Hesba Stretton, a pseudonym for the 19th century British writer Sarah Smith, wrote the novel Carola most probably sometime in the 1870s or 1880s. Is it a conversionary novel? I'll let you be the judge of that. (But see my comments at the end of this posting).
Carola is a young Gentile girl who is being raised by her drunken grandmother. They live in misery and poverty, but at least they have a roof over their heads renting a room (actually a "garrett" or attic) from Matthias Levi, an old Jewish merchant in London. Eventually her grandmother dies, and old Matthias begins to take care of Carola. Kind of Silas Marner-ish, sort of. Matthias isn't too educated, though. Listen in on one of his religious instruction sessions with Carola:
"He [God] loves the Jews, and has chosen them out of all people; but I think He'd love a little girl like you if you keep them ten laws I've taught you.... But you take care, Carol, and keep all these laws, and p'raps you'll be reckoned as a Jew when the great judgment comes. I don"t know much about it, my dear, for I was not one of the wise men, and they never asked me to read in the Synagogue; but there's no harm done by keeping His laws" (p. 10).
But Matthias, perhaps recognizing his ignorance and lack of training, decides to send her to school:
"Matthias took her to a small Jewish day-school in the neighbourhood, where she quickly learned to read, and read with intelligence and ease. But, as soon as she could shake off these shackles, she returned to the free and dangerous life of the streets, with its constant changes and its exciting events. Many an hour the old cobbler, sitting at his stall, brooded painfully over the perils to which Carola was exposed" (p. 12).
"Why, I'm keepin' all those laws you've taught me!" she exclaimed, turning round and gazing at him with a startled look. "I never swear, nor steal, nor nothin', like all the rest of 'em; and I stay indoors all the time you keep Sabbath, though it makes me mis'rable. If I'm goin' bad, it isn't much use to keep those laws" (p. 13-14).
Carola is given a New Testament to read, and it is through this that she becomes a Christian. The narrator takes this opportunity to disparage praying in Hebrew, a repeated theme among the 19th century authors of this genre:
"Carola lifted up her bended head as she came to the word Amen. Oh! how far better this prayer was than the few Hebrew words without meaning which she had picked up from Matthias.... The other prayers were good for the Jews, but Matthias himself had been doubtful if they would do her any good. But this prayer was in English, and must be meant for English people" (p. 33-34).
"He was her Lord. He had not lived and died for the Jews alone, but for everybody who believed in Him. Though He was a Jew, He had come into the world to save the world. "You ought to go to your parish priest," the chaplain at the cemetery had said to her; he who had given her the book. This she would do at once; and in eager haste she dressed herself in the handsome mourning she had not worn since the day of the funeral. She descended the ladder into the room, where Matthias was ceremoniously washing his hands up to the elbow, before sitting down to the frugal supper. Her face was pale, but her dark eyes shone with suppressed excitement. "I'm goin' out to find my parish priest," she said earnestly; "do you know where he lives, Matthias?" "Priest! priest!" repeated the old man, in a bewildered tone; "there are no priests now there are no sacrifices; We call them Rabbis now."
Even uneducated old Matthias knows a little something about Judaism, it seems. But Carola will outdo him in her newfound knowledge of Christianity and especially the Jewish roots of the New Testament.
"Yes, I know," she said, nodding her head emphatically "Rabbi! Rabboni! Mary called Him Rabboni when she met Him in the garden, and thought it was the gardener. Oh! if I'd only been there with Mary Magdalene!".... Mary Magdalene was a totally new name to him, and a parish priest he had never heard of. If she had asked him where she could find a clergyman, his fears would have been aroused; and if she had pronounced the name of Christ, it would have been a sword piercing through his very soul. But Carola, in her new-born love and reverence, could not call her Saviour by name in the hearing of Matthias as yet. He knew there had once lived an accursed impostor, who called himself the Son of David, and claimed to be the Messiah, and who was said to be their god by the wretched thieves and drunkards and blasphemers among whom he had his dwelling. These people, who made night and day hideous with their crime and misery; were the only Christians he was acquainted with. He was kindly in his feelings towards them, and patient in his manner, pitying them, as some gentle and passive English Christian might pity and tolerate the degraded masses of some heathen population among whom he was compelled to dwell and gain his livelihood."
