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  • Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington as a Utopian Novel
  • Regina Hewitt

Since the reception history of Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington has long been dominated by disappointment at the concluding revelation that its Jewish heroine is a Protestant Christian after all, readers might think that “Harrington as a dystopian novel” would be a more accurate title for my essay. Instead of letting the plot of Harrington’s overcoming his prejudice usher in a “good society” in which tolerance, diversity, and cosmopolitanism triumph over anti-Semitism, uniformity, and ethnocentrism, the conclusion revives the old social divisions that subject Jewish characters to Christian norms. This outcome neither advances Edgeworth’s goal of making amends for the negative stereotypes of Jews in her earlier novels nor offers itself as a blueprint for the Enlightened social relations that Edgeworth valorized in Harrington and in most of her other writing. Though Harrington’s shortcomings concede to the prejudices of Edgeworth’s historical moment,1 they remain troublingly inconsistent with Edgeworth’s outspoken commitment to improving social relations.

In this essay, I suggest a way of interpreting Harrington that aligns its conclusion more closely with Edgeworth’s larger goals. Specifically, I posit that Harrington is strategically effective when read as a utopian novel. New scholarship that understands utopianism as a method or process of encouraging social change rather than as a blueprint for an ideal society brings to light Harrington’s broader social commitments. This view of utopianism has been most fully conceptualized and implemented by Ruth Levitas, who has devised a method of utopian inquiry that functions as “speculative” sociology and leads to the “imaginary reconstitution of society.” Crucial to Levitas’s method is the activation of a desire for society to be “otherwise,” both in its institutional arrangements and in personal conduct. People can bring about changes in their own character and relations, and in the larger structures that these comprise, if they recognize a gap between existing norms and some alternative norm more in keeping with their value system and if they then try to become the kind of [End Page 293] people who would inhabit the alternative society. Successful modifications are neither perfect nor static; they are steps toward an imagined “good society” that can continue to be approached through ongoing reflections and adjustments.

A desire for self and society to be “otherwise” is likewise crucial to Harrington. At one level the novel depicts its protagonist’s growing wish to free himself, his family, and his society from religious and ethnic biases. At this level, it describes the irrational and unjust treatment of Jews in Harrington’s society; it shows, through the reasonable and generous behavior of Mr. Montenero and other characters, the alternative interactions that could occur among open-minded people,2 and it charts Harrington’s progress toward reforming his character until he is ready to marry Berenice despite his father’s and his culture’s doubts about the viability of a marriage between people of different faiths. At that point, narrative sleight-of-hand supplies a Christian identity for Berenice, allowing the novel to stop short of the behavioral and structural changes it promised.

As historical research confirms, this descriptive level offers an accurate and realistic account of Anglo-Jewish relations during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the time frame of Harrington’s setting, composition, and publication. According to Todd Endelman’s study of The Jews of Britain, 1656 to 2000, much “acculturation” had occurred by the eighteenth century: especially in the upper tiers of society, Jews and Christians interacted freely in literary, artistic, athletic, and scientific spheres, and many regarded religion as a private matter of no concern in public life as long as secular laws were obeyed (65–76). But Endelman distinguishes between “acculturation” and institutional integration, with the normalization of intermarriage and political participation. Acceptance of Jews at the institutional level was not nearly so advanced as at the cultural level. Intermarriage among Jews, in particular, met with much resistance (66). Anglo-Jewish relations had indeed reached the kind of impasse portrayed in the novel: Enlightened thinking had called for the revaluation of prejudices but had not fully succeeded in overcoming them.

Though Edgeworth stays within...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1512
Print ISSN
0039-3827
Pages
pp. 293-314
Launched on MUSE
2014-09-18
Open Access
No
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