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.

It is, however, with Arnoldian liberalism, not Disraeli or Marx, that Constructions of ‘the Jew’ begins. Arnold’s concept of Hebraism owes something to the pseudo-scientific racial theories of the Victorians. Defining Hellenism as the free play of the mind, and Hebraism as strict observance of divine law, he urges the reconciliation of these apparently irreconcilable qualities. For Arnold, Hellenism finds expression in the Renaissance, and Hebraism in the Reformation, with the ‘check’ given to the English Renaissance by Puritanism determining our subsequent history. Englishness, not Jewishness, is his preoccupation in Culture and Anarchy, and when he lets fly at the limitations of Hebraism, it is stiff-necked English Nonconformists that he mostly has in mind.

In choosing Arnold as his representative Victorian liberal rather than, say, John Stuart Mill – who had no truck with the theory of inherent racial differences – Cheyette tacitly follows in the footsteps of Lionel Trilling, Arnold’s most influential Jewish exponent. But where Trilling applauded the Arnoldian vision of the ‘complete man’, Cheyette endorses contemporary notions of separate and minority identity: he tends to blame universalising liberalism rather than the various forms of nationalism for the anti-semitic outbursts which ‘poisoned the language of the first half of the 20th century’. According to Cheyette, Arnold and his successors stigmatise Jewish apartness and express a covert and more or less repressed identification with it. In Arnold’s case the identification with ‘Jewish’ apartness is to be found in the figures of the critic and the ‘man of culture’ – the one a Moses espying the intellectual promised land, the other an alien standing outside the English class system.

It is unfortunate that Cheyette’s analysis of Culture and Anarchy and the other relevant texts is briefer and more schematic than most of his later chapters. Unlike Trilling, Cheyette glosses over Arnold’s derivation of the Hebraism-Hellenism distinction from radical German Jewish thinkers such as Heine, Ludwig Börne and Moses Hess. Arnold’s innovation, in fact, was to speak incessantly of Hebraism while hardly ever bringing contemporary Jewry to mind. Cheyette betrays some indignation at the passage in Literature and Dogma which speaks of the ‘Hebrew people’ as a ‘petty, unsuccessful, unamiable people’. However, the context makes it clear that it was to the Old Testament Hebrews, not the ‘racialised Jew’, that Arnold referred – and it was the Dissenters he was aiming at.

In 1885, Arnold expressed unmitigated delight at the ennoblement of Sir Nathaniel Rothschild, the first non-Christian Jewish peer. The next thirty years made Jews more visible in English social life than they had been at any time since the pogroms of the Middle Ages. At one extreme there was the emergence of a conspicuously wealthy Anglo-Jewish élite, the ‘Cousinhood’, who built and acquired country houses and ranged themselves alongside the more traditional aristocracy. At the other extreme, the influx of immigrants from Russia and Poland created the Jewish East End and led to the tripling of the Jewish population. Jewish self-confidence was reflected in the holding of the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition at the Albert Hall to mark Queen Victoria’s jubilee, and in the formation of the Jewish Historical Society of England six years later. Concern about integrating the new immigrants into Anglo-Jewry led to the hurried building of new synagogues in areas such as Whitechapel, Hackney and Stoke Newington.

Several Late Victorian synagogues are illustrated in The Jewish Heritage in British History. This is emphatically a contribution to British, not merely to ‘Jewish’, history. Tony Kushner’s Introduction persuasively shows how both British Jewry and British anti-semitism have been marginalised by mainstream historians. One recent example, not cited by Kushner, was the controversy over the decision to name a new university after Simon de Montfort, the author of a charter of 1253 expelling the Jews from Leicester in perpetuity; very few British people had any idea that this might give offence.

Kushner’s collection makes no claim to be comprehensive, but an aspect of the Jewish heritage that is clearly marginalised in it is the growth and spread of Zionism. For Kushner and his contributors there should, ideally, be no conflict between Englishness and Jewishness. In English literature, thanks to George Eliot, the representation of Zionism can hardly be overlooked, though Cheyette’s analysis of Daniel Deronda barely mentions the term. Deronda himself, as Cheyette points out, stands both for the Jewish desire for a national homeland and for the ‘unity of mankind’. Among subsequent English writers, only the arch-imperialist Buchan was able to take this contradiction in his stride. A follower of Disraeli, Buchan believed that the Jews had a crucial spiritual and financial role in the stability of the British Empire – an empire whose dependencies were to include a Jewish Palestine. He became chairman of the Parliamentary Palestine Committee in 1932, and published a Zionist novel, A Prince of the Captivity, in the following year. H.G. Wells, by contrast, saw Jewish separatism as an affront to an incipient species unity. His strident anti-Zionism led, and still leads, to charges of anti-semitism. G.K. Chesterton, who undoubtedly was anti-semitic, called himself a Zionist and encouraged the Jews to return to where they originally came from. From a Chestertonian viewpoint there is an obvious link between the 1917 Balfour Declaration on a Jewish national homeland and the Balfour Government’s Aliens Act of 1905, which introduced immigration controls into Britain.

