So. I’ve been reading a lot about Jews in Regency England. And I checked out a book from the library called The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill. Every other book I’ve read has discussed philosemitism as a creepy, fetishizing phenomenon, frequently focusing on the importance of being kind to Jews so that they’ll convert and bring about Jesus’s return. The author of this book (Gertrude Himmelfarb) disagrees! She agrees that some philosemites go too far, but thinks philosemitism “reflects the principles and policies that have made modern England a model of liberality and civility.” She describes Evangelical Christians as “among [Jews’] most faithful allies.”
So okay, I don’t agree with this woman politically. There could still be useful stuff in this book. I skim through it. I see there’s a section on Ivanhoe. I love Ivanhoe a ridiculous amount, so I read the section. I don’t really agree with her analysis of the book (it’s one of the many stories that portray a minority woman as beautiful and incredible—and of course, in love with a majority guy—and minority men as distasteful, unmanly, and unattractive, while Himmelfarb describes Isaac as “a worthy father of Rebecca”), but whatever.
“One foot nearer, and I plunge myself over the precipice!”
She discusses Rebecca’s firm repudiation of Rowena’s suggestion that she convert to Christianity (“I may not change the faith of my athers like a garment unsuited to the climate in which I seek to dwell, &c.”). THEN I READ THIS:
In 1849, Thackeray published a spoof, Rebecca and Rowena, with Rowena a shrew jealous of her husband’s feelings for Rebecca, and Ivanhoe, something of a drunkard, going off to fight for Richard. Eventually, after Rowena’s death, he is free to marry Rebecca. But even that marriage is melancholic. “I think,” the final sentence reads, “these were a solemn pair and died rather early.” “Solemn” or not, Rebecca the Jewess is unquestionably the heroine of the parody. Scott may have thought it inappropriate to have her marry Ivanhoe, but Thackeray did not. Nor did their readers. A Jewess, proud and resolute in her Jewishness, was thought to be a fit spouse for the hero, a Christian and a veteran of the Crusades.
“A Jewess, proud and resolute in her Jewishness, was thought to be a fit spouse for the hero.”
Now I happen to have read Rebecca and Rowena. And I know that the plot turns on one very important point: Rebecca converts. To be specific, Rowena makes Ivanhoe promise on her deathbed that he will never marry a Jewess. Oh noes! But fortunately Rebecca has been a Christian ALL ALONG! Look:
“Father,” she said, in a thrilling low steady voice, “I am not of your religion[…]I—I am of his religion.”
“His! whose, in the name of Moses, girl?” cried Isaac.
Rebecca clasped her hands on her beating chest and looked round with dauntless eyes. “Of his,” she said, “who saved my life and your honor: of my dear, dear champion’s. I never can be his, but I will be no other’s. Give my money to my kinsmen; it is that they long for. Take the dross, Simeon and Solomon, Jonah and Jochanan, and divide it among you, and leave me. I will never be yours, I tell you, never. Do you think, after knowing him and hearing him speak,—after watching him wounded on his pillow, and glorious in battle (her eyes melted and kindled again as she spoke these words), I can mate with such as you? Go. Leave me to myself. I am none of yours. I love him—I love him. Fate divides us long, long miles separate us; and I know we may never meet again. But I love and bless him always. Yes, always. My prayers are his; my faith is his. Yes, my faith is your faith, Wilfred—Wilfred! I have no kindred more,—I am a Christian!”
Does this sound like a Jewess, proud and resolute in her Jewishness, to you? (Thackeray’s story is actually very funny and clever, and also interesting because you can see trends in fanfiction, such as the villification of a canon love interest, spontaneously manifesting themselves, and I love it. My favorite joke is when Ivanhoe decides to hide his true identity and becomes known as “the Knight of the Wig and Spectacles.” But. It’s not the LEAST antisemitic/racist thing I’ve ever read.)
And Himmelfarb chose to simply not mention this. Now, okay, if Himmelfarb wanted to make the argument that Rebecca’s conversion isn’t the point—that the point is that lots and lots of people were willing to ship Rebecca and Ivanhoe together despite Scott’s original portrayal of her—okay. It’s a point that could be made, I guess. But she didn’t make it. And what she did seems to me outright intellectually dishonest. She knew saying that Thackeray required Rebecca to convert would run counter to her argument, so she left it out—and if you read what she wrote, in my opinion, while it doesn’t actually lie, most people reading it would naturally assume that Rebecca does NOT convert.
This book is now useless to me as a source because I can’t trust anything it says. Why would you undermine your own scholarly work this way?
Have you ever had this experience—reading a nonfiction book and coming across something so wrong it casts doubt on everything else?