"The one object of his life had been to keep Carola free from the false religion of these vile and miserable Christians. The idea had very early suggested itself to him, whilst she was a mere infant, that if he could get her to keep the Ten Commandments, and never join in Christian worship, the God of his fathers might accept the service, as being all that could be expected from the child of Christian parents, and would grant to her such favour in the world to come as the Jewish women might be reckoned worthy to receive. What that was he did not know, but he would do what he could to secure it for Carola. He could not make her a true Jewess --- that was impossible; but he would guard her from becoming a Christian; and he might find a Jewish husband for her. Carola's children should be Sons of Abraham. The unbroken seclusion and isolation in which the old grandmother lived had aided him. No Christian teacher or minister had come into contact with the girl until the day she had gone alone to lay her only relative in a Christian grave" (pp. 41-44).
Matthias, we discover, was given 1500 pounds by Carola's grandfather before he died, to take care of Carola. The rector who Carola meets wants to send her away to the country, so that she can grow up in a better atmosphere than the mean city streets. Carola will need 40 pounds per year to do this (or otherwise she would be but a servant). But Matthias is afraid that she will become a Christian without his influence (he doesn't know about her conversion that has already occurred). What will the old Jew Matthias do?
"All day long and through the night Matthias turned the question over and over in his bewildered and sorrowful mind. If the old grandmother had but lived a few years longer, till he had found a Jew to marry Carola! But now, should he let her go, she would certainly become one of the despised and doomed Christians, losing thereby her dubious chance of being regarded worthy of the future fate of a Jewish woman. Might she not have gone whither Sarah, and Rebecca, and Rachel had gone? For Carola had never been baptized; but if she went among Christians they would baptize her, and she would be lost to him for ever. That was the sting of it. To be lost for ever! In this world and the next ! All the bonds of morality taught in the Ten Commandments would be loosened in her, for were not the besetting sins of the Christians drunkenness, and blasphemy, and theft, and vice such as made him shudder as he fancied Carola being plunged into it? No, he could not let her go among the Christians."
Matthias seems resolute. But then....
"But then there came the conviction that he could not keep Carola if she chose to go. She had already outgrown her childhood; nay, many of her street companions had lost their girlhood, and had entered upon a hard and wretched womanhood. The strong, free spirit of the girl would not submit to his control. She would leave him if her mind was bent upon it, and go away into this terrible world of Christians penniless and friendless if he did not remain her friend. That would be too dreadful."
"And if he took advantage of his secret, and withheld from her the money that was rightly her own, how could he himself lift up his head before the Judge by whom actions are weighed? There was a passage in the Hebrew Bible, heard many long years ago, but as keenly in his memory as if he had listened to them only a few hours ago---"What does God require of thee, O man, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" He had loved mercy, and walked humbly with his God; and, now the temptation had come to do unjustly, was he to yield to it? Would it be doing justly to keep this money from Carol, even for a time?" (pp. 57-59).
"Carol", he said, in a tremulous voice, "do you want to go away and leave me?"
"Oh, it's not that!" she answered gently, with tears in her eyes, "but I want to learn all I can about my Lord. You know all about your Lord God, and you say your prayers to Him, and keep His Sabbath and His laws; and I want to do the same, and learn what my Lord would have me do."
"Who is your Lord?" he asked in a voice more tremulous than before.
"The Lord Jesus Christ", she answered in a low yet joyous tone.
"The blow fell heavily. Already, then, she had been drawn away and enticed into the fatal worship of the impostor! All his hopes withered, as if a hot east wind from the desert had suddenly beaten upon them, and scorched them. He closed his eyes, and saw his beloved one whirled away from him in a raging torrent of sin and misery. He had done his utmost to save her, and all had been in vain. An unutterable anguish took possession of the old man's soul, and he hid his face in his hands and groaned aloud; then he felt Carol's hand laid tenderly on his shoulder, and heard Carol's voice speaking softly in his ear."
