- “The Other Woman” – Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens
The letters Eliza Davis wrote to Charles Dickens, from 22 June 1863 to 8 February 1867, and after his death to his daughter Mamie on 4 August 1870, reveal the increasing self-confidence of English Jews.1 In their careful and accurate comments on the power of Dickens’s work in shaping English culture and popular opinion, and their pointed discussion of the ways in which Fagin reinforces antisemitic English and European Jewish stereotypes, they indicate the concern, as Eliza Davis phrases it, of “a scattered nation” to participate fully in the life of “the land in which we have pitched our tents.2”
It is worth noting that by 1858 the fits and starts of Jewish Emancipation in England had led, finally, to the seating of Lionel Rothschild in the House of Commons. After being elected for the fifth time from Westminster he was not required, due to a compromise devised by the Earl of Lucan and Benjamin Disraeli, to take the oath on the New Testament as a Christian.3 [End Page 44] And Eliza and her husband, James Phineas Davis, had in 1860 become the inhabitants of Tavistock House, purchasing it that year from Charles Dickens. In the eyes of the law, English Jews now received the same treatment, privileges and rights as Christian English folk.
Yet the Jews were not exactly at ease in England.
During the negotiations for his house, Dickens mentions to a friend, that “the purchaser of Tavistock will be a Jew Money Lender.”4 Three days later he writes, “If the Jew Money Lender buys (I say ‘if’ because of course I shall never believe in him until he has paid the money.)”. A month later he writes to Arthur Stone, “I hope you will find the Children of Israel, good neighbours” (Letters 9: 307).
Slighting remarks, these. Yet Dickens also adds, that “Mrs. Davis appears to be a very kind and agreeable woman. And I have never had any money transaction with any one, more promptly, fairly, and considerately conducted than the purchase of Tavistock House has been” (Letters 9: 306–07). Praising Eliza Davis, Dickens overcomes the thrown-off comments he had made. Obtuse and unthinking, they derive from the lurking antisemitism and fear-ridden Jewish stereotyping of his era and culture.
That stereotype Eliza Davis confronts in her forthright correspondence with Dickens when she notes that “there are other oppressions, <
far> much heavier other things far sharper, than the fetters and goads of Damascus Lebanon or Russia” (Clark 1918, 17).
How Literature Matters
“Emboldened by your Courtesy,” Eliza Davis began her first letter to Charles Dickens on 22 June 1863, initiating a correspondence that would extend throughout the rest of his life and even beyond. It is one of the most sustained exchanges of letters we have between Dickens and someone outside his immediate circle. All her letters to Dickens bore her address: Tavistock House, while Dickens’s came from Gad’s Hill Place and Bradford, Yorkshire, where he was traveling as part of his reading tour. In 1870 after his death, the “Letters from a Jewess” as they were headlined, were excerpted in several newspapers, including The Observer, the Daily News, and The Jewish Chronicle.
Like other diligent correspondents, Eliza Davis kept copies of her letters [End Page 45] and interleaved them with Dickens’s responses.5 At Eliza Davis’s death in 1903,6 the full set of letters was included in the Estate Sale and purchased by a friend who passed them on to Cumberland Clark, a journalist, traveler throughout the Empire, and man of letters.7 In 1918, Clark published the complete set of letters as Charles Dickens and His Jewish Characters.8 Dickens’s letters are included in the Pilgrim Edition; and the entire correspondence was republished in 1921 in The Dickensian. Since then the rethinking of Dickens’s achievement, and his public life, as well as the relative obscurity of this exchange, make the chance to revisit them and explore their impact a welcome opportunity.
Cumberland Clark prefaces his 1918 publication of the letters with a brief statement, noting that the recent...