Cover image for English Origins, Jewish Discourse, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel: Reflections on a Nested Nation By Heidi Kaufman

English Origins, Jewish Discourse, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel

Reflections on a Nested Nation

Heidi Kaufman


$93.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03526-0

256 pages
6" × 9"
6 b&w illustrations

English Origins, Jewish Discourse, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel

Reflections on a Nested Nation

Heidi Kaufman

“Offers an interesting critical lens through which to view nineteenth-century fiction: Jewish discourse.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
“For we rather forget that the Christian God was a Jew,” Patrick Braybrooke facetiously claimed, “though no doubt this was a Divine mistake and the ‘nationality’ of Christ should have been English.” Taking Braybrooke’s lead, Heidi Kaufman argues that the proliferation of Jewish discourse in nineteenth-century British novels was linked to the construction of English character and English origins. The period of the eighteenth century marks a turning point in definitions of English national identity, not only because of a rise in modern racial thinking, but also because of the contradictory dimensions of Englishness that called out for resolution in novels. This study looks at some of the ways in which novels of the nineteenth century began to rewrite Jewish and Christian theological affiliations in an effort to allay the racial panic such associations posed for the nation’s newly emergent racial-religious identity. Novels were uniquely well suited to this task because of their emphasis on sequential history and character development, their increasing popularity, and their imaginative possibilities. Kaufman shows that nineteenth-century novels did not simply engender ideas about England and the English but also attempted to correct a problem that arose when the racial and theological components of national identity came into conflict with one another.

“Offers an interesting critical lens through which to view nineteenth-century fiction: Jewish discourse.”
“If critics typically identify Fagin, Deronda, and Svengali as cultural others in the normalizing worlds of fiction, Heidi Kaufman’s recent book looks beyond the most obvious literal depictions and offers a new perspective that challenges insider/outsider binaries.”

Heidi Kaufman is Assistant Professor of English and Jewish Studies at the University of Delaware.


List of Illustrations


1. Introduction: Nested Nation

2. England in Blood: Jewish Discourse in Edgeworth’s Harrington and Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge

3. Right of Return: “Zionist” Crusades in Tonna’s Judah’s Lion and Disraeli’s Tancred

4. Becoming English: (Re)Covering “Jewish” Origins in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

5. “This Inherited Blot”: Jewish Identity in Middlemarch’s English Part

6. King Solomon’s Mines? African Jewry, British Imperialism, and H. Rider Haggard’s Diamonds

Conclusion: The Connecting Thread





Nested Nation

It is a little alarming to reflect that contempt of the Jews is contempt of Christ, and if the Church is correct, contempt of God. For we rather forget that the Christian God was a Jew, though no doubt this was a Divine mistake and the “nationality” of Christ should have been English!

—Patrick Braybrooke, Some Goddesses of the Pen (1928)

In the above epigraph, Patrick Braybrooke makes two claims that may seem both obvious and surprising. First, he maintains that Jewish and English nationalities are distinct from each other. Second, he facetiously posits that Christ’s Jewish nationality was a “Divine mistake” and that Christ was supposed to be English. As a result of this mistake, English people are in the awkward position of worshipping a Jewish man who belongs to another nationality, but whose identity unites them as an Anglican nation. Braybrooke’s jesting tone in this passage helps him critique English “contempt of the Jews”; yet even more particularly it underscores the implications of this “Divine mistake” for a culture with a long history of aligning Anglicism with nationality. Strangely, Braybrooke anticipates that his readers will experience alarm when they remember that “the Christian God was a Jew.” One wonders why they would forget this basic fact or why he thinks a reminder might evoke alarm.

This book is centrally concerned with what Braybrooke perceives as a tendency among English readers to forget historical links between Jewish and Christian traditions. This study shows, first, that in fact nineteenth-century novels frequently turned to representations of the theological and historical filiation of Jewish and Christian traditions and, second, that depictions of this filiation played a profound, though often unacknowledged, role in conceptualizing English identity in this period. While Jews were frequently imagined to be racially and socially deviant (such as Fagin in Oliver Twist) or figures of ambivalence (such as the eponymous Daniel Deronda), additional forms of Jewish discourse appeared as well and, as I argue in this study, helped imagine English origins. I define Jewish discourse as a system of representations or appropriations of Jewish history, culture, and people. As a construction, Jewish discourse reflects far less about Judaism or Jewish historical subjects than about those who create and use this discourse. With this in mind, in the following chapters I examine the significance of the ways in which nineteenth-century novels drew English identity or England’s past from imagined Jewish sources.

