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Charles Dickens: A friend of the Jews?

A 1912 Yiddish newspaper article tried to simplify Charles Dickens’ relationship with the Jews. The real story is messier, but far more interesting.

Was the famous English Victorian novelist Charles Dickens (1812-70) a friend of the Jews?

In 1912, the London-based journalist and editor Morris Meyer wrote a series of articles about Dickens. This was published in the intellectually leaning New York Yiddish paper, Di Varhayt, to mark the centennial of Dickens’ birth. In his final installment, Meyer considered the question of Dickens and the Jews. Anyone who has read Oliver Twist, with its infamous Jewish villain Fagin, knows that a Jewish publication couldn’t avoid discussing this issue. Along with Shakespeare’s Shylock from The Merchant of Venice, Fagin is the most notoriously anti-Jewish character in classic European literature. So it’s surprising that Meyer, writing in Yiddish for a Jewish audience, titled his article: “Dickens’ Friendship toward the Jewish People.”

In literature, Jews were often portrayed as either vile or impossibly perfect

Meyer’s article contrasted the only two major Jewish characters in all of Dickens’ works. On the one hand was the devilish Fagin — who was certainly familiar to Meyer’s readers. But then there was the virtuous Riah from Dickens’ last novel, Our Mutual Friend, who was probably not as well known. Few people today know who Riah is either.

Meyer noted that neither character was a fully realized human being. He pointed out that all too often in world literature, Jews have been portrayed either as uniquely vile or impossibly perfect. A Jew who was simply a human being, with virtues and faults like anyone else, was rarely encountered.

The first part of Meyer’s article was a hard-hitting examination of the antisemitic assumptions behind Fagin. He argued that Fagin was a much more sinister character than Shylock, who was morally corrupted because of enduring so many injustices. Dickens offered no such mitigation for Fagin: This character was simply evil. And he was evil in explicitly antisemitic ways.

How Dickens portrayed the evil Jewish character, Fagin

He lived by crime, specifically theft. But he was also a coward who wouldn’t risk his own neck. Instead he was a “fence,” a receiver of stolen goods, who manipulated others — mainly young Christian boys — into stealing for him. (Although Meyer didn’t say this, those boys seem like stand-ins for Christian children whom Jews supposedly killed for their blood. This was especially true considering that very young thieves in London could be hanged).

Fagin was also a miser who lived in squalor, gloating secretly over his wealth. He addressed his boys as “my dear,” but beat them viciously if they threatened his own safety or failed to steal enough. In addition, he deliberately provoked the brutal murder of good-hearted prostitute Nancy when he feared she might betray him. He conspired (unsuccessfully) to have the title character — innocent little Oliver — killed for money.

Meyer didn’t mention (spoiler ahead) that Fagin was hanged at the end of the story. But he might have agreed that readers were meant to breathe a sigh of relief that this embodiment of (supposed) Jewish cruelty, cowardice and exploitation was gone.

In his last novel, Dickens portrayed a very righteous Jewish character

Meyer didn’t discuss the fact that anti-Jewish references appeared in other Dickens’ works as well. In 1838, two wildly antisemitic stories were printed anonymously in a magazine called Bentley’s Miscellany while Dickens was its editor. He likely didn’t write the stories himself, but he approved them for publication. His own Sketches by Boz, Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Hard Times and Great Expectations (among others) all dropped casual references to Jewish money grubbing and dishonesty. Fagin wasn’t created in a vacuum.

In the second part of his article, Meyer shifted focus to Riah, the righteous Jew from Our Mutual Friend, written 30 years after Oliver Twist. Riah was the diametric opposite of Fagin. He worked as a moneylender, but not by choice. He was entrapped by an unscrupulous Christian who saw the chance to hide behind the sinister reputation of the Jews.

The novel’s Christian characters defended Riah as an upstanding man

Riah lamented the harm his unwanted profession did to the reputation of fellow Jews.

“I reflected…that in bending my neck to the yoke [by charging interest on a loan on behalf of his employer], I bent the unwilling necks of the whole Jewish people. For it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples…Men find the bad among us easily enough — among what peoples are the bad not easily found? — but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say ‘All Jews are alike.’”

When Riah acted freely as a private individual, he was noble and generous. The novel’s most virtuous Christian characters were his friends, and defended him as an upstanding man who never tried to convert them to his own faith (one of the main English fears about Jews). Several of the characters found happiness thanks to Riah’s steadfast love and help.

Fagin should be seen as an isolated individual, not as a symbol for the Jews

Meyer was right to point out the remarkable contrast between Fagin and Riah. But he then claimed that because Dickens depicted Riah as a representative of the Jewish people — who participated in Jewish rituals and talked about the Jewish experience as a whole, as seen in the quote above — Riah expressed Dickens’ “true” (that is to say, positive) view of the Jews, the view he had always held even in the 1830s when he wrote Oliver Twist. Meyer argued that Fagin should be understood as an isolated individual — the bad apple in the barrel — and not as a symbol of his religious or ethnic group.

