Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Harrington

While the Jewish heroine of the classic 19th century novel Harrington (written by Maria Edgeworth and originally published in 1817) does not technically convert to Christianity at the end of the book, she (Berenice Montonero) does turn out to have been educated as a Protestant Christian, which makes it possible for her to marry her Christian lover. (Berenice had a Jewish father but a Christian mother and was raised in the Christian faith, although her father had never converted to Christianity).

As Susan Manly points out in her 2004 introduction to this book, Harrington was penance on the part of Maria Edgeworth for the anti-Semitic images that she was responsible for in previous children's books as well as adult fiction. It was also written in response (says Manly and just about everyone else who writes about Edgeworth) to a famous letter sent to her by Rachel Mordecai, an American Jew, chastening Edgeworth for the poor characterization of Jews in her books. Thus, the Jewish characters in Harrington were attractive and sympathetic (morally and otherwise).

But are the Jews really better off in Harrington than in previous anti-semitic novels and in subsequent conversionary fiction?

Manly writes: "National and international events close to the time that Edgeworth was writing Harrington in 1816-17 made Jews newsworthy and had drawn attention to their contested position within English society. One such event had been Napoleon's invasion of Palestine and subsequent Egyptian Proclamation in 1799, calling on the Jews to return to the country of their ancestors. This struck a chord in Britain, particularly among the more millenarian of Protestant sects.... It also incited active proselytism to convert Jews to Christianity, since for many this was the precondition given in the Book of Revelation for the Last Days to begin" (p. 13).

Manly cites Michael Ragussis (who has written the preeminent work on Jews in conversionary novels, Figures of Conversion : "the Jewish Question" & English National Identity) when she writes that "Harrington is subverting one of the most consistent tropes of the genre of conversionist memoirs ... where the memoirist discovers the truth of Chrsitianity in one or more scenes of reading, often performed in secret. In this scene, Montenero re-reads an influential public text demonising Jews and shows that in fact, the celebrated Christian author and his credulous audience are, respectively, the perpetrator and victims of a lie, a distorted true source" (p. 55).

So despite its Jewish character who turns out really to be Christian after all, it does seem that Harrington is a tremendous improvement on the characterization of Jews (vis-a-vis Christianity) in 19th century British literature.

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