"Oh, and He was a Jew like you!" she said, "only He was the Son of God --- your God! and He came to save us all, not the Jews only. And the priests had Him crucified; and He was buried and came to life again, and went up to heaven. I have read it all in a book. You never knew it, or you'd have told me, I know. For you thought your God didn't care for folks that were only English, and not Jews. But my book says God loved the world, and sent His Son to save all the world. I'll run and fetch the book, and read it to you; for it's all in English, only I can't understand it all."
"If any one had been pronouncing his sentence of death, Matthias could not have shuddered more to hear it than he shuddered at hearing these words from Carola's lips. The blasphemy of them pierced through to his inmost soul. He lifted himself up from the seat into which he had fallen, and there was the terrible calm of despair in his face and voice as he looked steadily at her."
"He is the accursed one!" he cried loudly and sternly.
[Tell us how you really feel, old Matthias].
"For a minute Carola gazed at the old Jew with an expression of amazement, which gradually changed into terror. It flashed across her mind that this was how many of the Jews had spoken of the Lord whilst He was among them. 'He hath a devil, and is mad,' they said. And Matthias was on their side. Matthias would have been among those who cried out, 'Crucify Him! crucify Him!' There was an extreme bitterness in the thought. A torrent of tears came to her eyes, and she turned swiftly away to hide herself from this enemy of her Lord, lest he should curse Him again."
"Oh, I love Him who died for us!" she cried as she left Matthias standing motionless, as if he had been turned into stone. "I love Him so as I could die for Him!" (pp. 61-63).
"As time went on, Carola scarcely cast a glance backward. She was of a nature that lived intently in the present, and this was so full of new interests and occupations that she seemed to have no time to recall the past. Moreover, there was nothing to link her with it. Matthias reckoned her as dead to him, and held no communication with her. He punctually paid the interest of her money to the Rector of St. Chad's, exacting a receipt from the ladies who kept the school where Carola was; for he had no faith in a Christian, and especially in a Christian clergyman. But no message from him reached the girl; and though now and then, as she read in the Testament how the Jews denied their Lord, and persecuted Him, and at last crucified Him, a sad memory of Matthias, who would have done the same, crossed her mind, she willingly banished it, lest any feeling of personal hatred should mingle with her indignant borrow at their crimes."
"As for Matthias, his heart seemed to be dead within him; though he still sat at his cobbler's stall, and many a barefoot Christian child went away shod from his shop-door, with no more money dropped into his till. It was almost mechanically that he continued to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with his God; there was no more a happy consciousness in him that he was doing so. Day after day he saw the never-ending flood of wretchedness and crime from which he had done his best to save Carola, as though he stood upon the brink of a darksome pit, and knew that she was lost there, though out of sight. Her garret was empty, for he would never let it to a stranger; and the Christian woman whom he was compelled to have to wait on him on the Sabbath kept it clean and habitable, but he could not bring his mind to enter it. Sometimes during the long and dreary Sabbath hours he fancied he could hear the old grandmother and Carola talking overhead. But it was only a dream; and when he roused himself, how silent and empty was all his life!"
"A stealthy feeling of triumph moved his cold heart when he heard of the death of the Rector who had stolen Carola away from him. Not that he expected to find her again; he did not even hope for it. She had become a Christian in spite of his precautions, and was lost to him. But his foe was dead, and could exult over him no longer. When Carola was twenty-one, he transferred the money in the Consols to her name, and felt as if the last interest that tied him to earth was gone" (pp. 67-69).
Carola becomes a village schoolmistress. Later she gets engaged to a seemingly good man, Phillip Arnold. But then a criminal (her old boyfriend, George Bassett) comes back into her life, and she must reveal her sordid past (drunkenness, poverty, criminal boyfriend) to her fiance and other village friends. The Arnold family is shocked and angry, and tells her she must leave. It would shame and disgrace them if she married their son. "I thought," she said, speaking half-aloud to herself, "that Christian people would never turn against me" (p. 148). She goes back to Matthias.