Neither complete cultural insiders within England’s national boundaries nor colonial others, nineteenth-century English Jews do not fit neatly into the study of the novel’s role in imagining national identity. Jewish discourse is central to such discussions, however, not only because of the political issues raised by the presence of Jewish people living in the British Isles and British colonies in the nineteenth century, but because of the sheer abundance of Jewish discourse in novels from this period. Indeed, almost every major nineteenth-century novelist, and many minor ones as well, wrote novels in which Jewish characters or history figured prominently. While this profusion of Jewish discourse might be read as a reflection of developments in Anglo-Jewish history, I suggest that it also stems from changes in the way English national identity came to be understood in this period. In defiance of F. R. Leavis’s instruction to readers of Daniel Deronda that they should sever the Jewish part from the English part, I maintain that we have far more to gain by reading Jewish and English discourses exactly as they appeared in their nineteenth-century contexts—as intertwined and overlapping. Such an approach can help us understand how these novels containing various “parts,” as Leavis puts it, shaped cultures that were not Jewish but had something to gain by imagining their own history and culture as emerging from or intertwined with a Jewish past.

Since the 1970s, scholars such as Benedict Anderson and Homi Bhabha have examined relations between nation formation and the social and political role of novels. Anderson maintains that the idea of nation was imagined through newspapers and novels, or print capitalism, which provided “the technical means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation.” Along these lines, novels helped produce, in various and sometimes conflicting ways, ideas about English national identity; in the process, novels modeled ways of integrating racial, cultural, ethnic, and religious differences within the discourse of the nation. In the wake of Anderson’s work, critical conversations have focused on the legacy of novels and nations alongside Britain’s imperial history. For example, in Reaches of Empire and Culture and Imperialism Suvendrini Perera and Edward W. Said, respectively, argue that novels not only helped imagine nations but also played a significant role in the maintenance and proliferation of imperial ideologies. Perera notes that “not only [would] the novel . . . be a different form without empire, but . . . empire is unimaginable in its particular form without its processing and legitimization in the novel.” As the boundaries of Britain continued to expand through the nineteenth century, as populations of English people became increasingly diverse, and as definitions and parameters of English identity were subject to and catalysts of cultural production and flux, British novels turned to Jewish discourse in their reflections on England’s past. Certainly, imperial ideologies played an impressive role in the creation and articulation of the nation; they were often sustained, however, by the related deployment of a Jewish discourse.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, English national identity was defined as more than just a geographical designation; it also assumed a host of other identifying marks, one of which was racial. In 1790, when Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France, he was able to claim that English liberties are part of an “entailed inheritance, derived to us from our forefathers.” This very language of inheritance, of descent or familial connections among citizens, came to dominate the discourse of nation. Hannah Arendt later noted that “the concept of inheritance, applied to the very nature of liberty,” functioned as “the ideological basis from which English nationalism received its curious touch of race-feeling ever since the French Revolution.” In the following chapters I seek a fuller understanding of the roots and effects of these forces, which, as David Theo Goldberg puts it, led “race and nation [to act] as signifying intersecting discourses” in the nineteenth century.

Over the past few decades critical discussions of race and nineteenth-century novels typically pursue one of two trajectories. In the first case they examine imperial ideologies or colonial scenes included in British fiction. Such studies by Anne McClintock, Deirdre David, Patrick Brantlinger, Laura Chrisman, and numerous others have opened up important spaces for thinking about the intersections of imperialism and literary culture. A second trajectory, developed notably in work by Gayatri Spivak, Susan Meyer, and Elsie Michie, analyzes characters that, in some way and for a variety of reasons, are depicted as nonwhite within their fictional contexts. Both critical fields are alike in their focus on nineteenth-century constructions of race and empire, which fall into one of three categories: (1) characters/people imagined to be white/English/Western/Occidentalized/insiders; (2) characters/people imagined to be black/non-English/Eastern/Orientalized/outsiders; (3) characters/people imagined to be mixed because they draw something from each of the two previous categories. Where such categorizing practices leave Jewish characters in nineteenth-century fiction has been the subject of a number of important studies, including those by Michael Ragussis, Bryan Cheyette, Carol Margaret Davison, Jonathan Freedman, and Gauri Viswanathan. Despite their strengths, these critical approaches have left little room for examining varieties within any single grouping, nor have they created opportunities for addressing points of overlap among these categories or groups. I therefore proceed from Jennifer DeVere Brody’s observation that “purity is impossible and, in fact, every mention of the related term, hybrid, only confirms a strategic taxonomy that constructs purity as a prior (fictive) ground.”