But Meyer’s own description of the ugly antisemitic stereotypes behind Fagin are very hard to square with this claim. It’s true that Fagin was never seen engaging in Jewish rituals or speaking about his identity as a Jew like Riah did. Nevertheless, Fagin was repeatedly — even insistently — referred to as “the Jew.” All his personal traits and actions were shaped by age-old hostile beliefs about Jews. Meyer knew this, having just described it eloquently. Presumably his admiration for Dickens as an artist made him over-eager to paint him as a staunch and consistent Jewish ally.

Dickens as a flawed man who tried to grapple with the antisemitism of his society

Apparently Meyer either didn’t know about or chose to ignore the most interesting part of the story about Fagin and Riah. The real story shows Dickens not as an awkwardly whitewashed “friend of the Jews,” but as a flawed man who tried — with mixed success — to grapple with the antisemitism that permeated his society.

In 1863, nearly 30 years after Oliver Twist, Dickens received a letter from Eliza Davis, the Jewish wife of a London banker, about the terrible harm that the character of Fagin had done to the reputation of English Jews. The reasons Davis wrote to Dickens at this time aren’t entirely clear; maybe the issue had been on her mind since her husband had purchased a house from the author in 1860 (at which time Dickens had referred to her husband in a letter to someone else as “the Jew Money-Lender,” though he later expressed pleasant surprise at his honesty).

Dickens was taken aback by Davis’ criticism of the Fagin character

Davis may also have been emboldened by the times: five years earlier, in 1858, the Jews Relief Act had finally dropped the explicitly Christian oath of office which had prevented Jews from becoming members of Parliament (an important part of the long process of Jewish emancipation in England, which was not fully complete until 1890).

Dickens was taken aback by Davis’ gracious yet pointed critique of Fagin, but nonetheless defended himself. He said that he felt nothing but respect for the Jews and that he had simply told the truth. Almost all “fences” in London during the 1830s, when the novel was written, were Jewish.

Dickens wasn’t wrong. Many receivers of stolen goods in London in the earlier 19th century were indeed Jewish. Due to systemic antisemitism they were barred from more honorable professions. In addition, poverty led them into a “career” of criminal receiving, and other menial trades like buying and selling secondhand clothes and street hawking.

Dickens apparently never thought that Fagin’s awful traits might harm the Jews

But when Dickens created Fagin in the 1830s, he never suggested that the villain was in this line of work because he had no choice. And of course Fagin’s role as a “fence” was only one of many issues with the character. Given that Dickens was startled by the criticism in 1863, he had presumably never thought about whether Fagin’s nearly inhuman dishonesty, scheming and selfishness might do harm to the Jews. Antisemitic beliefs were so deeply ingrained in English society that people didn’t even realize they held them. Clearly Davis’ letter did affect Dickens’ perspective on the Jews: The very next year he began to create the character of Riah.

In early 1867, Davis sent Dickens a Hebrew Bible to thank him for creating a Jewish character as positive as Riah. Later that same year, when Oliver Twist was being reprinted, Dickens made a further effort to remedy the harm caused by Fagin. Partway through the printing, he decided to remove the word “Jew” from the chapters that had not yet been typeset. Fagin was called “the Jew” over 250 times in chapters 1-38, but from chapter 39 to the end he was mainly referred to either by name or as “the old man” (a few scattered uses of “Jew” were still present, presumably by oversight). The contrast to earlier editions, where Fagin was called “the Jew” something like 400 times, was noteworthy.

At public readings Dickens stopped using a nasal voice when performing Fagin

Toward the very end of his life (he died in 1870 at only 58), Dickens made another interesting adjustment. Beginning in 1853, he had become wildly popular as a public reader of his own works. Critics believe that the strain of these frequent “performances,” where he acted out all his characters with distinctive voices and gestures before enormous crowds, may have contributed to his early death. At one of his last public readings in 1869 he stopped using a nasal whine and a shrug of the shoulders (apparently considered a Jewish gesture) when performing Fagin. It took him four years after creating Riah to make this change. But given that his audiences likely wanted and expected Fagin to be as grotesque as possible, he deserves credit for deliberately “disappointing” them.

Clearly Dickens did think — apparently deeply — about antisemitism during the 1860s. But ironically, his creation of Riah as the anti-Fagin was destined to fall flat: Fagin is vastly better known today than Riah. Dickens failed in part because of his own genius for vividly memorable antiheroes. His most enduring characters are his eccentrics and villains, while his paragons of virtue are often forgotten.

Well-balanced human characters can combat prejudice better than implausible saints.

To top it off, few of his villains are as memorable as Fagin is or cast such a long and dark shadow. But Dickens didn’t only create extremes of vice or virtue. Especially in his later novels, he was capable of portraying believable three-dimensional human beings. Our Mutual Friend has several such characters who are neither bad nor good, but rather struggling to understand and improve themselves. Well-rounded, credible human beings are far more powerful weapons for combating prejudice than implausible saints. If Dickens had made one of his imperfect, thoroughly human characters a Jew, then he would indeed have proved his friendship for the Jewish people.

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