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Charles Dickens’s Anti-Semitism

Cecil Bloom
May 23, 2016

How a Jewish Woman Helped Set Him Straight

by Cecil Bloom

From the Spring 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

DickensJOINTLY WITH Shakespeare’s Shylock, Charles Dickens’s Fagin is probably the best-known Jewish character in English literature — and perhaps also the most repellent. Fagin’s portrayal, in Oliver Twist, as “a very old shrivelled Jew whose villainous looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted old hair” has shined a spotlight on Dickens’s attitude towards Jews and on the effect his second novel may have had on the British people’s attitude towards Jews.

Oliver Twist, Dickens’s second novel, appeared serially between 1837 and ’39. It referred to the odious, criminal Fagin as “the Jew” more than 250 times in its first thirty-eight chapters. Yet by the mid-1860s, Dickens was repentant enough to suspend republication of the novel and edit its later chapters (while the first thirty-eight, already set in type, went unchanged). The great author’s action was provoked by a Jewish woman’s protest, as we shall describe shortly.

Dickens edited Bentley’s Miscellany for some three years, and Oliver Twist began life in the publication’s second number. In Chapter 8, Oliver meets “a very old shrivelled Jew,” but the name of Fagin is first mentioned when the Artful Dodger asks, “Is Fagin upstairs?” Chapter 9 is headed “The pleasant old gentleman,” but Fagin is referred to as a Jew twenty-nine times, by his actual name only three.

To what extent is he depicted as a Jew? He loves sausages (unlikely to be kosher), and the only instance in the whole novel that relates to his Judaism is when he is visited on the eve of his execution by “venerable men of his own persuasion” who come to pray beside him, “but he had driven them away with curses. They renewed their charitable efforts and he beat them off.” It is of interest to note the reverence Dickens accorded to these “venerable men.”

FaginBiographer Edgar Johnson writes that “Fagin is clearly delineated as not a Jew by religion,” and

has no monstrous bulge of nose, no weird or frenzied gestures, no strange Hebraic idioms, not even the lisp or accent of the stage Jew.... Oliver Twist had expressed no sentiments against the Jews as a people, and there was nothing in the delineation of Fagin any more representative of them than Squeers was of men with only one eye or Uriah Heep of men with red hair.

ONE MIGHT HAVE expected the Jews in England to be concerned at the manner in which Dickens portrayed Fagin in his very popular novel, but this does not appear to have been the case. The Jewish Chronicle first appeared in London in 1841, but only in 1854 did the paper finally ask why “Jews alone should be excluded from ‘the sympathizing heart’ of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed.”

Yet even before writing Oliver Twist, Dickens had presented Jews in an unflattering manner. The Jews in Sketches by Boz (1836-7) are old-clothes dealers, costume suppliers, sheriff’s officers, sponging house proprietors, and the like; Mr. Nathan, a costume supplier, is a “red-headed and red-whiskered Jew.” In Chapter 1, a London coach office was said to hold “the usual crowd of Jews and non-descripts,” while in Chapter 6, although Dickens showed affection for Monmouth Street as “the only true and real emporium for second-hand wearing apparel,” the “red headed and red-whiskered Jews” of Holywell Street are despised because they “forcibly haul you into their squalid houses and thrust you into a suit of clothes whether you will or not.”

Pickwick Papers (1837) has Mr. Pickwick mentioning gratuitously that one of the “principal productions” of the towns of Stroud, Rochester, Chatham and Brompton are Jews. There is also Mr. Solomon Pell, an attorney; his kind, writes Dickens, is “generally a youth of the Jewish persuasion,” and Pell himself has a nose that was “all on one side.”

