Maria Edgeworth, in her novel Harrington (1817), was one of the first proponents of religious and cultural tolerance of the small but growing Jewish population in Great Britain. Edgeworth suggested that the best method of counteracting the irrational biases reinforced by drama and fiction was by gaining positive, firsthand experience of the lives of individuals within London’s Jewish community. Ironically, however, in depicting Jewish characters, she relied almost entirely on the representations of Jews offered by books. The inspiration for Harrington had been the introductory letter from an American Jew, Rachel Mordecai Lazarus; their twenty-three year correspondence, although postdating the novel’s publication, nevertheless helps to explain the limitations of Harrington and points toward some of the reasons why Edgeworth never moved beyond a text-based understanding of Judaism and, after one foray, never wrote on Jewish subjects again. In their mutual inability to probe Judaism, Edgeworth and Lazarus revealed key facets of the “Jewish Question” at the turn of the nineteenth century. Hampered by her own cultural barriers, like Richard Cumberland before her, and Walter Scott after, Edgeworth adopted a technique that rendered her novel an inaccurate account of Anglo-Jewish life and that disappointed her readers; Harrington finally managed only to depict Jewish assimilation instead of achieving Edgeworth’s initial aim of fostering tolerance for Jewish difference.
The “Jewish Question” on Both Sides of the Atlantic: Harrington and the Correspondence between Maria Edgeworth and Rachel Mordecai Lazarus
Catherine Craft-Fairchild; The “Jewish Question” on Both Sides of the Atlantic: Harrington and the Correspondence between Maria Edgeworth and Rachel Mordecai Lazarus. Eighteenth-Century Life 1 September 2014; 38 (3): 30–63. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/000982601-2773963
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