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Reviewed by:
  • Anti-Semitism and British Gothic Literature
  • Patrick Brantlinger
Anti-Semitism and British Gothic Literature, by Carol Margaret Davison. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 227 pp. $47.50.

Arguing that "anti-Semitism has remained a consistent and readily adaptable component in British identity construction" (p. 14) over three centuries and more, Carol Margaret Davison focuses on the figure of "the Wandering Jew" in Gothic romances from Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) to Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and beyond. Davison traces this errant, uncanny character through "spectropoetics," a term she borrows from Jacques Derrida's The Spectres of Marx. She ably demonstrates how Ahasuerus keeps returning, like a revenant, even in works of realist fiction such as Maria Edgeworth's Harrington (1817), Benjamin Disraeli's 1840s "Young England" trilogy (Coningsby, Sybil, Tancred), Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now (1875), and George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876). A positive revenant in the case of Disraeli's Sidonia and Eliot's Deronda, the Gothic version of the Wandering [End Page 162] Jew is typically demonic and grows increasingly vampiric. Ahasuerus is not just a wanderer, but a shape-shifter who reappears in the 1890s in Gothic form as the bloodthirsty Count in Dracula and as the mesmeric Svengali in George du Maurier's Trilby (1894).

Davison starts with Harrington which, though not a Gothic romance, contains a "phantasmagoric primal scene [that] is nothing short of a Gothic gem" dramatizing "the bogey of the Blood Libel that continues to haunt enlightened England" (p. 10). Edgeworth's novel, Davison argues, is "a highly self-conscious apologia for its author's earlier anti-Semitic portraits . . ." (p. 9). In that regard, it is something like Charles Dickens's portrayal of good Jewish characters in Our Mutual Friend (1865) to counteract charges of antisemitism brought against his portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist (1838). Davison could, perhaps, have done more with this and various other fictional attempts to portray Jews and Judaism in a positive light, including Disraeli's novels and Eliot's Deronda, but her subject is, after all, antisemitism as it particularly informs and shapes Gothic romances.

The Wandering Jew in the German Schauerroman, in Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk (1795), and in Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) forms the backdrop to Davison's analysis of "Vampire Empire" at the end of the century, particular in Dracula. She quite ably argues that "the Wandering Jew in British Gothic fiction functions as a compelling agent of the uncanny upon whom are projected ambivalent feelings about modernity and the modernization process" (p. 22). Further, Dickens's Fagin, Trollope's Augustus Melmotte, and Stoker's Count are always negative doubles of positively identified British heroes (and heroines), and therefore serve to construct, via negative imaging or racist displacement, British national identity. Always a racial other, the Wandering Jew's pact with the devil, converting him into crucifying anti-Christ, child-murderer, un-Christian usurer, capitalist vampire, communist bloodsucker, alien terrorizer, anarchist terrorist, is the dark, Gothic side of modern, Anglo-Saxon citizenship. However, "Anti-Semitism—in both word and deed—has been the real vampire throughout history" (p. 165). Yes, and it's also true that antisemitism continued its Gothic, baleful course into literary modernism and fueled Fascism, Nazism, and the Holocaust, as Davison makes clear in her "Afterword: Pathological Projection and the Nazi Nightmare."

Davison's readings of the novels she discusses are thoroughly contextualized in relation to British and continental political, social, and religious history. Her study is as much a contribution to the cultural history of antisemitism as it is a literary-critical analysis of the specific transformations of the Wandering Jew in specific Gothic romances. Particularly useful are her surveys of the ways [End Page 163] accounts of terrorism (including the Gothic fiction of terror) and conspiracy theories during and after the French Revolution expressed antisemitic motifs (chapter 4) and of how a rekindled antisemitism in the fin-de-siècle informs Dracula, Trilby, H. Rider Haggard's She, Oscar Wilde's Portrait of Dorian Gray, Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan, and theories about the identity and motives of Jack ("Jacob"?) the Ripper (chapter...


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