The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1) has Quilp saying, “He’s richer than any Jew.” In Barnaby Rudge (1841), when Gashford thinks of Jews, he thinks of money and beards. Montagu Tigg in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4) refers to a pawnbroker needing to “weigh out his pound of flesh,” and in Dombey and Son (1846-8), a Jew of “Mosaic Arabian cast of countenance” is both vulgar and insolent. Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield (1849-50) refers to bills as “a convenience to the mercantile world for which I believe we are originally indebted to the Jews who appear to me to have a devilish deal too much to do with them ever since.” In Hard Times (1854), the Powler family were often the victims of “Hebrew monetary transactions.” In Great Expectations (1860-1), Abraham Lazarus is depicted as a lisping man who believes money can buy anything.

A number of Dickens’s short stories also clearly show anti-Jewish sentiment. “Bonomye the Usurer,” published in Bentley’s Miscellany, tells of a heartless medieval Jewish moneylender with the “strongly-marked features of his race” who “wears a sinister expression” and sells himself to the devil. He is a “merciless creditor” who “hated a Christian, never renewed a loan and never abated one farthing of his due.” Another story, “The Professor of Toledo,” is set in the Middle Ages and contains a repellent Jewish money-lender, Mordecai, whose daughter converts to Christianity. She is about to be married when fifty Jews led by Mordecai enter the cathedral and try to take her away. They are massacred by the congregation.

From 1850 onwards, Dickens published two popular weekly periodicals, Household Words (1850-59) and All the Year Round (1859-70). In both, he seems to have been obsessed with the manner in which Jews dressed and in their trade of selling clothes. Most but not all references to Jews were couched in disparaging terms, while nevertheless providing an historically useful account of Jews and Jewish life at the time.

In an article entitled “Old Clothes!” Dickens asks why Jews in London seem to have a monopoly in dealing in old clothes. Why should their voices (and theirs alone) be employed in “the constant iteration of the talismanic monosyllables ‘Old Clo’?” he wrote. “Is it because Judas carried the bag [of silver] that all the children of Israel were to trudge through London streets from morn to eve with sack on shoulder?”

On another occasion he writes of seeing Jews with “clever sensual, crafty countenance containing the epitome of the whole Hebrew history show off their jewellery and their flashy dress,” and he cautions about being aware of young thieves who could be seen everywhere. In another article he takes as his theme “the public life of Israel” and notes “the distinctive characteristics of that curious race.” Here he describes the heart of Jewish London, which included the Bevis Marks synagogue, and the little streets that were full of life: Jewish clothes-men returning from work at midday and going straight to a bar, which they crowded also in the evening, making bets on horses and dogs; cribbage games played for small sums of money; coffee shops where the young played draughts and dominoes and their elders cards and bagatelle while singing songs and smoking cigars. There is a Jewish dealer in gold and silver who displays little of value in his shop window but has “the wealth of the Indies inside, somewhere”; a scribe who writes love letters as well as contracts and agreements; and the Bag o’ Rags bar, where Miss Leah, “a damsel of distracting beauty,” is in charge of the refreshments.

One old man who from his dress and looks appears penniless produces dazzling bracelets and rings from his greasy overcoat; another sells hummingbirds; another, loose diamonds from his dirty pocket.

Other essays describe the dirty ways, thieving tendencies, and lisping accents of Jews, along with Jewish “mammas” who are obese and averse to using soap and water. In one piece, he refers to a situation in which he wanted to borrow money and was offered a loan at an outrageous interest rate of 120 percent by a Jew of “decidedly Israelite caste of countenance” who “imitated English dress and manners.” This man told Dickens that his God was Mammon, that he worked a hard as any gentile on his Sabbath day and lamented not being able to do business on Sundays.

Yet Dickens also showed sympathy about Jewish poverty and suffering. In Pictures from Italy (1846), he describes a

little town of miserable houses walled and shut in by barred gates... where the Jews are locked up nightly when the clock strikes eight — a miserable place densely populated and reeking with bad odours but where the people are industrious and money-getting. In the day-time as you make your way along the narrow streets you see them all at work: upon the pavement oftener than in their dark and frouzy shops: furbishing old clothes and driving bargains.

