- The Jewess in Nineteenth-Century British Literary Culture
Nadia Valman's study of the figure of the Jewess is a welcome addition to a growing body of scholarship on Jewish writers and Jewish characterization in nineteenth-century literary culture. Valman builds on important work by those who have addressed the significance of philosemitism, anti-Semitism, Jewish ambivalence, conversion, romance, religion, Jewish literature, and Jewish emancipation in nineteenth-century British culture. Yet Valman's study, with its focus on the Jewess and its integration of canonical and lesser-known works, takes these debates and issues in a fresh direction. Moreover, while Valman is not the first to address gender in Jewish representations, her study is the first full-length analysis of the ubiquitous figure of the Jewess in nineteenth-century literary culture. Overall, Valman pays scrupulous attention to the ways in which cultural shifts over the century altered the woman question, the Jewish question, and their relation to one another. For these reasons and many more, Valman's study of the Jewess makes a major contribution to the fields of nineteenth-century British literary culture, Jewish studies, and women's studies.
Valman begins by pointing out that traditional approaches to the figure of "the Jew" have taken for granted the masculinity of their subject. In contrast, [End Page 262] her study places the gendered subject at the centre of discussions of Jewish ambivalence. Along these lines, Valman shows that texts in this period emphasized "on the one hand, the dangerous carnality of the Jewish woman, and, on the other, her exceptional spirituality and amenability to restoration, conversion or radical assimilation" (1). Through her analyses, Valman not only explores some of the Jewish and Christian tensions at the root of the Jewess's ambivalence, but also exposes the rich interplay between the woman question and the Jewess question throughout the century. As Valman puts it, "Jewish questions ... were discursively intertwined with, or echoed, woman questions" (8). In these discussions, Valman opens up new ways of reading and thinking about women's writing and its relationship to religions—Christianity and Judaism—as well as to debates of the 1830s and 1840s concerning female authorship.
Following chapter 1, which sets up the book's argument and scope, Valman elucidates the two dominant paradigms for the nineteenth-century's figure of the Jewess. The first paradigm, the subject of chapter 2, focuses on Scott's Ivanhoe (1819), which Valman designates "the century's most influential novel about a Jewess" (10), and on two Victorian texts it influenced: Augustin Daly's melodrama Leah, the Forsaken (1862) and Anthony Trollope's Nina Balatka (1867). Valman maintains that in these works the figure of the Jewess "was a symbol for the Jews' potential for virtue, which could be released and harnessed by the modern state if only it and its citizens were freed from outdated prejudice" (15). At the same time, however, the Jewess is imagined to be thoroughly embodied, a depiction Valman calls "the carnal Jewess" who stands for "the peril of uncontrolled passion" (16). Thus in this first paradigm of the Jewess, Valman shows how the figure of the Jewess "both embodied the liberal case with her pathos and undermined it with her passion" (16).This chapter sets the stage for subsequent discussions focused on the limits of liberal culture's tolerance for religious difference which, Valman argues, the figure of the Jewess frequently exposed.
The second paradigm of the Jewess forms the subject of chapter 3. Here Valman examines popular Evangelical writing produced from the 1820s through the 1840s by women who wrote for a predominantly female Christian audience. Authors like Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, Elizabeth Rigby, Amelia Bristow, and Mme. Brendlah all produced texts that focused on literary Jewesses who, unlike Rebecca, are depicted as wanting to convert to Christianity. Valman argues that many women readers were swayed by a powerful Evangelical rhetoric that called for action to protect "the moral wellbeing of other women, understood to be their 'sisters'" (52). Jewish women were thus represented as needing to...