Yes, I am indeed reading 'Verts, but I took a brief detour into the Rev. Arthur George H. Hollingsworth's four-canto mini-epic, Rebecca; Or, the Times of Primitive Christianity (1832). This poem of conversion and martyrdom, in suitably portentous blank verse, garnered reviews ranging from tepidly unenthusiastic to decidedly snarky to thoroughly appreciative--although that last review comes from a Victorian journal notorious for "puffing." While this poem, which dramatizes a three-way clash between Christians (ascendant), Jews (resentful), and pagans (baffled), frequently tips over into grim anti-Semitism, Hollingsworth was himself an early Christian Zionist. The Zionism is not on display here. Instead, the poem offers an unusually elaborate variant on one of the Jewish conversion narrative's most common topoi: the impossibility of the Jewish family.
The Victorians simultaneously argued that Jews had remarkably robust nuclear families, as we would now put it, and that those families were spiritually, psychologically, and sometimes physically dangerous to their members--especially their female members. In fact, the apparent success of the Jewish family came to signify Judaism's failure. (I've previously discussed this polemical strategy on the blog here and in a formal academic context here.) Rebecca's plot draws heavily on Matthew 10.34-38 ("Think not that I am come to send peace on earth..."), insisting that Christianity effectively causes families to self-deconstruct as Jews and pagans choose their own demonic union over the new covenant. Early on, Hollingsworth rephrases Matthew to foreshadow his own plot's denouement:
Hate thus remorseless, goaded man to wreak
Destruction on his child—and children dipped
In parents' blood their hands; the brother dragged
Sisters to cruel deaths—and even ties,
The first imposed by Nature's gentle hands
On either sex, and bound their hearts in love,
When Eden's streams ran murmuring on with bliss—
E'en these were burst; the husband raised his hand
In public 'gainst his wife, and she too poured
Her partner's life before the pagan shrines,—
Nature forgot herself—home lost its name[,]
The social springs of life were broken up,
And every Christian's hope was cradled then,
Far from this jarring world—with Christ alone. (20-21)
Hollingsworth reworks Matthew to ensure that readers understand the "sword" in terms not of Christ's agency, but of man's own fallen nature: the Word violently ruptures Jewish and pagan families (although the poem focuses on the former) in the very act of revealing how deeply those families are imbricated in sin. Anti-Christian persecution warps culture in atomizing and literally unnatural ways, as parents, siblings, and spouses reduce each other to shattered corpses. This social disruption plays out in Hollingsworth's enjambment, which repeatedly separates the brutal subject from its martyred object. Yet the poem's rhetoric also links this collapse of "old" families to a kind of iconoclasm: the pre-Christian social order, which the persecutions attempt to maintain, must be "broken up" precisely so that the Christian martyr turns to "Christ alone." In releasing the family's previously-concealed violence, the Word leads the believer beyond biological connections to an entirely new family, that of the church.
Indeed, Rebecca sketches out two competing visions of "family," which wind up battling across her body: the Jewish/Pagan model, which demands obedience to the biological father or earthly lover, and the Christian model, which elevates the bonds of belief over blood ties, and substitutes Christ (the holy bridegroom) for the would-be husband. There are almost no other female characters in the poem besides the eponymous Rebecca, whose dead mother (a regular feature of Jewish conversion narratives) represents the lost possibility of mercy and forgiveness within Jewish culture (216). Significantly, the poem's featured martyrs--Rebecca, Bishop Colo, and Colo's son--are either very old, very young, and/or female; their relative weakness, a standard of martyrological literature, highlights both Christianity's power to supplement the most extreme human frailty and Judaism's/Paganism's disdain for their society's weakest members . Judaism and Paganism, both repeatedly figured as "bloody"--we don't quite get the blood libel here, although Hollingsworth skates along the boundary--are also identified with masculine social and physical power. Both religions are, for all intents and purposes, too masculine, too intent on suppressing the weakness and degradation they link with Christianity's shockingly abased Messiah.
Rebecca's relationship with her father Reuben follows the traditional Shylock model borrowed from The Merchant of Venice. Reuben Ezra is "rich beyond/The dream of avarice" (23), a man whose trade stretches past even the borders of the Roman Empire, but one who is "[o]ft stung to mad resolves by Gentile pride" (25). He reserves his particular hatred, though, for Christians. Although he adores Rebecca, the "idol of his thoughts" (26), his "wily avarice" prompts him to leave her "unveiled" (28) when Pliny the Younger's friend Fabius pops by in search of some extra cash. From very early on, then, the poem represents the Jewish patriarch's love as idolatrous, and perhaps because it is idolatrous, shot through with a willingness to prostitute the beloved object. Rebecca is her father's possession and construct, a false goddess prized for her materiality (and potential profitability). Matters are not much helped when Reuben agrees to marry her to the openly skeptical and materialist Fabius, even though Reuben has some qualms about their being "defiled" (30) by Gentile blood. This proposed marriage, ultimately thwarted, stands doubly condemned: not only does Reuben disobey the Jewish law against intermarriage (effectively betraying the people to whom he claims to be loyal), but also he inadvertently reaffirms the poem's symbolic link between Paganism and Judaism. Jewish materialism (another familiar accusation from anti-Semitic polemic) slides easily enough into an embrace of materialist Paganism. The poem does not merely represent Jews as bad--a "stiff-necked Nation" that "poured that hate/Which burned 'gainst all the world, on those who bowed/Before the name of Christ" (18)--but insists, for all intents and purposes, that even a staunch Jew like Reuben is perfectly willing to be a bad Jew.
