Literary annuals like the Forget-Me-Not have traditionally enjoyed--or not enjoyed--an equivocal position in studies of Anglo-American literary history. Elegantly bound and copiously illustrated, the annuals were profitably marketed as gifts for well-off consumers, especially female consumers; as one might expect, Victorian observers quickly typed such annuals as havens for the worst sort of literary frivolity. When, in Middlemarch, Ned Plymdale tries to use the Keepsake to court Rosamond Vincy, we know exactly what to make of him. In fact, the annuals were also havens for many of the leading authors of the period, like William Wordsworth (featured in the Keepsake link above), given that they were one of the more reliable venues for such hard-to-sell genres as poetry.
Nevertheless, readers might well be startled to open Friendship's Offering and find a short story about the blood libel, innocently sandwiched between light verse by the historical novelist W. Harrison Ainsworth and the forgotten Mrs. Abdy. Celia Moss Levetus (1819-73), who frequently co-authored fiction with her sister Marion Moss Hartog (1821-1907), published "Neela: A Tale of the Jews in England" in the 1842 edition of Friendship's Offering; the tale was picked up across the pond in the Jewish periodical The Occident and American Jewish Advocate (1844) and the annual Leaflets of Memory (1847), before being finally reprinted in a collection of Levetus' fiction, The King's Physician, and Other Tales (1865). Although Moss sets "Neela" in the thirteenth century, during the persecutions of Henry III's reign, her choice of subject is extremely topical: the "Damascus Affair" of 1840 had reignited the blood libel's popularity, much to the horror of leading Jews in Britain and on the Continent. As Montagu Frank Modder points out, we are meant to see that Neela and her mother "are the victims of the same spirit that was driving the mobs to violence against the Jews of Damascus in 1840."1 In fact, a popular literary annual was exactly the sort of venue in which to publish a plea for pro-Jewish tolerance. Moss recasts the Jewish predicament in terms designed to energize--her Christian audience's sensibilities.
Michael Galchinsky argues that Moss, like other Anglo-Jewish novelists of the period, found herself engaging at length with Scott's Ivanhoe, and this struggle makes itself felt in "Neela."2 The title character's signs of "Eastern origin," including her "glossy jet" locks and clothes of "oriental style" (223), mark her out as a descendant of Scott's similarly exotic Rebecca. Significantly, however, Moss erases Rebecca's difference from her more stereotypical father, Isaac: Rabbi Ephraim, far from being a grasping moneylender, is known as "the good Jew of Chesterton" (218), a benevolent figure beloved by even the local anti-Semites. In fact, Rabbi Ephraim is, like Rebecca, a "skilful physician" (218). By rewriting Scott's Isaac as a model member of the local community, Moss rejects Scott's opposition between the "male Jew as narrowed by his 'obstinacy and avarice'" and the "beautiful, self-sacrificing Jewess [who] makes possible a new view of Jews that accords them a place in the tolerant nation."3 But having rejected Scott's gendered model of, in effect, "good" and "bad" Judaism, Moss proceeds to make Judaism feminine in a very different fashion. For Rabbi Ephraim, it turns out, is dead, and when Neela's Italian fiance makes an appearance, he is an "unarmed youth" in imminent danger of dying by the villain's hand (237). Moss' Jewish men are either dead or helpless; the two Jewish women, Neela and her dying mother Naomi, must look to the Gentiles if they hope to survive. All of the story's Jewish bodies, then, are terribly vulnerable, whether to disease or physical violence. And their cultural position proves to be as vulnerable as their fragile bodies. Despite Rabbi Ephraim's reputation, after all, the villain, Leslie Gower, has no problem whatsoever in rustling up an anti-Semitic mob to attack his house.