My concern in this study relates to the representation of English national identity as multidimensional not just because of the presence of immigrants living in England, not only because of colonialism and imperial expansion outside of England, and not just because of the colonization of non-English territories and people within the British Isles, but because constructions of English identity were often drawn from imagined Jewish sources that undermined the logic or possibility of a racially homogeneous nation. Robert Young has noted that “for the past few centuries Englishness has often been constructed as a heterogeneous, conflictual composite of contrary elements.” Although Young makes an important point that the existence of race suggests inaccurately that discrete racial categories precede racial knowledge, his argument about hybridity remains grounded in a process whereby essentially different groups blend into one. As he explains, “hybridity is a making one of two distinct things, so that it becomes impossible for the eye to detect the hybridity of a geranium or a rose” (26). Described this way, Young’s hybridity is conceptually different from my identification of overlapping identities.

The following chapters open up new ways of viewing the perception of England as an absolute or internally cohesive category. I emphasize some of the paradoxical ways in which the discourse of non-English identities are put into the service of making Englishness seem uninfiltrated or pure. In the process I hope to rejuvenate discussions of race and the nineteenth-century novel by underscoring the significance of the fact that as a racial category whiteness did not include all white-skinned people in this period. Moreover, British racial ideologies in the nineteenth century were inseparable from religious history because they so often evoked Christianity’s affiliation with Judaism. Novels may work to make us see the world as split into geographic or national entities, such as those Said illuminates in his discussion of East and West, or Orient and Occident, in Orientalism. In contrast, the following chapters elucidate a reverse phenomenon: I show that English identity was imagined as an amalgamation of many identities, not just because it was offset or filtered through a discourse of the other, as Said has suggested, but because it was imagined as having sprung from or absorbed Jewish history and culture as a portion of itself. For this reason, the version of England that appeared in nineteenth-century novels was more than just a political, religious, or geographical construction; it was also, I argue, presented as a racial nation with a Jewish past. This is therefore a study of English characters in nineteenth-century novels that are created by overlapping or cumulative identities (white, Anglican, Jewish, and English) rather than by forms of ambivalence (white or black, insider or outsider, West or East, Christian or Jew).

To be clear, my claim that English identity was produced out of a Jewish discourse does not mean that English characters were covert or converted Jews. In this study I make two different points altogether. First, I show that nineteenth-century British novels deployed a Jewish discourse to imagine English supremacy and chosen-ness—an act that, despite its troubling logic, played a powerful role in underwriting racial and imperial ideologies. Second, the filiation of Jewish and Christian religious traditions that Jewish discourse flaunted became a problem once English identity began to be imagined as having a racial dimension. In the following chapters I emphasize both the importance within Christian culture of a discourse of filiation linking Jewish and Christian histories, as well as the threat this filiation posed to evolving conceptions of an English race and a racial nation.

For the sake of clarity, I have organized the following discussion into smaller, more focused sections. I proceed in the next section, “Religious Nation,” by analyzing the tangled religious histories of Jewish and Christian traditions. From there I move onto “Racial Nation,” which examines the cultural development of racial thinking through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and in particular traces the evolution of the way Jewish and English identities were imagined to be racialized during this period. The third section, “Nested Nation,” brings together the previous frameworks—one theological and the other cultural—to explain how and why Englishness became a nested category by the early decades of the nineteenth century. And in the final section, “England and Jewish Discourse,” I situate this study within the fields of nineteenth-century studies and Jewish cultural studies.

Also of Interest

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.