"But there was an instinctive return of her heart to her first, and now her only friend. Christian people were casting her out, and turning their backs upon her; and to whom could she go but to the old Jew, who had so faithfully taught her God's commandments, and had done his utmost to keep her in the path of them? How wrong she had been to forget him all these years! how ungrateful!" (p. 150)
Carola writes a letter to Phillip saying that she had only kissed George Bassett once, and nothing more. "George Bassett was not my lover. I always dreaded him, and hid myself away from him, but he kissed me once against my will. I was only seventeen then."
George Bassett commits an awful crime and is condemned to death, and Carola's friends get very upset with her and with Matthias. A mob attacks their house, and the police tell them that they should move away. So they do. But Matthias is getting older and more feeble.
"Matthias," she said to the dreaming old man on the second Friday evening after they had entered their cottage, "have you forgotten that it is the Sabbath?"
"The sun had set behind the rounded outline of the half-cleared land before them; yet he had not left his seat at the cobbler's bench. He had forgotten; there was nothing to remind him that his day of rest had come round again. Carola brought to him his old well-worn prayer-robe and the Polish cap he had been used to wear, and set his face eastward that he might pray towards Jerusalem. But though he began his prayers in his quavering voice, he soon broke off again, and a few heavy tears stole down his furrowed cheeks."
"I've forgotten the words, Carol," he cried, lifting his shaking hand to his forehead: "it is the Sabbath, but I have forgotten how I can pray to the Lord my God."
"For a minute or two she stood beside him with her brows knit and her dark eyes looking pityingly into his saddened face. With all her might she was striving to recall the few Hebrew words she had uttered as prayers when she was a child."
"Listen!" she said; "was it this?"
Matthias smiled his gentle, pleasant smile, and repeated after her what she could remember. But she could recollect little, and again his face grew troubled.
"I am cut off from His holy temple!" he cried.
"Let me say a prayer for you," she said softly; "it was made by one who was a Jew, but I only know it in English. The Lord God will hear it in English as well as Hebrew."
"Standing beside him, her hand in his, and with her face towards Jerusalem, Carola repeated the Lord's Prayer in her sweet, clear, tender voice. The simple sentences were such as the old man's clouded mind could partly comprehend; and when she said reverently "Amen!" he joined in the familiar word."
"It is a good prayer," he said, as he laid aside his robe; "but I shall recollect my own before next Sabbath comes" (p. 191-192).
"If she might only have talked to him of Christ, and read His wonderful life aloud, the consolation of it would have been greater than anything else to her. But that name, which was literally dearer to her than any other name, could not pass her lips. To him Jesus of Nazareth was the God of the Christians, those persecutors of his people in all ages, robbers and murderers in the name of their God. He had known no Christians but the drinking, blasphemous, and vicious crew who bad driven him from his home, and whose jeers and mockings had followed him through thirty years of a just and honest and industrious life spent in their midst. Carola knew that it was worse than useless to speak to him of Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews" (p. 194-195).
"Every Friday evening it was necessary for Carola to remind him that the Sabbath had begun, and his feeble memory failed him when he tried to repeat his Hebrew prayer. But Carola stood always at his side, and when the slow tears of old age came into his eyes she was ready with her clear, quiet utterance of the Lord's Prayer. He learned the simple petitions easily, and as she said them his quavering tones joined in with hers. Even during the week she would often hear him murmuring one or two of the short sentences. His solemn, gentle voice would cry, "Thy kingdom come!" Or when her whole heart was sick and her head bewildered, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven!" came to her as a message direct from heaven. Matthias would himself brighten up and smile as he caught the sound of his own voice, and then he would turn fondly towards Carola. "That's a good prayer, my dear," he would say; "but I shall recollect my own by-and-by, before the Sabbath comes again" (p. 196-197).
