In 1894, Oswald John Simon, son of the prominent Reform Jewish lawyer and activist Sir John Simon, diagnosed a serious spiritual malaise amongst the Anglo-American Christian population. This malaise, he argued, emerged from their crumbling belief in the Fall and, therefore, in the Atonement; as a result, the Christian settlement had fractured into irreconcilable shards of theism, agnosticism, atheism, and every other sort of -ism. The solution he proposed to the problem was a new form of an old faith--namely, Judaism itself. "Judaism," he argued, "is a great historic testimony to the fact that men have worshipped God, have cherished faith, and acknowledged the claims of righteousness without believing in the Fall, and, therefore, without experiencing the necessity for miraculous redemption from that normal state of perdition."1 Reform Judaism in particular, he felt, modeled a mode of faith that could promote "the means of union, of assimilation, and of broad human bonds" (88); the right practitioners might develop a Judaism for the Gentiles, as it were, that would be stripped of anything pertaining strictly to "mere accidents of a national history, and the commonplace badges of enforced separateness" (87), and instead offer a truly pure, universal religion that could not be affected by the discoveries of modern science or any qualms about miracles. As Meri-Jane Rochelson points out, Simon's work, which "incorporated the rhetoric of Christianity" in service of promoting a "Jewish Theistic Church," sparked momentary but limited interest among his contemporaries, although some of his impulse towards "universalist" belief still resonated.2 This was not, however, his first go at this idea. Four years previously, Simon had tried to articulate something along these lines in The World and The Cloister (2 vols., 1890), which I undertook to read as penance for maligning the British Library's digitization process. Strictly speaking, Simon clearly failed to master the finer points of the novel-writing art. Alas, he also failed to master the coarser points. The result is, I fear, rather dreadful. (OK, it's very dreadful.) Nevertheless, as always, there are some points of at least historical interest.
Given that, in all likelihood, there's only one other person alive who has read this novel, a plot summary is in order. Our Hero (capital H) is Roderick Hugenot (supposed to echo Huguenot?), the orphaned son of a Catholic who "fell into infidelity and died without the last Sacrament" (I.4) and a Jewish mother whose family had converted to the Church of England for secular reasons. He has spent much of his life with the designing Mary, Duchess of Boughton, a Catholic who is England's "most devoted and the most zealous champion of the Papal cause" (I.6). Despite his upbringing, Roderick (our Hero!) has developed an idiosyncratic form of belief based in a "deep abhorrence of all formulated creeds" (I.20), even though he articulates a strong faith in a unitary God above and beyond all merely human conceptions. Even though he's a politician (the horror), Roderick is equally idiosyncratic about party membership--that is, he refuses to align himself with any one party, given the state of "party warfare" (II.9), and thrashes everyone indiscriminately. Needless to say, because he is our Hero, Roderick cannot go anywhere or say anything without his audience cooing over his ideas, drooling over his intellect, or, in general, being rendered insensate by his profundities. Being our Hero, Roderick finds True Love with the exquisitely beautiful Irene Cassandria. Irene, as it happens, is a Jew taken from her ailing mother while still an infant (more about this in just a moment) under the aegis of the Duchess (oh dear) and raised to be a Catholic nun. Given that she finds True Love with Roderick, the convent is obviously not her final destination. Irene (our Heroine!) is a woman of uncommon brilliance, repeatedly compared to George Eliot, who adores reading Plato in the original Greek, writes theological pamphlets, and soon enjoys a meteoric rise as a novelist and political commentator. She is, not surprisingly, also a bore, but that's no doubt an uncharitable opinion. (In fact, she's a character straight out of "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," but as Simon appears to have no sense of humor, the coincidence must be put down to incompetence instead of ironic self-awareness.) There's virtually no conflict--Irene discovers the truth, she leaves the convent in understandable ire, she stops suffering and writes that symphony novel--and the Duchess is defanged so quickly that one suspects a hidden dentist. There's also a subplot about a quite silly Protestant lordling who woos and wins one of the Duchess' multiple daughters, a young lady who rebels against her mother's plans to consign her to a convent; this ends happily with a nice interfaith marriage, thanks to Roderick's wise counsels.
This plot summary will probably not have motivated anyone to rush over to the British Library site to download The World and the Cloister, but, as I said, there are a couple of things worth noting here. The most important is Irene's plot, which reworks the famous Edgardo Mortara case. The Duchess herself brings up the case to explain why she never told the girl about her mother (I.94-95); later, other characters insist that such a crime "'could never happen in England, the police are much too sharp'" (I.146). Besides implicitly warning that such English chauvinism obscures the workings of prejudice at home, the relocated and re-gendered plot also challenges the kidnapping's outcome: whereas Mortara settled down quite contentedly as a Catholic priest--something acknowledged obliquely when Mrs. Cassandria comments that "I am not likely to be shocked that my own child, brought up away from me, would be more attached to Christianity than to Judaism" (I.263)--Irene feels an instinctive distaste for Catholic ritual that suggests an innate Jewish resistance to it (a possibility also suggested by Benjamin Farjeon's novel Aaron the Jew). Once free of the cloister, she immediately returns to her mother's faith, yet in a self-reflexive fashion that both embraces and critiques it. Like Roderick, Irene seeks a faith that goes beyond creed, seeking out those "essential elements of the Jewish faith which represent universality" (I.278). Her eventual marriage to Roderick, sealed first in a civil ceremony and then with a private prayer in a synagogue (possibly supposed to be Bevis Marks?), symbolically represents the triumph of a fully individualized faith, carefully segregated from political contamination. (Roderick's anti-party politics is of a piece with his antagonism to creeds.) At the same time, her willingness to forgive the dying Duchess, which produces some embarrassingly over-the-top expressions of awe from the onlookers (the priest stares in "blank amazement" at this "astounding phenomenon," one of the Duchess' daughters starts bawling from "wonderment" [II.257]), demonstrates that a theology not grounded in the atonement can have all the same moral results as one that does. Meanwhile, the interfaith marriage subplot elevates what Roderick calls "perfect affinity" (II.224) of souls over the mere dividing lines of creeds. Rather than tending to interfaith marital Gothic, as I've described it before, the marriage between Matilda and Lord Walworth breaks down denominational pettiness in order to achieve a unity of like-minded selves. In effect, just as the novel celebrates the perfect unity of the Divine, it strives towards perfect unities elsewhere, whether in religion, in politics, or (as in the case of the Risorgimento, of which Roderick approves) nations themselves, all en route to a new cosmopolitan vision of global peace.
1 Oswald John Simon, "Missionary Judaism," rpt. in Faith and Experience: A Selection of Essays and Addresses (London: Wertheimer, Lea, and Co., 1895), 74.
2 Meri-Jane Rochelson, A Jew in the Public Arena: The Career of Israel Zangwill (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2008), 109, 110.