Gertrude Himmelfarb: The Great Jewish Historian of Victorian Britain

January 5, 2021 | Contemporary Thinkers
About the author:

While primarily a historian of Victorian intellectual life, Gertrude Himmelfarb (1922-2019) was a prolific writer of impressive depth as well as breadth, writing on social and religious history, the ills of postmodernism, the European Enlightenment, the American critic Lionel Trilling, and—toward the end of her life—philo-Semitism and British perceptions of Jews in the modern era. The website Contemporary Thinkers has recently produced an online resource on her life and work, compiling a number of her own essays, biographical material, and encomia to her achievements. One of Himmelfarb’s articles for Mosaic can be read here, as well as essays on her life and work. In a summary of her intellectual contributions, Contemporary Thinkers sums up her work on Jewish topics:

[One] persistent theme in Himmelfarb’s writing was the situation of the Jews in modern Europe. Her historical work showed the deep roots of the more positive history of the Jews in Anglo- and Anglo-American societies than in the Continental European societies. While many Europeans in the 19th century persisted in regarding the Jews, long after their formal emancipation, as a nation within a nation, demanding that they forsake aspects of their identity in exchange for full acceptance, in England the “Jewish question” was far more prosaic, political, and less fraught. It was a question of citizenship—and no more.

The affinity of English-speaking peoples with the Jews is the topic of Himmelfarb’s The People of the Book: Philo-Semitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill (2011). This history of not just tolerance but positive feeling, itself one of the most important and most unusual links connecting Jews and the Jewish tradition with some of the greatest minds of Western culture, begins in England with the Puritans’ attraction to the “Hebrew spirit,” and the mid-17th-century return of Jews to the British Isles centuries after their expulsion. It continues in the writings and public statements of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, born a Jew but baptized at the age of twelve. And it culminates, in the 20th century, in the Zionism of Lord Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill.

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