Tuesday 7 February 2012

Dickens and the Jews

Two hundred years ago today, the man who is arguably the second greatest English author was born. Whether you’ve read the books themselves or only watched the movie or BBC dramatisations, there is at least one story you will be familiar with. Most people, even if they have not read Oliver Twist or seen David Lean’s magnificent film adaptation, will be familiar with Oliver, Lionel Bart’s feel-good musical romp that succeeded in transforming the reptilian ‘Jew’ Fagin into a pantomime villain.

It is sobering to think that England’s two greatest writers – Shakespeare and Dickens – between them succeeded in creating two of the greatest villains in world literature – Shylock and Fagin – both of them Jewish. The only literary bad guys worse than Shylock and Fagin are supernatural baddies such as Sauron, Grendel and the Wicked Witch of the West. In Oliver Twist, even Bill Sykes is overshadowed by ‘the Jew’ Fagin.

In the Jewish Chronicle of 22 December 2011, Jennifer Lipman pointed out that in Dickens’s novel, ‘Fagin is refererred to as “the Jew” more frequently than he is referred to by name – more than 250 times – and as a “hideous old man [who] seemed like some loathsome reptile”.’

Lipman’s article goes on to point out that Dickens later amended his portrayal of Fagin and that in a final reading of the book that he gave in the year before he died, he included no reference to the Fagin’s ethnicity. She reveals also that Dickens also created the rather more flattering Jewish character of Mr Riah in Our Mutual Friend. But Fagin was not unique in Dickens’s oeuvre.

The 1852, Household Words, the weekly periodical Dickens edited, featured a story called 'Old Clothes', in which Dickens appeared to suggest that all Jews were ‘old-clothesmen in disguise’ – essentially, lower-class peddlers. The story became the subject of a long and sarcastic letter to the JC from a reader who signed himself ‘P’.

‘P’ thanked Dickens for bringing to his attention the previously unknown fact that ‘carrying the bag, and crying ‘Ogh clo,’ seemed to be a sort of apprenticeship to which ‘all Hebrews’ were subjected, and speculated that Dickens must be haunted by a spectre from his childhood who caused him to see ‘in every beard a Jew, and in every Jew an old-clothesman, even in countries where no such thing as the ‘Ogh clo’ trade exists’.

‘P’ pointed out sharply that if Jews were dealers of second-hand clothing, it was largely because Dickens’ ancestors had prevented Jews from taking up more ‘ennobling’ pursuits.

A few weeks later, Dickens was offered ‘proof’ that ‘the Jews have minds and ideas above the ‘old clothes bag’, when several University of London graduates sent the JC notice of their examination success in fields including anatomy and physiology. ‘Is Mr Charles Dickens yet disposed to do us justice, and retract his unjust aspersions?’ they asked.

In March 1851, the JC devoted a front page to coverage of Dickens’ article ‘Biography of a bad shilling’, in which ‘a Jew’ was held responsible for the atrocious crime of melting down a respectable zinc door plate.

The JC complained that the author ‘once more seizes on the opportunity of adding to the insults and calumnies he had previously heaped on the Jewish community’.

Noting that Dickens was influential enough to ‘eradicate from the vocabulary the fatal word “prejudice”,’ the JC questioned why so many criminals in Dickens’ work were Jewish when this did not match the ‘criminal calendar of the country’.

The previous year, a debate raged in the JC over The Old Lady in Threadneedle Street, which claimed that the gold of the Bank of England was ‘sweated by Jews’.

Reader ‘L L’ complained that Dickens had ‘held up my creed to scorn and detestation in charging Jews with this dishonest practice’ and suggested that the Jews of whom Dickens was writing must belong to the tribe ‘that has been charged with the murder of Christian infants, to make the Passover-bread with innocent blood’.

Another reader claimed there was ‘no more enthusiastic admirer’, but was saddened that Dickens only alluded to the Hebrews ‘for the purpose of attaching to our nation reproaches of vice, meanness and unworthiness’. He added: ‘Were Dickens a miserable penny-a-liner, his observations would have been unworthy of remark.’

Yet despite complaining of ‘20 years of misrepresentation on the part of the most generally read novelist’, Dickens was still considered worthy of a fulsome editorial on his death in June 1870. The JC mourned the fact that ‘the greatest ornament of the press of England passed away’.

To the Jewish community, a man who was once criticised for libelling a people with his words was, by the time of his death, a hero to be celebrated for years to come.

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