Rachel and Her Race

Patrick Parrinder

  • Constructions of ‘the Jew’ in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875-1945 by Bryan Cheyette
    Cambridge, 301 pp, £35.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 521 44355 5
  • The Jewish Heritage in British History: Englishness and Jewishness edited by Tony Kushner
    Cass, 234 pp, £25.00, January 1992, ISBN 0 7146 3464 6

When Lucy Snowe goes to the theatre in Villette, she is entranced by the performance of the great actress Vashti, a plain, frail woman ‘torn by seven devils’, a ‘spirit out of Tophet’ delighting her audience with a glimpse of hell. Vashti is easily identified as the tragedian Elisa Rachel, whom Charlotte Brontë had seen in London in 1851. Sarah Bernhardt may be better known today, but it was Rachel who haunted the English literary imagination throughout the 19th century. In James’s The Tragic Muse, the Jewish Cockney actress Miriam Rooth claims to be in the same style as ‘that woman’, and George Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth foolishly thinks of herself as destined for stardom because she is more beautiful than the ‘thin Jewess’.

Rachel not only dominated the Paris stage but performed in London, St Petersburg and New York; she may have been the first international superstar. When George Gissing visited her grave in the Jewish cemetery at Père Lachaise thirty years after her death, not only was the stone covered with scribbled names but fans were still dropping their visiting cards through the grating. Another literary admirer, Matthew Arnold, mourned her as a symbol of the conflicting forces of Hebraism and Hellenism. ‘Greek-soul’d’ and ‘Trick’d out with a Parisian speech and face’, the dying classical actress had had the Hebrew rites administered at her bedside:

In her, like us, there clash’d, contending powers,

Germany, France, Christ, Moses, Athens, Rome,
The strife, the mixture in her soul, are ours;
Her genius and her glory are her own.

Like a contemporary cultural theorist musing over Madonna, Arnold takes hold of the dead actress and refashions her as a cultural icon.

In doing so, like Eliot and James but unlike Charlotte Brontë, he makes Rachel’s fame inseparable from her Jewishness. The manner of her death and burial makes it plain that she was not a fully assimilated Jew, like Karl Marx or Lord Beaconsfield. On the other hand, she did not originate what Bryan Cheyette would call a ‘semitic discourse’, though she certainly became the object of one. Disraeli rhapsodised over the ‘semitic principle’ which, he thought, ensured that true Jews were also true-blue Conservatives. Marx, most notoriously in his early pamphlet ‘On the Jewish Question’, poured scorn on religious Judaism and the Jewish desire to preserve a separate racial identity. Marx was not content with the prospect of a universal mingling of races in the Communist state: he believed that the abolition of Judaism was a revolutionary necessity because of Judaism’s association with capitalism.

Cheyette’s concern is with the ambivalent sense of Jewish racial difference in late 19th and early 20th-century English writing. He sees the semitic discourse of this period as a language uniting the extremes of philo and anti-semitism. Necessarily, his book covers a broad political spectrum, from extreme right to extreme left and from cosmopolitans to Little Englanders. While Disraeli was both a prosemitic racist and the inventor of jingoism, Marx may in some degree be held responsible for the populist anti-semitism of the German socialist movement. Cheyette traces the Disraelian influence on the ‘imperial Gothic’ fiction of John Buchan and, more controversially, borrows August Bebel’s phrase ‘the socialism of fools’ as a blanket term for the ideas of Shaw and Wells. Bebel’s concern was to attack the kind of socialism, typified in a British context by H.M. Hyndman, which involved the mobilising of anti-semitic prejudices under the guise of attacking capitalist plutocracy.

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