In A Child’s History of England (1851-3), he describes “a dreadful murdering of the Jews” on the coronation day of Richard I, a slaughter “which seems to have given great delight to numbers of savage persons calling themselves Christians....”

I am sorry to add that in (Edward I’s) reign they were most unmercifully pillaged. They were hanged in great numbers on accusations of having clipped the King’s coin — which all kinds of people had done. They were heavily taxed, they were disgracefully badged... Finally every kind of property belonging to them was seized by the King except so little as would defray the charge of their taking themselves away into foreign countries. Many years elapsed before the hope of gain induced any of their race to return to England where they had been treated so heartlessly and had suffered so much.

IN THE SEVEN YEARS before his death in 1870, Dickens’s attitude towards Jewry clearly shifted. When he left London for Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, a Jewish banker, James P. Davis, and his family took possession of his house in Tavistock Square. In 1863, Davis’s wife Eliza wrote to Dickens soon after moving into her new home, to ask for a donation for a convalescent home for the Jewish poor that was being created in memory of Sir Moses Montefiore’s wife Judith. Although Oliver Twist had been written some twenty-five years earlier, she used the occasion to express her concern about Fagin. “It has been said,” she wrote, “that Charles Dickens, the large hearted, whose works plead so eloquently and so nobly for the oppressed of his country, and who may justly claim credit [for], as the fruits of his labour, the many changes for the amelioration of the condition [of the] poor now at work, has encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew... Fagin, I fear, admits only of one interpretation,” she noted, but Dickens could “justify himself or atone for a great wrong on a whole though scattered nation” by making a contribution to the Judith Montefiore Memorial Fund.

Dickens apologized for taking eighteen days to reply to her letter. He enclosed a small donation and he went on to deny any anti-Jewish sentiments, explaining to her that he called Fagin a Jew not because of his religion but because of his race, and that “it unfortunately was true of the time to which that story refers, that that class of criminal invariably was a Jew.” Dickens further wrote that had he described a Frenchman or a Spaniard as “the Roman Catholic” he would have been doing a “very indecent and unjustifiable thing.” He would, however, depict any “Chinaman” as “Chinese.”

Eliza Davis replied by telling him that the Jewish race and religion were inseparable, and that although she did not dispute that some receivers of stolen goods were Jews, it had to be accepted that others were Christians. Yet there were good Christians in his novels, she noted, while the wretched Fagin stood alone as a Jew. She went on to compliment Sir Walter Scott and Mrs. S. C. Hall (Anna Marie Hall) for their favourable portraits of Jews in their novels, although she accepted that Isaac of York in Ivanhoe “was not all virtue.”

Sixteen months later, in November 1864, she wrote again to thank Dickens for his portrayal of the Jew Riah in Our Mutual Friend, which was then being serialized. He had paid a great compliment to Jews in his portrayal of Riah, she said, but she also drew attention to some misunderstandings regarding Jewish customs expressed in the story. Dickens quickly replied, expressing the hope that he could be “the best of friends with the Jewish people.”

Three years later, Davis wrote again to Dickens and enclosed some volumes of Hebrew Scripture in English translation, with an inscription that read: “Presented to Charles Dickens Esq. in grateful and admiring recognition of his having exercised the noblest quality man can possess; that of atoning for an injury as soon as conscious of having inflicted it, by a Jewess.”

Dickens replied to thank her for the gift and added, “there is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard, and to whom I would not wilfully have given an offence or done an injustice for any worldly consideration.”

By then he had written of the Jews, in All the Year Round (1866), a weekly literary magazine he owned, as

an earnest, methodical, aspiring people... There is an innate feeling of pride in the race, which inspires even the humblest rag-gatherer with a desire to reach a higher sphere. They are sober and self-denying, prudent and careful... Their ceremonial law teaches what we polite Christians call etiquette to the commonest man of the tribe. They are a people who wash their hands and anoint their heads, and pay respect to times and seasons and observances. The character of Jews has too long been wronged by Christian communities.