The marriage plot crumples precisely because Fabius' mindset leads him to interpret Christ as the competition. Overhearing Rebecca's inset lyric in praise of Christ's love, the infuriated Fabius asks himself "Who claimed her now? Some God--perchance some man--/That thought was liquid flame, there lived none such./She named, the Crucified--a Christian too!" (44) The ensuing dialogue, which precipitates Rebecca's downfall, features Fabius' repeated challenges to Rebecca's constancy and even chastity, "'polluted by such stains/At their [the Christians'] nocturnal banquets'" (48). Just as seriously, Fabius demands "'[t]he whole allegiance of thy earthly love'" (51), thereby reinstating idolatry at the core of Jewish/Pagan domesticity. Fabius, who argues that he had found in Rebecca the possibility of authentic truth after much esoteric searching (the lines echo Byron's Manfred), now casts her love for Christ as rejection of his own "image" (56). Both Jewish paternal love and Pagan romantic love turn out to be deeply self-interested and self-deluded, tying woman's love to purely selfish male desires (whether financial or sexual). Moreover, Fabius' inability to read Rebecca's love for Christ as anything other than romantic and, indeed, sexual betrayal--"'I am discarded for this new-found Lord!'" (59)--identifies the imperviousness of this mindset to alternative spiritual narratives grounded in transcendence.
Significantly, Hollingsworth hands over the poem's most extended defense of the Jewish family to its Jewish villain, Trypho, who goads Reuben to betray Rebecca's conversion to the authorities as revenge for her rejection of his suit. Because Trypho's rhetoric does not deviate noticeably from that used to describe Reuben's relationship to Rebecca, we are again alerted that something problematic is going on here. Invoking the Jews' status as "an exile from his wondrous land" (162), Trypho urges Pliny to empathize with the elevated significance of their family ties:
As exiles then we feel, intenser feel
The pangs of parents—as their pains, their joys—
And while our lips inhale each country's air
With our first infantile and tender sighs—
And claim it not, but only that which waves
The grass on Sion's temple—yet we hold
With grasp tenacious to our children's hearts.
Judge then, Illustrious Consul! what that void is
An only child creates when lost—how lost!
Not to our arms alone—but to our name,
Our race, our country, virtue, and our God!
Such is this old man's case—look down, oh Lord!
And curse these slaves, foes to the Roman State,
And secret traitors 'gainst domestic love! (163)
Here and in the remainder of his speech, the benighted Trypho carefully evades the implications of intermarriage for Jewish "loss," thereby inadvertently identifying Jew and Pagan once again. Instead, he turns domestic ties into a substitute for the lost homeland. Far from being "private," Jewish parenting turns out to be an essentially public, political act, intended to perpetuate national cohesion in the absence of geographical borders. In that sense, Jewish and Roman interests once again coincide: betraying the Jewish family turns out to be analogous to betraying the state. But for Hollingsworth, the real difficulty here lies deeper. The "grasp tenacious," which sounds unexceptionable (there's something wrong with close family ties?), runs counter to the poem's model of authentic Christian love, enacted by Bishop Colo and his son.
Unlike Reuben, Ezra, and even Fabius, all of whom understand love in terms of possession, Bishop Colo understands it in terms of giving and sacrifice--specifically, relinquishing the beloved son's life in order that he may be saved. The Christian father, that is, imitates God's willingness to give his Son for man's salvation. Confronted by soldiers, Colo momentarily experiences a "chill/And nervous feeling," which the poem qualifies as "parental, not a Christian's dread" (201); as it turns out, this is his only remaining son, for all the others have already died for the faith. Nevertheless, the thought of Christ stays his despair, and he is thoroughly pleased by this son's staunchness (206). By contrast, although Reuben is willing to "'forgive'" his daughter, he nevertheless begs her not to choose death (225). Even more, in a double temptation scene, Reuben insists that "'by the strongest ties/Of filial duty'" (240), Rebecca must renounce her Christianity to save her life, while Fabius offers her an an honorable Roman suicide, so that she "[s]halt yield thy last fond sigh within my arms" (248). Reuben prioritizes domestic ties and patriarchal authority; Fabius, republican virtue conjoined with romantic constancy. Rejecting both, Rebecca seeks the Christian comfort offered by Colo, who replaces both father and lover with his "paternal arm" (261). This reconfigured family, bound by belief rather than biology, and unified by love for Christ above all rather than for father or lover, abandons the "blood" of nations in order to give up their own blood in emulation of Christ.
This shift from the material to the transcendent, or the letter to the spirit, has been a commonplace in Christian anti-Jewish polemic for centuries. Rebecca departs from most nineteenth-century variations on the Jewish family topos in its explicit link between Jewish domesticity and idolatry, as well as its attempt to offer some (cod) psychological explanations for the nature of Jewish patriarchy. At the same time, though, the poem could also be read as casting a critical eye on the growing nineteenth-century cult of Christian domesticity, especially when it comes to the universal and vexed question of when it is legitimate to resist paternal authority (something anxiously debated by religious novelists and poets across the spectrum). By the end of the poem, after all, the most important family is explicitly not the family of one's birth, but the family of one's belief.
 As Edith Snook puts it in her analysis of John Bale on Anne Askew, "the weakness of women is evidence of the truth of the faith she holds, for, because she is a woman, she could not be faithful without divine assistance." Women, Reading, and the Cultural Politics of Early Modern England (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 41.