As Maria Edgeworth's Harrington (1817) reaches its comic resolution, the Sephardic Jew Mr. Montenero and our protagonist, thinking through a long run of misunderstandings, finally find themselves "understanding each other perfectly" (289). In a novel which famously rejects interfaith marriage as a symbolic means of uniting disparate peoples--Harrington's beloved, Berenice Montenero, had a Protestant mother and was raised as a Christian--this moment of man-to-man understanding suggests how Jew and Christian might be reconciled. The last-minute revelation that Berenice is not, after all, Jewish, despite her Jewishness being a major romantic stumbling-block throughout, has come in for considerable (and understandable) asperity from most readers, beginning with Edgeworth's American correspondent Rachel Mordecai Lazarus. Instead of relying on the marriage plot as a sign of religious incorporation, then, the novel turns to capitalism: indeed, Rachel Schulkins, who insists that the novel is a "failure," argues that "[t]oleration in Harrington is conditioned upon the other's social assimilation and social contribution,"1 while Neville Hoad similarly claims that "[i]n Harrington, as in the pamphlets of the proponents of the Naturalization Bill, tolerance is justified in terms of commerce."2 In other words, the novel can imagine integrating Jews into the larger polity as long as Jews effectively secularize themselves and demonstrate their instrumentality. As a return, society at large then owes Jews the same respect they would pay to any other citizen. Schulkins and Hoad are, I think, correct in their interpretation of how toleration functions in Harrington, but I'd like to look at two points in a little more detail: Edgeworth's decision to use a first-person narrator, and the politics of the interfaith marriage plot.
Michael Ragussis and Judith Page in particular have discussed in great detail how Harrington dramatizes, in Ragussis' turn of phrase, how "one community textually deauthorizes another."3 After all, Harrington calls our attention to how antisemitic narratives circulate through English culture, whether in the demonized form of a nursemaid's folkloristic horror stories or the exalted one of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Strictly speaking, though, the novel is never "about" its Jewish characters; part of the point, in fact, is that our Christian male narrator has no access to the minds of his imagined Jewish enemies and, later, his friends, any more than he does to his parents or to that of his nemesis, Lord Mowbray. Edgeworth does not shy away from pointing out the danger of assuming that the impenetrability of others is created equal: when Harrington takes Mowbray seriously while downgrading the Jewish Jacob's testimony to Mowbray's antisemitism--despite being supposedly philosemitic himself--he explicitly ranks English (and implicitly Christian) self-representation above the Jewish challenge to it. (In modern social justice terminology, Harrington is a lousy ally.) Catherine Gallagher's argument that the novel follows not "Jews" but "their representations" thus needs to be extended to all social interaction, thanks to Harrington's obsessive retrospective analysis of his own perceptions.4 Thus, while we see Harrington's prejudices challenged by Israel Lyons, whose appearance does not match Harrington's "preconceived notions" (105), we also have his comical encounters with Mowbray's sister Anne, which reveal not only his lack of acquaintance with fashionable lingo, but also his anxious readings of the signs that "danger was imminent" (127). Lady Anne's fundamental transparency is in stark contrast to Berenice Montenero's frequent unreadibility, despite the famous set piece in which Harrington, watching Charles Macklin perform Shylock, "form[s] such a strong conception of the pain the Jewess was feeling" (137) that he feels himself driven to reinterpret the dialogue and plot. (To Harrington's dismay, his own mother's prejudices are equally transparent to Montenero.) Nor are these problems with interpretation and evaluation confined to the Gentiles. It turns out that Mowbray and Harrington's old nurse, Fowler, deliberately prey on Berenice's and Montenero's own fears by casting Harrington's flights of "enthusiasm" as a sign of full-blown insanity--the "obstacle" that needs removing before the two can marry. By making the Jews themselves subject to deception by Mowbray and Fowler, Edgeworth departicularizes antisemitism and turns it into an extreme example of a universal human limitation. All of humanity is awash in a sea of isolated selves; under the circumstances, how can we best learn to engage with others? Still, the novel does not generalize the consequences of this limitation: those who project their "preconceived notions" onto Jews tend to cause their targets massive physical and psychological trauma (including physical assault and property destruction), whereas the Monteneros' preconceptions would hurt a single Christian, without any greater social ramifications.
The difficulty, then, is that Edgeworth rewards Harrington for learning how to correctly read Jews and Christians alike by promising him marriage to a woman who turns out to be Protestant. Berenice's Christianity, which enables Harrington to marry her without losing all his property and without alienating his parents, is certainly a last minute bait-and-switch (although, by the same token, it is also supposed to model how childhood education might lead a Christian to identify with a Jewish subject position, in a way that Harrington never fully masters). But what is at stake in calling for a fullblown interfaith marriage plot? Berenice herself is the product of an interfaith marriage, so the novel does not rule out the possibility entirely. Yet the demand for interfaith marriage as a sign of "toleration" usually emanates from the nineteenth-century Protestant majority. Jewish novelists from Grace Aguilar to Benjamin Farjeon all resist interfaith marriage in the starkest of terms; so too do Catholic novelists. From the minority POV, interfaith marriage results in silencing at best, madness and persecution at worst (a Gothic rendering of the real judicial disadvantages faced by the non-Protestant partner if the marriage went haywire). At stake here are wildly different readings of how to symbolically resolve religious pluralism in an officially Protestant state, complicated in the Jewish case by the absence of proselytism. Or, to put it differently, liberal Protestant novelists (e.g., Dickens) imagine the domestic space absorbing other religious faiths without a ripple, whereas Catholic and Jewish novelists are far more likely to read interfaith domesticity as aggressively flattening the minority faith, thanks to the social mechanisms upholding Protestant superiority. Once Edgeworth started down the road of the marriage plot, that is, there was no way to make it end happily ever after without problematic results, even if she had made Berenice Jewish. We'll be seeing novelists struggle with the interfaith marriage plot for the remainder of the semester.
1 Rachel Schulkins, "Imagining the Other: The Jew in Maria Edgeworth's Harrington," European Romantic Review 22.4 (2011): DOI:10.1080/10509585.2011.583039.
2 Neville Hoad, "Maria Edgeworth's Harrington: The Price of Sympathetic Representation," in British Romanticism and the Jews: History, Culture, Literature, ed. Sheila A. Spector (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 128.
3 Michael Ragussis, Figures of Conversion: "The Jewish Question" & English National Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 85; cf. Judith Page, Imperfect Sympathies: Jews and Judaism in British Romantic Literature and Culture (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), esp. 142-50. For a slightly different take, see Peter Logan, Nerves & Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in 19th-Century British Prose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 109-39, which reads the novel's antisemitism as a form of communicable nervous disease, characterized by groupthink and mob violence, that must be overcome by reason.
4 Catherine Gallagher, Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 315.