Before the First World War two major events brought the extent of Jewish involvement in British politics under intense media scrutiny. These were the Boer War, in which Jewish financial interests substantially aided the British victory, and the Marconi scandal of 1912, which involved Jewish ministers. Chesterton, who was pro-Boer at the turn of the century, maintained for the rest of his life that the Marconi scandal was a turning-point in world history. His companion in anti-semitism, Hilaire Belloc, had his first novel rejected by a publisher in 1903 because of its Jew-baiting. Belloc and Chesterton focused their attack on cosmopolitan, assimilated Jews – which was the exact opposite of the traditional socialist attitude to the Jews. Their portrayal of Jews as rootless exponents of a worm-eaten liberalism had its impact on other reactionary writers, such as Kipling – who joined forces with them over Marconi – and later T.S. Eliot. Eliot notoriously wrote in After Strange Gods of the undesirability, on grounds of ‘race and religion’, of ‘any large number of free-thinking Jews’. Cheyette gives a scrupulous account of the much-discussed anti-semitic representations in Eliot’s poetry, including his version of a Jewish Rachel – ‘Rachel née Rabinovitch’, who ‘tears at the grapes with murderous paws’.

The pronounced anti-semitism of Belloc or Eliot may require a psychoanalytical explanation: both were cosmopolitan ‘aliens’ themselves. Writers closer to the Arnoldian tradition, like Shaw and Wells, were more openly ambivalent in their presentation of Jewishness. Mendoza in Shaw’s Man and Superman is a socialist, a capitalist, a Zionist and a brigand all at once. Wells’s Tono-Bungay refers to the Anglo-Jewish plutocracy as a class of alien intruders living parasitically off the decayed social fabric. But there is a deep complicity between the Jewish Sir Reuben Lichtenstein and the novel’s twin protagonists, George and Edward Ponderevo, who are also shameless interlopers. Edward, the patent medicine tycoon, has megalomaniac fantasies of irrigating Palestine: ‘Very likely destroy Christianity,’ he complacently observes.

The England of Tono-Bungay is based on a contrast between the ‘semitic’ commercial adventurers and the unimaginative natives who know their place and hold doggedly to it. Wells’s anti-English version of English radicalism seems, at first sight, to be at the opposite extreme from the racial mystique of English gallantry and the English gentleman in John Buchan’s fiction. When Buchan’s Richard Hannay philosophises about the German character, however, his diagnosis is comparable to Wells on the English: ‘That is the weakness of the German. He has no gift for laying himself alongside different types of men ... In Germany only the Jew can get outside himself, and that is why ... you will find the Jew is at the back of most German enterprises.’ Cheyette cites this passage from Greenmantle to exemplify Buchan’s ‘confused’ discourse, but in fact it is anti-German rather than anti-Jewish. The ‘semitic’ ability to get outside oneself is also the quality of Buchan’s principal heroes and villains, who are intelligence agents and masters of disguise. In this respect a character like Sandy Arbuthnot, the Englishman who can pass as an Arab, is perfectly matched against the Graf von Schwabing, the arch-German spy who, at a secret meeting of the Chiefs of Staff, successfully impersonates the First Sea Lord.

Buchan’s fiction contains more offhand remarks about the Jews than it does Jewish characters. Cheyette lays great stress on an early story, ‘The Grove of Ashtaroth’, in which a Jewish settler in a remote part of South Africa becomes obsessed with the prehistoric shrine on his estate. According to the Scottish narrator, the builders of the shrine were ancient semitic wanderers, possibly Phoenicians. The narrator saves his tormented Jewish friend by methodically destroying the sanctuary, following an Old Testament recipe. Cheyette might have noted that Buchan used the same plot in at least two later stories, ‘The Green Wildebeest’ and ‘The Wind in the Portico’, each of which involves pagan mysteries and the destruction of an ancient monument. In neither story is there any semitic reference.

The overall impression Cheyette gives is of patience, persistence and refusal to oversimplify a fraught and often painful subject, and to do justice to his complex and intricate argument it is necessary to get to grips with its detail. His use of terms such as ‘semitic discourse’ and ‘Jewish representations’ is a little woolly, but the book reaches an appropriate culmination in the chapter praising Joyce’s Ulysses precisely for the slipperiness of its hero’s identity. Leopold Bloom, who begins the day by dreaming of Palestine and eating a scarcely kosher pork kidney, moves ‘in and out of his Jewishness’. Cheyette sharply takes issue with the critics who measure him against fixed racial or religious notions of identity: Joyce’s playful indeterminacy about Bloom anticipates Post-Modern cultural theories, according to which the ‘Jew’ is one more floating signifier and we are all Jews in some suitably displaced and travelling sense of the term.

Though Cheyette shows his distaste for Post-Modern theorising, he ends up unintentionally bringing the reader full circle, since Arnold’s Hebraism can be seen as just such a playful and slippery idea. For Cheyette, Arnold’s ambivalence and his universalising desire are condemned by what they led to: ‘A semitic discourse in liberal England can ... be implicated in the Holocaust,’ he argues. The closure here is a little too neat. Semitic discourse predated Arnoldian liberalism, and history did not end apocalyptically in 1945. Other forms of minority identity have nowadays taken over the symbolic functions of Jewishness.

A recent Everyman programme on BBC Television showed American tourists in the Occupied Territories guarded by machine-guntoting Israeli soldiers. Unseen by these visitors to the Holy Land, Palestinian Christians in the back streets of Bethlehem spoke of the destruction of their centuries-old community by the Zionist state. The very term ‘semitic discourse’, a coinage which defies etymology by focusing on Jews and excluding Arabs, constitutes an annexation of linguistic territory, so to speak. Sooner or later a critic as conscientious as Cheyette will surely wish to think about the apportionment of cultural complicity in post-Holocaust Jewish history.