The Unitarian novelist, poet, and activist Mary Leman Grimstone is probably better-known today to historians of feminism or early nineteenth-century radicalism than to literary critics. However, her work was rather well-received at the time; that goes for the book under discussion in this post, Character, Or, Jew and Gentile (1833), a two-volume novel that tackles a somewhat dizzying array of topics, ranging from women's rights in marriage to religious toleration. If the narrative ultimately turns out to be pretty incoherent, its progressive position on interfaith tolerance gets exceptionally tangled when it comes to the eponymous Jews.
Character melds multiple genres--the domestic novel, the silver fork novel, the Newgate novel--and adds characters and plot elements borrowed from Maria Edgeworth, Walter Scott, and William Shakespeare. Everything is yoked together by the nature vs. nurture debate, with the novel falling squarely on the side of nurture. Early on, one minor character, Dr. Clare, argues that "Everything we see, hear, and feel, is education—tends to form the mind to some prevailing bias. We can be no other than we are thus made, whatever else we may desire to be" (1.18), and the novel never veers from this position. (Hence its arguments in favor of rational parenting.) None of the characters can surmount their early upbringing, with sometimes sensationalist results. We see Clare's theory in play through the loose, intergenerational relationship among a narrow circle of friends and acquaintances. There is the idealized family of Agnes (Lennox) Trevor and her husband, governed on principles of intellectual culture, liberality, economy, self-discipline, and a respect for work. Standing against them are the Beaucaires, consisting of superficial Ralph, his status-seeking wife Amelia, and their son Marmion, all of whom are variously thoughtless, heedless, vain, and corrupt. In addition, we have the mismatched Magdalene Melburn (virtuous) and her husband (abusive), who spend much of the novel banished overseas; their daughter, Magdalene #2, winds up living with the Trevors. Orbiting these families are the evil Malfort, a conman who racks up adultery (gasp), theft (definitely), and murder (probably) among his many misdeeds; the mysterious Jewish woman Hagar, abandoned by her evil Christian husband, who is devoted to the older and younger Magdalene Melburns; and the Jewish Mezracks, one an elderly money-lender, the other his granddaughter, a regal beauty named Esther. Marmion, a womanizer, falls for both the younger Magdalene and Esther, but shows himself unworthy of both. In a mind-boggling coincidence that puts even Dickens to shame, we discover near the end that Hagar, really Ruth, is Mezrack's lost daughter; that Smith, the dying convict Marmion meets while imprisoned for debt, is Hagar/Ruth's husband; and that Smith's and Hagar/Ruth's long-lost child is--you guessed it--Marmion, who was sold to Amelia Beaucaire. Thus, well before Daniel Deronda, we have a main character turn out to have previously-unknown Jewish parentage. Not that this saves Marmion from being murdered in a duel by an exasperated Esther, his first cousin, who discovers his (failed) two-timing with Magdalene when she accidentally receives a challenge intended for Magdalene's fiance.
I hope that's clear.
As the name "Marmion" signals, we are to have Walter Scott at the back of our minds--specifically, Isaac and Rebecca from Ivanhoe (who, in turn, get us to Shylock and Jessica from The Merchant of Venice). However, this novel also follows in the path of Maria Edgeworth's earlier philosemitic novel, Harrington, written in response to Rachel Mordecai Lazarus' critique of antisemitism in The Absentee. Edgeworth, who shares Grimstone's interest in the dangers of miseducation, makes William Harrington the victim of a classically antisemitic nurse, who tells the boy terrifying tales about evil Jews; as a result, Harrington becomes terrified of Jews, and remains so for years. Eventually, he meets another Jewish father-daughter pair, the Monteneros, and ultimately marries Berenice---who, as it turns out, has been raised in her mother's Christian faith. As this religious bait-and-switch suggests, the novel's stab at offering a wholeheartedly comic resolution to antisemitism falls short: instead of an interfaith marriage symbolically uniting Jew and Christian, the conclusion unites reformed and philosemitic Christians under the benevolent supervision of a kindly Jew. (Of course, an interfaith marriage would not necessarily have gone over well with Edgeworth's Christian contemporaries, let alone her Jewish ones; we might compare Grace Aguilar's The Vale of Cedars, which pointedly rejects interfaith marriage as an avenue to toleration. The interfaith comic marriage tends to be the province of [liberal] Protestant novelists, not of Jews or Catholics...) Grimstone, as it turns out, is not particularly interested in antisemitism, aside from noting Marmion's sneers at Mezrack--"'What! quoting Scripture, as usual'" (1.236)--which he indulges in because, being even more clueless than one might expect of a rake in such a novel, he fails to realize that correlation might well equal causation when it comes to two people named Mezrack. (Needless to say, Marmion does not immediately respond well when he finds out his real identity.) Similarly, Mezrack's daughter Hagar/Ruth is not victimized by her husband because she's Jewish, but because he's a crook. Bearing in mind Nadia Valman's observation that this novel is "[n]ot easily reducible to the labels antisemitic or philosemitic,"* we may well ask: what is Grimstone interested in, then?
