Do you think, after knowing him and hearing him speak, I can mate with such as you?

So. I’ve been reading a lot about Jews in Regency England. And I checked out a book from the library called The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill. Every other book I’ve read has discussed philosemitism as a creepy, fetishizing phenomenon, frequently focusing on the importance of being kind to Jews so that they’ll convert and bring about Jesus’s return. The author of this book (Gertrude Himmelfarb) disagrees! She agrees that some philosemites go too far, but thinks philosemitism “reflects the principles and policies that have made modern England a model of liberality and civility.” She describes Evangelical Christians as “among [Jews'] most faithful allies.” So okay, I don’t agree with this woman politically. There could still be useful stuff in this book. I skim through it. I see there’s a section on Ivanhoe. I love Ivanhoe a ridiculous amount, so I read the section. I don’t really agree with her analysis of the book (it’s one of the many stories that portray a minority woman as beautiful and incredible–and of course, in love with a majority guy–while minority men are distasteful, unmanly, and unattractive, while Himmelfarb describes Isaac as “a worthy father of Rebecca”), but whatever.


“One foot nearer, and I plunge myself over the precipice!”

She discusses Rebecca’s firm repudiation of Rowena’s suggestion that she convert to Christianity (“I may not change the faith of my athers like a garment unsuited to the climate in which I seek to dwell, &c.”). THEN I READ THIS:

In 1849, Thackeray published a spoof, Rebecca and Rowena, with Rowena a shrew jealous of her husband’s feelings for Rebecca, and Ivanhoe, something of a drunkard, going off to fight for Richard. Eventually, after Rowena’s death, he is free to marry Rebecca. But even that marriage is melancholic. “I think,” the final sentence reads, “these were a solemn pair and died rather early.” “Solemn” or not, Rebecca the Jewess is unquestionably the heroine of the parody. Scott may have thought it inappropriate to have her marry Ivanhoe, but Thackeray did not. Nor did their readers. A Jewess, proud and resolute in her Jewishness, was thought to be a fit spouse for the hero, a Christian and a veteran of the Crusades.

“A Jewess, proud and resolute in her Jewishness, was thought to be a fit spouse for the hero.”

Now I happen to have read Rebecca and Rowena. And I know that the plot turns on one very important point: Rebecca converts. To be specific, Rowena makes Ivanhoe promise on her deathbed that he will never marry a Jewess. Oh noes! But fortunately Rebecca has been a Christian ALL ALONG! Look:

“Father,” she said, in a thrilling low steady voice, “I am not of your religion[...]I — I am of his religion.”

“His! whose, in the name of Moses, girl?” cried Isaac.

Rebecca clasped her hands on her beating chest and looked round with dauntless eyes. “Of his,” she said, “who saved my life and your honor: of my dear, dear champion’s. I never can be his, but I will be no other’s. Give my money to my kinsmen; it is that they long for. Take the dross, Simeon and Solomon, Jonah and Jochanan, and divide it among you, and leave me. I will never be yours, I tell you, never. Do you think, after knowing him and hearing him speak,–after watching him wounded on his pillow, and glorious in battle (her eyes melted and kindled again as she spoke these words), I can mate with such as you? Go. Leave me to myself. I am none of yours. I love him–I love him. Fate divides us long, long miles separate us; and I know we may never meet again. But I love and bless him always. Yes, always. My prayers are his; my faith is his. Yes, my faith is your faith, Wilfred–Wilfred! I have no kindred more,–I am a Christian!”

Does this sound like a Jewess, proud and resolute in her Jewishness, to you? (Thackeray’s story is actually very funny and clever, and also interesting because you can see trends in fanfiction, such as the villification of a canon love interest, spontaneously manifesting themselves, and I love it. My favorite joke is when Ivanhoe decides to hide his true identity and becomes known as “the Knight of the Wig and Spectacles.” But. It’s not the LEAST antisemitic/racist thing I’ve ever read.)

