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Guest column: Historical romance author Rose Lerner talks about the history behind her Jewish hero

TPAsh, the hero of my Regency romance True Pretenses, is a Jewish con artist who grew up in a London rookery and has been passing as a Gentile for a number of years. The heroine Lydia is the daughter of a baron. For various financial reasons, they are considering a marriage of convenience. (Well, Ash actually wanted Lydia to marry his brother for convenience, but she had other ideas…)

Dabney emailed me to say that while she was reading, she wondered “if Ash could ever come out [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][as Jewish] and not have it ruin him. What did it mean at the time to be poor and Jewish, wealthy and Jewish, or married to a Jew?

As you can imagine, the short answer is, “it’s complicated.” Before I get into it, I just want to say that I’m going to talk primarily about my hero and heroine’s specific situation, and about Jews who wanted (for a variety of reasons) to be accepted into Christian British society, and not about the majority of Jews in Regency England who lived, worked, socialized, and married within the Jewish community.

Based on my research (if you want to know more, I highly recommend The Jews of Georgian England 1714–1830 by Todd Endelman), I don’t think that simply the fact of being Jewish would “ruin” Ash. He wouldn’t lose his property, his and Lydia’s marriage once performed would not be voided (getting an annulment was hard during the Regency), he wouldn’t have to flee town.

Sir Walter Scott’s 1820 Ivanhoe featured a “fair Jewess” in love with a Christian knight. The ending, in which Ivanhoe married a Christian girl, was unpopular with readers. As you can see, poor Rowena didn’t make it onto the cover of this Classic Comic! Thackeray’s sequel killed off Rowena and made Rebecca Lady Ivanhoe…but he had her convert first, something Scott’s Rebecca flatly refused to do.

The primary consequence Ash would face if he told everyone in the heroine’s hometown that he was Jewish would be a lot of annoying, depressing, upsetting, prejudiced bullshit. Ash puts it like this: “If I told everyone I was Jewish, it would be the same life, with the same people, except that everything would be more difficult, and I’d have to hear them do and say things that would make it hard to like them.”

A number of Jewish people were accepted into the upper echelons of Christian high society, to a degree anyway. For example, Benjamin Goldsmid (a government loan contractor) was friends with Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton (among other notables), once entertained the King and Queen as drop-in dinner guests, and had the Prince of Wales over for an afternoon. (Endelman mentions that the future Regent’s visit “scandalized the more orthodox members of the Jewish community since the Prince had selected the Jewish Sabbath for his visit and Goldsmid had not wanted to offend him by suggesting another day“!)

There was a sort of unpredictable algorithm for how accepted you could be based on (1) how much money you had and how good your parties were and (2) how British you were willing to be. The markers in the British assimilation spectrum were things like “dressing in British fashions,” “not keeping kosher,” “donating money to Christian charities,” etc. The end of the spectrum was conversion, and rich Jews who hoped to integrate fully into British society did convert. Whether they were truly 100% accepted is doubtful, but they certainly got much closer.

This passage from Endelman’s book really stuck with me:

Thomas Babington Macaulay, the great parliamentary spokesman for Jewish emancipation*, wrote to his sister Hannah in 1831 that a costume ball given by the financier Isaac Lyon Goldsmid**…had ‘a little too much of Mary St. Axe [a Jewish neighborhood in the City] about it,—Jewesses by dozens, and Jews by scores.’ He explained to her that after the ball he could not fall asleep right away, as ‘the sound of fiddles was in mine ears, and gaudy dresses, and black hair, and Jewish noses were fluctuating up and down before mine eyes.

*”Emancipation” in this context means Jews being allowed to become voters, hold public office, take commissions in the military, etc.—things which during the Regency required taking an Anglican oath and therefore excluded all non-Anglicans.

**Benjamin’s nephew.

And that guy was a promiment pro-Jewish politician. I’m sure that was fun to deal with from your Christian friends!

(If you want to read more “witty” Regency anti-Semitism—not to mention other forms of racism and prejudice—check out Charles Lamb’s “Imperfect Sympathies”, which appeared in London Magazine in 1821 as part of his wildly popular Elia essay series. You’ll probably want this footnote: Hugh of Lincoln’s Wikipedia page.)

Something conversion did unquestionably make far easier was intermarriage, because there was no secular marriage in England at this time. The only way to be legally married was in a religious ceremony. Which meant that if a Jew and a Christian wanted to marry each other openly, one of them had to convert (at least nominally).

All that said, as Dabney astutely pointed out, my hero Ash is dealing with two flavors of intermarriage: Jewish/Christian and very poor/aristocratic. Of the two, very poor/aristocratic would probably shock Lydia’s social circle more. Ash is not a wealthy Jewish financier. His mother was a sex worker, and he’s a swindler and an ex-housebreaker. That he could never admit and reasonably expect to be received anywhere or do business with anyone. Probably even just admitting what neighborhood in London he was from would be enough to ostracize him.

As for what it meant to be poor and Jewish to Christian poor people…you were still looking at a lot of bullshit from a lot of people, and very likely violence of some kind at some point(s) in your life. But there were plenty of intermarriages and interfaith friendships. Large portions of the urban working poor and urban criminal underclass, who cared less about social status and reputation, also cared less about religious strictures. Intermarriage was simple if you didn’t feel that an official marriage ceremony was required! Among Londoners, many Christians who married Jews even converted to Judaism (especially if the woman was the non-Jewish partner).

Endelman even notes: “Integrated teams of pickpockets, housebreakers, and shoplifters, while never coming to constitute a majority of cases, appear with increasing frequency from the 1770s”!

Rose Lerner is the author of four historical romances. Her latest, True Pretenses, comes out on January 13th.



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