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Fictions of Englishness and Jewishness 1800-1900

ENGL 255.401
instructor(s):
fulfills requirements:
Sector 2: Difference and Diaspora of the Standard Major
Sector 5: 19th Century Literature of the Standard Major

What do Jack the Ripper, Oliver Twist, the Religious Tract Society, mesmerism, and the
Boer War have in common? All—chosen from a surprisingly long list of examples from
Victorian culture—are linked to Jewishness. This course will investigate such examples and
what they reveal about Victorian views not only of Jewishness but also of Englishness. To do so,
we will pair close readings of nineteenth-century novels, as well as scientific, political, and
religious texts, with recent scholarship from Victorian, Postcolonial, and Jewish studies. At the
heart of these nineteenth-century works is a profound uncertainty about whether Jewishness and
Englishness were identities defined by race, religion, culture, or territory. This uncertainty is
especially evident in the plots of conversion, whether religious or national conversion, employed
by so much fiction of the period. In different ways, novels like Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington,
Osborn Heighway’s Leila Ada: The Jewish Convert, and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda debate
whether Jewish characters can and should become more English: can Englishness be learned in
school or consumed through cultural products, from cheddar cheese to Charles Dickens? Or must
it be inherited?  

Yet we will also examine how Victorian fiction, including Daniel Deronda, debates
whether English culture could and should become more Jewish. Might England need what
George Du Maurier’s Trilby calls a “priceless…homeopathic dose” of Jewish blood?  Finally, we
will look at some Anglo-Jewish writers’ responses to these questions, including ones that are
entwined with imperialism. Ultimately, how do such diverse representations of Jewishness
illuminate both novels and nationality in the Victorian period—and our own?