And Himmelfarb chose to simply not mention this. Now, okay, if Himmelfarb wanted to make the argument that Rebecca’s conversion isn’t the point–that the point is that lots and lots of people were willing to ship Rebecca and Ivanhoe together despite Scott’s original portrayal of her–okay. It’s a point that could be made, I guess. But she didn’t make it. And what she did seems to me outright intellectually dishonest. She knew saying that Thackeray required Rebecca to convert would run counter to her argument, so she left it out–and if you read what she wrote, in my opinion, while it doesn’t actually lie, most people reading it would naturally assume that Rebecca does NOT convert.

This book is now useless to me as a source because I can’t trust anything it says. Why would you undermine your own scholarly work this way?

Have you ever had this experience–reading a nonfiction book and coming across something so wrong it casts doubt on everything else?

7 Responses to “Do you think, after knowing him and hearing him speak, I can mate with such as you?”

  • I once read an otherwise excellent book on the Antikythera mechanism that claimed Sirius was also the pole star. Which: NO. The pole star does move — used to be Thuban, is now Polaris, will be something else in a few millennia — but never, never Sirius. Put me right off.

    • Rose:

      Oh dear! Yeah, when an error is so basic like that, it really casts doubt on everything. Which is not to say I haven’t made basic errors when I really knew better, just out of not rereading and editing carefully enough. But! It shakes one’s faith.

  • Wow, that’s…wow. Talk about bending the facts to fit your thesis!

    I’ve always been fascinated by how willing eighteenth and nineteenth century authors were to ret-con their characters to make a culturally objectionable background (whether a case of religion, class, race/ethnicity, nationality, or whatever) suddenly palatable to readers. The classic example is having the character’s parentage turn out to be suddenly English and respectable, as if worth was communicated entirely through gentry DNA–oh, he’s not a half-naked savage raised by ferocious apes, he’s the son of a British nobleman! All is forgiven! But I wasn’t familiar with the Rebecca and Rowena example of Rebecca’s conversion. That’s amazing.

    • Rose:

      Yes! I think my first exposure to that was in “Little Minister” where the Romani heroine turns out to be…I believe, an aristocratic baby who…ran away? I can’t actually remember, but she DEFINITELY turns out to be a WASP heiress. All the sexiness of an unconventional free spirit, none of the unfortunate DNA! I felt pretty let down by that reveal even though I mostly loved the book.

      One wonders how these attitudes carried over into everyday life and what their implications were, given that people don’t generally turn out to suddenly be of totally different ethnic/class backgrounds than one always thought.

  • Kay:

    Sadly, this has happened to me too and it sucks so much! There’s this guy who is actually one of the best regarded intellectuals in the history of my country so I wanted to read his speeches about modernism and history… until I read about his thoughts against the mixing of blacks, indians and whites, in favor of a purer and more predominant white population: “if we don’t greatly modify the ethnic makeup of our population it will be almost impossible to change the course of our history and make of this country a modern state” that just ruined his alleged historical and oh-so-very-modern “insight” essays for me. I acknowledge the fact that he said very intelligent things regarding our country but I simply cannot take him seriously now.

    • Rose:

      Yeah, discovering unexpectedly that an author is racist or otherwise horribly prejudiced is all too common, and always very painful.

      • Kay:

        Even worse, the things they let dead people get away with! because I get that history is the study of change over time, and that that change-at least socially- is determined by the fight of opposing forces: sexism vs. feminism, racism vs. equality and etc. What seems so unnatural to me is that so many years after the non-traditional side becomes stronger than the oppressive, classical one (i.e. race equality nowadays) people still refer to biased accounts or works WITHOUT pointing out their faults… if those works where to be published in our time many would be considered controversial, to say the least. No author is without prejudice, but the public has the duty to point out bias -whether or not the work is highly valued by them :( nobody’s work should be sacred.

Leave a Reply