"By-and-by the old man's ebbing strength did not allow him to quit his bed. This feebleness came on so gradually that there was no shock in it, either to Carola or himself. He was very old, and the complete change in his mode of life had hastened the end. But Carola did not think that the end was near; the only other old person she had known was her grandmother, who had been bed-ridden many years, and she looked without dismay on the prospect of tending Matthias for years to come. He was very peaceful and happy, lying tranquilly on his bed, and listening to her with a placid smile as she read aloud the Psalms of David the King, or the writings of the prophets of his own race. He had never possessed an English Bible, and the fragments he had learned of them in Hebrew during his schooldays and his middle life when he frequented the synagogue, had passed away from his memory. Now he heard them in his own tongue, and his heart grew full of them. It was too late for him to learn them, or to read them to himself, but Carola was always near at hand and willing to read his favourite passages over and over again, filling the old Jew's feeble mind with the music of verses, which he hardly understood, but which he would know better by-and-by."
"Oh! if you'd only let me read what I love better still!" said Carola, one day, as she turned over the leaves of her Bible, after reading the words, 'He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.'"
"Ay! read what you love best, Carola, my dear," he answered, looking fondly at her from under his shaggy grey eyebrows; "if it's good for you it'll be good for me. There's something that has made you better than any daughter of my own people that I ever knew. But you mustn't ask me to forsake the Lord God of my fathers."
"No, oh, no!" she replied fervently; "is He not the Father of us all? Only let me read to you about my Lord!"
"With eager and tremulous tones she read to him the story of the Lord's death. She had always shrunk from reading it aloud, so powerfully did it touch her; and as she went on from verse to verse the sorrow and the mystery of it grew upon her, until, when she came to the words, 'And when they had [made] a crown of thorns, they put it upon His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they bowed the knee before Him, and mocked Him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews,' she could control her faltering voice no longer, and falling down on her knees beside the old Jew's bed, she burst into a passion of tears."
"Why, my Carol! my dear!" he cried, stroking her head with his bent fingers, "do you love Him so? It's a hard thing to read that of one you love. You mustn't read any more of that to me."
"Oh, but I must!" she said, looking up at him through her tears. "You'll never know what my Lord is like till you've heard all about Him. But wasn't He 'despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief'? And listen how they crucified Him."
"Matthias listened to the end, gazing at Carola's pale and sorrow-stricken face, as she strove to make her tremulous voice clear and steady. When it was finished she closed the book with a deep-drawn sigh, and he shut his eyes, and lay for a few minutes in silent thought."
"I'm too old to remember," he said at last, "but our wise men and rabbis used to say something about all that; and I've known many Christians, too many Christians, but you are different to them, Carol, and you shall read it over again if you love it best; and the Lord my God will pardon me if I sin in this matter."
"Now Carola was free to read in the New Testament, she did so gladly, choosing such passages as she thought least likely to arouse his old prejudices, and putting for the hated name of Jesus Christ the title of 'my Lord.' It was more grateful to the old Jew's ear, for he seemed to be listening to the history of Carol's Lord, not of the Jewish impostor, whose name for many centuries had been accursed. It sounded to him like a very new and very personal narrative, as if Carola was telling him what she had herself seen and heard her Lord do and say. It was more easy to remember and ponder over in the long sleepless hours of the night than the Psalms or Prophecies; and many a time when Carola was lost to him in sleep he thought of her Lord going about healing the sick and giving sight to the blind, even raising the dead to life again and forgiving sin. And this benevolent Lord had always spoken of the Lord God Almighty as the Father in heaven. Could not he, Matthias Levi, call God Father?"
"These thoughts did not trouble him; they seemed to enfold him as a sort of sweet and tranquil atmosphere, or as a strain of melody not understood, but soothing away distress. There was another and a better Christianity than that which he had known; but he no longer thought of the past with its evil memories. The days and weeks passed peacefully and happily away; and he felt it was very good for him to lie still and be waited on by Carola."
"You'll be very lonely when I'm gone, my dear," he said one evening after she had made his bed and lifted him back into it, almost as if he was a child again.
"Yes, I shall be lonely." she answered; "only my Lord said just before He died, 'I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.' When we lose all we find Him."
"Is that in your book?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied; "and just before that He said, 'In My Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.' He is preparing a place for us, Matthias."
"If there are many mansions," he said feebly, "perhaps He'll let you and me have a little one together, Carol. I used to be afraid you were lost to me for ever."
"Oh, He couldn't let us lose one another!" she answered, smiling.