As for Mr. Riah, quitting his role as a moneylender in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’s last completed novel (1864-5), he voices a new awareness about the workings of anti-Semitism:

[I]t is not in Christian countries with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say “This is a bad Greek but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk but there are good Turks.” Not so with the Jews. 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.”

Observant, poor, and benevolent, Riah is described as “an old Jewish man in an ancient coat, long of skirt and wide of pocket: a venerable man, bald and shining at the top of his head and with long grey hair flowing down at the sides and mingling with his beard.” Dickens’s attitude towards Riah is respectful throughout (although he sometimes refers to Riah as “the Jew” when he could have simply used his name). Lizzie Hexam, a character in the novel, says that there cannot be kinder people in the world than Riah and the other Jews to whom he introduces her.

CLEARLY, ELIZA DAVIS’S entreaties prompted Dickens to make modifications to Oliver Twist in the 1867-8 edition of his works. Starting with Chapter 39, he removed scores of references to Fagin as “the Jew” and instead called him by his name or “he.” The title of Chapter 52 was also changed to remove the description of Fagin being a Jew, and there was only one reference to “the Jew” in the whole chapter, although Fagin was invoked eleven times. Fagin’s “racial” characteristics were also subdued.

Dickens also made changes to the account of Fagin’s last night in the final chapter. Originally it was entitled, “The Jew’s Last Night Alive,” during which “all looks were fixed on one man — the Jew.” He replaced the latter with “Fagin.”

Yet at the time of his sale of Tavisstock House to Eliza Davis’s husband, Dickens had written to a friend: “if the Jew Money-lender buys (I say ‘if’ because of course I shall never believe him until he has paid the money)...” Following the sale, he did an about-face in a letter to the same friend: “Mrs. Davis appears to be a very kind and agreeable woman. And I have never had any money transaction with any one, more promptly, fairly, and considerately conducted than the purchase of Tavistock House has been.” By thus praising Eliza Davis, Dickens “overcomes the thrown-off comments he had made,” writes Murray Baumgarten in the Dickens Quarterly. “Obtuse and unthinking, they derive from the lurking anti-Semitism and fear-ridden Jewish stereotyping of his era and culture.”

Even after Eliza Davis’s influence took effect, Dickens would betray his goodwill, as in the aforementioned 1866 article in All the Year Round, which showed Jews as “an earnest, methodical, aspiring people,” but added that while they may not love the mud in which they live, they want to dredge gold out of it. Nevertheless, Dickens wrote, the character of Jews had been for too long wronged by Christian communities, and Jewish life in Whitechapel was superior to Christian life in Lambeth. The working man benefited from association with his Jewish neighbors, he suggested, and a Jewish theater licensed by the Lord Chamberlain impressed him, especially its very well-behaved audience.

DICKENS DEFENDED himself against anti-Semitism long before his correspondence with Eliza Davis: In April 1854, in declining to attend an anniversary dinner at the Westminster Jews’ Free School, he wrote, “I know of no reason that the Jews can have for regarding me as ‘inimical’ to them. On the contrary, I believe I do my part whenever I can towards the assertion of civil and religious liberty: and in the Child’s History of England I have expressed a strong abhorrence of their persecution in old times. If they have any unreasonable fancy on the subject, I regret it; but the fault is in them, not me.” The Jewish Chronicle took it upon itself to publish this statement.

Yet 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.”

Curiously, the journal published excerpts from the Davis-Dickens correspondence without mentioning Eliza Davis as the Jewish woman who had helped to change the great novelist’s thinking.

Cecil Bloom, who lives in England, is the retired technical director of a multinational pharmaceutical corporation. He now spends much of his time researching and writing on Jewish history, music and literature. A number of his articles have appeared in Midstream and in publications in the UK, Israel, South Africa, and Australia.