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Charles Dickens and the Jews

Lawrence Bush
June 8, 2017

Charles Dickens, one of the 19th century’s greatest novelists, died at the age of 58 on this date in 1870. Dickens had a complicated relationship with Jews in Great Britain. On the one hand, he created one of the most hateful Jewish characters in literary history, Oliver Twist’s Fagin (“a very old shrivelled Jew whose villainous looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted old hair”), as well as unflattering portraits of London Jews in The Pickwick Papers, Sketches by Boz, and other writings. However, when a Jewish woman, Eliza Davis, who bought Dickens’ Tavistock Square house, chastised him, “whose works plead so eloquently and so nobly for the oppressed of his country,” for “encourag[ing] a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew,” Dickens denied having anti-Jewish feelings and then went on to create the highly sympathetic Jewish character Riah in Our Mutual Friend, to alter some of the language in reprints of Oliver Twist, and to reckon more honestly with the run-of-the-mill antisemitism of his day. To read about the details of Dickens’ encounter with Eliza Davis, click here.

“The fact remains that many of the references to Jews in Dickens’s fiction and essays are unflattering, and very few are complimentary. The Jewish Chronicle was nevertheless generous to him in an appreciation after his death, stating that he would be mourned and ‘every year will intensify and quicken our bereavement.’ The obituary added that ‘a Jewish journal should provide some recognition of the generous spirit of him who because in the very early days of his life and writings he had touched the Jewish character with a somewhat rough and undeserved severity in the unreal character of Fagin. He made amends in his wiser more chastened days by the beautiful if equally unreal character of Riah.’ ” —Cecil Bloom, Jewish Currents

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.