Both Mezrack and his granddaughter Esther have deepset predispositions toward their fellow Jews, once again thanks to the novel's brief on childhood influences. Mezrack somehow manages to combine Robin Hood, Shylockian moneylender, and saint. Although he is in general a tolerant man, not hung up on any given "creed," he nevertheless reserves his deepest sympathies for fellow Jews: "Early impression, however, retained its power over his mind, and his heart still cleaved to its early associations. He loved the persecuted people to which he belonged; and while he was the extortioner to the extravagant Christian, he was the benefactor of the destitute Jew—and not of the Jew only—where he saw misery, he remembered only that its victim was man, he inquired not 'what manner of man'" (1.241). Seesawing back and forth from benevolence (to Jews) to pounds of flesh (rich Christians) to benevolence again (all impoverished people), Mezrack falls short of perfect human sympathy. From the novel's point of view, his first and foremost attachment to the Jews turns out to be a flaw. Indeed, Esther, who is apparently about to convert to Christianity (at her father's instigation) and is in love with Marmion, knows that following her heart will result in being shunned by other Jews (1.249). Other characters flunk the sympathy test because of their obsessions with wealth and status, but the novel's Jews stand convicted of clannishness. "'Why hast thou given thy heart unto a stranger--thy promise to a gentile?'" (1.252) Mezrack demands in cod-KJVese. For all that Esther spends most of her time consorting with Christians, she too "with the feeling of Scott's more'amiable Rebecca, held her people the first on earth; to many, among whom, she felt the later nations were 'as the gourd compared to the cedar'" (1.230). The novel proves simultaneously uneasy about too much fondness for one's "people" and, it would seem, too little: converting for the purposes of social status, as Esther plans to do, is clearly the wrong way to go about identifying with the Christian majority.
The sudden revelations about Marmion's parentage certainly induce whiplash, but they also cause further narrative difficulties. Mezrack has purchased all of Marmion's property, but does so for moral reasons rather than any evil plan; the discovery that Marmion is his grandchild, then, regrounds the English estate, one of the traditional symbols of national history and culture, in the heritage of Jewish immigrants. Or does it? Far from establishing a new lineage that would unite Englishness and Jewishness, the new heir falls apart entirely. Because of his upbringing, Marmion proves incapable of authentic guilt or regret, and he immediately abandons all thoughts of personal moral reform once he's restored to his property (2.213); worse still, he is no longer in love with Esther, but continues courting her for her fortune, even as he retains his newer passion for the now-engaged Magdalene. All of this leads up to the eye-popping moment in which Esther kills Marmion, and then herself. Although this lockstep progression from sin to sin to sudden death is hardly unusual in Victorian plots, it's significant that this moment pointedly erases not only the possibility of an interfaith marriage (despite his parentage, the novel never identifies Marmion as anything other than a Christian), but also a cosmopolitan Jewish woman who has been moving back and forth between Jewish and Christian worlds, even as she remains primarily devoted to her origins. It's not just that, as Valman notes, Esther represents the dangerously "carnal Jewess" who succumbs to "uncontrolled passion" (16); her identity and potential social mobility prove equally threatening. Too attached to her Judaism to experience fully universal sympathies for all mankind, and yet too superficially attached when faced with the choice between social rank and religious allegiance, Esther fails to fully live up to her namesake. In any event, given that the only other interfaith marriage we hear about turns out to be a nightmare, thanks to another Christian man, the novel seems skeptical (to say the least) about romantic love as a source of symbolic religious or cultural unity. Just as notably, Mezrack himself simply disappears from the ending, suggesting that he represents a spiritual dead end. His daughter Hagar/Ruth, however, who presumably winds up with the property (at least, she has sufficient cash), "took unto her alike the child of Jew and Gentile, and endowed schools that had for their principle the exclusion of none; for she thought, as God hath mercy unto all, unto all should man have charity" (2.255). The prospect of future religious toleration, then, rests with an act of universalized mothering that inculcates strong interfaith relations from the very beginning. At the same time, it rewrites the ending of the Book of Ruth, in which Ruth's son turns out to be the grandfather of David; Grimstone's Ruth, whose biological son turns out to be a massive failure, abandons biological lineage in favor of a figurative maternity, one which will give rise to a better, non-"exclusive" earthly kingdom. A Jewish woman thus "births" a new nation, but there appears to be no room for Jews devoted to Jews as such within it...
*--Nadia Valman, The Jewess in Nineteenth-Century British Literary Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007), 15.