Given how much time I've spent castigating GoogleBooks for various malfeasances, it's important to give props where props are due--and so, let me say that as someone thinking about teaching a course on Judaism and nineteenth-century British culture, I was really pleased to see Benjamin Farjeon's Aaron the Jew (3 vols., 1894) show up in full text. Aaron the Jew is, among other things, an anti-conversion novel, but it's of a startling sort. The plot hinges on a baby switch. (No, that's not why it's startling.) To avoid financial disaster, Aaron Cohen, an Orthodox Jew, agrees to raise a Christian child born out of wedlock. (The mother had been forced to give the baby up as part of a deal with a would-be husband. It's a sign of the Victorian times that the novel is not only sympathetic to the mother, but eventually lets her prosper.) But Aaron's own child, born at nearly the same time, dies suddenly, and fearing that the shock could kill his wife, Aaron passes off the baby girl as their own. (Mrs. Cohen is blind, which enables the switch.) Flash forward many years. The girl in question, Ruth, has been raised as a Jew...but refuses to embrace the faith. Here's where the startling part comes in:
Ruth's instincts were in her blood, transmitted by parents whom he had never known, and of whose characters he was ignorant. Heredity lay at the root of this domestic misery. As a rule, vices, virtues, and all classes of the affections are hereditary, and the religious sentiments are not an exception. Aaron had studied the subject, and was conscious of the solemn issues dependent upon it. (285)
Throughout the novel, Farjeon insists that nature, not nurture, prevents Jews from converting to Christianity, and Christians from converting to Judaism. Ruth's unwillingness to learn Hebrew, for example, is not intellectual incapacity ("[a] parrot might have learned as much" ), but a by-product of what amounts to a religious immune system. Moreover, Ruth only reveals true affection for her parents at the very end of the novel, after she runs away and marries the (Christian) son of a peer: she decorates a house for them with "what was most precious to you and your dear wife" (407). In other words, Ruth finally achieves true sympathy with her adoptive parents only after her mind has returned to its predetermined religious path.
Farjeon's argument would have amazed/appalled quite a lot of Victorian Christians, not least because it pretty much leaves the entire missionary project wrecked on the shoals. However, as Michael Diamond's account of early twentieth-century British attitudes to Jews points out, Farjeon was part of a larger shift in nineteenth- and twentieth-century racial discourses that turned Jewishness into a matter of genetics. (One does wonder how Farjeon reconciled his theory with the origins of Christianity...) From a literary point of view, the novel engages with a number of antecedents, ranging from Harringon and Daniel Deronda to The Merchant of Venice and, perhaps, Pudd'nhead Wilson. It also touches on contemporary debates within late-Victorian Judaism, including the rise of the Reform movement.