"He fell asleep smiling as she had done, and she watched beside him whilst he slept. For at last she knew that the end was very near, and the messenger of death might come at any moment. There was sadness, but no distress in her heart; she was sorrowing as those who sorrow not. His death would leave her altogether alone, but she did not dread that. There must be some place for her in the world; some footpath, however narrow and thorny, along which she could follow Christ. She sat with her eyes fastened on the furrowed face of the dying man, recalling the days when she was a child, when he had guarded her from the evil that encircled her. At last he woke again, and met her wistful gaze."
"My Carol," he murmured feebly, "I'd like to make you happy before I go away, but I'm afraid to grieve the Lord my God. If your Lord is the Messiah, He will pardon me."
"Oh, yes!" she answered eagerly, "He will pardon you."
"He closed his eyes again, and lay still for a time talking to himself in faint under-tones. Carola caught a word now and then, and knew he was murmuring in broken sentences, "And now, O man! what doth He require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"
Once, after a long pause, she heard him whisper: "'Our Father which art in heaven.' That's a good prayer, Carol." Then he lay silent, dreaming perhaps, for a smile rested on his face; but he woke up with a look of trouble and bewilderment, and spoke in a loud and urgent voice. "There's something I've forgotten," he said; "help me to remember, Carol."
"He was struggling to lift himself up, and she raised him in her arms, and laid his white head on her shoulder, speaking to him soothingly, as she would pacify a troubled child."
"Turn my face towards Jerusalem," he whispered; "then I shall remember."
"She moved him a little on the bed. The sun was setting, and through the window she could see all the long shadows stretching eastward. Then, with her cheek bent down on his wrinkled forehead, she told him he was facing the city of his forefathers, the Holy City."
"I remember," he cried, in a tone of solemn triumph; "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord!"
"Carola laid him down again on his bed, but he spoke no more. Only as she knelt by him, with his hand in hers, she felt now and then a little pressure of his fingers, growing feebler each time, until it ceased altogether; and she knew that he was gone."
"She buried him in the parish churchyard, and the same service was read over him as over her drunken grandmother. It did not occur to Carola that any other mode of burial should be found; and the clergyman of the district church knew nothing of the dead man's religion and nationality. Again she stood by the open grave as the only mourner, and looked down upon the coffin lying in its narrow bed, and listened to the solemn words, "We commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ.""
"Matthias has seen his Messiah now," she thought, as the tears ran down her pale cheeks. "God is no respecter of persons," she said to herself as she returned alone to her empty cottage, "but in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him" (pp. 209-218).
Questions to ponder:
Should we be alarmed at the similarities between Matthias' attempts to raise Carola as a Jew and the oft told Gentile fable of Jews who steal a Christian baby for their own purposes? Or is this simply a literary device that provides a parallel beginning and ending to the book? In the beginning, Matthias tries to "convert" Carola to Judaism, but she resists his efforts. In the end, Carola tries to convert Matthias to Christianity, with (apparently) equally unsuccessful results.
Does Matthias actually become a Christian in the end? I don't think so, but there is a great deal of ambiguity here.
So is Carola a conversionist novel? Or is it more accurate to say that Hesba Stretton was both an evangelical and an ecumenical pluralist? In many ways this book is quite different from most other evangelical novels involving Jews. It's well-written, for one thing. And while some themes are similar (the deathbed conversion, the child leading the old man to Christ, etc.), others are glaringly different. The spiritual ambiguity in Matthias' last hours with Carola, the recitation of the Jewish sounding Lord's Prayer, the remembrance of the Sh'ma (which of course is the "watchword" of the Jewish faith), Carola's hesitation at offending Matthias, the Christian burial, all of these combine to give us a somewhat confused picture of Matthias and his spiritual condition and his final religious affiliation. With nothing else to go on, I have to conclude that the author was communicating to her readers her own inner conflict with evangelical Christianity. Yes, she seems to be saying, Christianity is the "superior" religion. But no, sincere and faithful adherents to other religions will not go to hell. She almost seems to be echoing a tenet of Judaism: all righteous men (and women) have a place in the world to come. And if that is what Hesba Stretton is saying, then I say, Amen!