry her on account of her dark skin that we learn that this is because she is of Jewish descent.

Other examples, though, are less clear. Baron Levy, from The Caxton Romances of Bulwer-Lytton and Augustus Melmotte in The Way we Live Now by Anthony Trollope are never actually described as being Jewish, indeed Bulwer-Lytton is at pains to point out that Baron Levy is not Jewish, either in practice or genealogy. But other characters in the novels regard them as having all the characteristics of The Jew (frequently printed in capitals), so the reader is left with a distinct impression that both these two characters are indeed stereotypically Jewish: they are described as rich, parvenu money-lenders and in both cases hold enough power over the aristocrats, beau monde and others in the form of debts etc. that they can threaten ruin to one and all in order to control events (social or political) to their advantage. Melmotte, of course, over-reaches himself and causes his own ruin along with the ruin of many others who have gained through his schemes. (A Victorian Bernard Madoff, in fact – if only more people read Victorian novels!)

In fact, probably, it would be easier to list the Victorian novelists who produced a favourable view of the Jew in Britain. Daniel Deronda being a prime example.

So why link this with prison literature? Because insolvency was the gateway to prison! The money-lender, whether Jewish in fact or by repute, deferred that passage down the slippery slope, often by advancing money on other creditors’ slips. Purchasing debts was a fairly common practice as a way of control, and was not limited to those of the Jewish faith. Tulkinghorn (Bleak House)and Fledgeby are specifically Christian, but by means of collecting debts have a disgusting hold over their victims. Victims, it has to be said, mostly of their own making. In Trollope, in Bulwer-Lytton, in Meredith there are examples of members of high society living high on the hog, borrowing against “expectations” which invariably fail to materialise, mortgaging property and taking out the dreaded ‘post obits’, in other words borrowing on the expectation of parental death!

In every case, bankruptcy ended in prison, unless some unforeseen funds became available. In Paul Clifford by Bulwer-Lytton, Paul himself, an innocent abroad, falls in with a bad lot and ends up in Bridewell House of Correction and is led by the nose into worse company. The message here being more a moral on prison’s corrupting influence, by which through a series of more and more degrading excesses Paul reaches Newgate and eventually the noose. But through it all runs the need for funds to keep up appearances. Paul Clifford, the character, is an attractive villain and the novel was much dispraised for this, since footpads and highwaymen were still a very real threat to travellers, and to create an attractive highwayman seemed the height of folly. Bulwer-Lytton ventured that reading Macbeth did not create murderers, neither did reading Othello created wife-destroyers; a defence he also offered in his other Newgate novel Eugene Aram.

Dickens’ novels abound with prisons: Marshalsea, The Hulks, Newgate to name but a few. Debtors’ prison was a fate which beset Dickens’ own father, so he had reason to know a great deal about it. The public appetite for novels about the criminal fraternity was obvious from the avid readership of a publication called The Newgate Calendar, a compilation of real life crimes taken from reports from the Old Bailey and Newgate Prison itself. Oliver Twist falls within this category of fictional accounts based on real life characters, and the character of Nancy is one such fictional example. Eugene Aram is another, though the novel alters the ending of the real-life criminal making Aram himself a possible victim of a miscarriage of justice, since the factual evidence against him was circumstantial to say the least. As was the evidence against Paul Clifford in his first brush with the law. In the latter case, Paul was indeed innocent, simply guilty by association – although at the time he was totally unprepared for his companion’s theft of a valuable watch.

One can only suppose, from this extensive reading list, that Society in general held many of the views expressed in these novels and that since there was no outcry in the press, and since the novels sold in vast numbers that anti-Semitism was the default position in high society, the Jew in Britain, whether poor or rich, was a necessary evil about whom one could hold odious and inexpressibly unjust views, views which one could not merely hold but openly express.

At a time of great social reform, these novels were immensely popular and while Dickens, Thackeray and Trollope have held their own; the style, content and circumlocutions of the others – Charles Reade, George Meredith, Walter Scott and Bulwer-Lytton have rendered them unreadable to most of the modern audience.


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