How One of Charles Dickens’s Jewish Readers Set Him Straight about Anti-Semitism

October 19, 2021 | Erika Dreifus
About the author:

The acclaimed Irish writer Sally Rooney, whose 2018 novel Normal People was adapted as a television series by the BBC, recently rejected an Israeli publisher’s offer to bring out a Hebrew edition of her most latest book, citing her antipathy to the Jewish state. (She has not expressed any objections to her book being published in China, or any other country.) Erika Dreifus sees a lesson to be learned from a previous case of literary anti-Semitism, involving no less a figure than Charles Dickens. A recent children’s book by Nancy Churnin recounts this episode:

Eliza Davis (1817-1903) refused to be daunted when writing to the famous author, whose portrayal of “the Jew Fagin” in Oliver Twist landed “like a hammer on [her] heart,” as Churnin describes it. . . . Quoting the correspondence, Churnin conveys Davis’s message: Fagin “encouraged ‘a vile prejudice’” against her people. . . . In response, Dickens declared that Fagin was based on real-life Jewish criminals. . . .  Davis tried again; evidently, Dickens didn’t write back.

But the Jewish character in his next novel—the estimable Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend—was no Fagin.

While Fagin is a gangster who seduces children into a life of crime, Riah is a moneylender made into a scapegoat by his villainous Gentile boss—and in the book’s denouement proves his kindness and generosity.

After that novel appeared, Davis thanked Dickens for “a great compliment paid to myself and to my people.” This time, Dickens responded much more warmly. He went further, notably in a magazine essay in which he referred to Jews as “an earnest, methodical, aspiring people” and in changes to a subsequent printing of Oliver Twist, when he instructed the printer to remove many instances in which he referred to “the Jew” and to use Fagin’s name instead.

Eliza Davis’s reaction to Dickens’s words—her sense of betrayal by an admired author whose compassion somehow didn’t extend to Jews—mirrors my own increasingly frequent experience. . . . I don’t expect “great compliments to me and to my people” from authorial idols and colleagues. . . . All I’m seeking is fairness—and freedom from vile prejudice.

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