Here is where Scott's gender division makes its reappearance: not to distinguish Jews and Jews, but to distinguish Jews and Christians. Unlike many of Moss' other stories, which insist that Jewish men must "undergo a gender reformation that can only take place through their marginalization, suffering, and physical deformation--through a gradual recognition of their own feminization vis-a-vis traditional Judaism's standards and the dominant culture's coercive power," "Neela" further marginalizes its male characters and focuses instead on the possibility, or not, of reforming Christian masculinity.4 The novel's chief Christian characters, Leslie and Sir Richard Falkner, are men--but what constitutes righteous Christian masculinity? Leslie, it turns out, attempted to orchestrate the death of his brother's son and heir, and had previously tried and failed to get Ephraim to murder "father and son" (229). Moreover, he was "dazzled by the beauty" of young Naomi (229), and attempted to seduce her--with, needless to say, negative results. Leslie's hue-and-cry about ritual murder, then, turns out to be a cover for avarice and predatory sexuality, fitting nicely with Henry III's ruinous financial demands.5 As it turns out, Leslie turns out to be ineffective even at putting Neela on trial for witchcraft, no matter how lovingly he dwells on the prospect--yet another dismantling of Ivanhoe. Leslie is not a good man, but he's also not a good Christian, and by linking anti-Semitism to the depths of personal depravity, Moss quietly dissociates it from "real" Christianity.
The split between Isaac and Rebecca thus comes back to life in the story's distinction between good and bad Christians. Leslie is the latter; Sir Richard Falkner is the former. Sir Richard enters the story expressing "contempt" for Henry III's orders, and despite his dislike of Jews in general, he nevertheless "pitied them as victims" (217). Hearing of Ephraim's death, Sir Richard instinctively utters a prayer for him (219), then does his best to protect Neela and Naomi from Leslie Gower's bloody-minded mob (221, 226). He receives timely assistance from Leslie's brother, the Baron, who is just as disgusted by Leslie as Sir Richard is (230). And, last but not least, Sir Richard rescues Neela and her fiance from death at Leslie's hands (237). It's worth noting here that Moss completely undoes Ivanhoe's interfaith romantic complications: Neela is engaged and Sir Richard rather elderly. Sir Richard's behavior is disinterested, as it were, a matter of true Christian virtue untainted by erotic desire. For all intents and purposes, Sir Richard acts as the Jew's Gentile father, in a twist on one of Moss' frequent themes.6 This, then, is real Christian manliness, acting entirely out of compassion instead of a yen for personal gain. Yet it is also a temporary solution, for neither Sir Richard nor the Baron can substitute for the Rabbi, which leaves Neela no option but to depart England with her future husband. An interfaith surrogate family is outside the terms of the story's brief.
By now, my reader will have noticed that Moss argues against anti-Semitism by harping on Christian empowerment. Christians are responsible for anti-Semitism; Christians are responsible for combating anti-Semitism; and Jews can only await the results. Jewish agency doesn't make a dent in the situation, one way or the other. Ephraim is a terrific neighbor, but the locals turn on him at the first sound of a dog-whistle. Neela resists Leslie's threats, but winds up fainting at his feet (235). If a figure like Scott's Isaac makes anti-Semitism understandable, then Moss' Jews demonstrate that it is utterly irrational7--but, at the same time, anti-Semitism's irrationality leaves Jews utterly helpless before Christian whims. Moreover, the mob's susceptibility to anti-Semitic tub-thumping means that Jews must rest their hopes not on the people at large, but on their appropriately reformed leaders. Where, the story seems to ask, is the Christian hero of modern Jews? Is there one? Nadia Valman notes that "Moss seems to hold little faith in the capacity of British democracy to liberate the Jews" (126), and the context of "Neela"'s publication suggests that Moss is somewhat skeptical about relying on Christian goodwill for protection...even as her story also suggests that that's all Jews in England can do.
1 Montagu Frank Modder, The Jew in the Literature of England to the End of the Nineteenth Century (1939; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1944), 190. Moss and her sister had already taken on the Damascus Affair with The Romance of Jewish History (1840); see Nadia Valman, The Jewess in Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007), 116.
2 Michael Galchinsky, The Origin of the Modern Jewish Woman Writer: Romance and Reform in Victorian England (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1996), 106. Modder also points out that Ivanhoe obviously influenced "Neela," although he does not go into specifics (190).
3 Valman, 33.
4 Galchinsky, 129.
5 Valman notes that the Moss sisters frequently returned to the danger of "violation," a theme they acquired from Ivanhoe (120).
6 According to Galchinsky, Moss' heroines are "in search of a new father--one whom she can choose, because he is not bound to her by an accident of birth" (118).
7 Galchinsky comments that unlike Continental Jews, the Moss sisters "share the tendency of Anglo-Jewish men to see anti-Semitism as the fault of the anti-Semites" (110).