Jews weren't all pedlars and criminals, Mr Dickens

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

In October 1845, members of the Jews and General Literary and Scientific Institution, in London's Leadenhall Street, pondered a question put to them by one John Mottram.

"Will the writings of Charles Dickens hold a pre-eminent position among the standard literature of the country?" he asked.

Next year is the bicentenary of Dickens' birth; and the answer is a resounding yes. Yet to the Anglo-Jewish community of the 19th century, Dickens was a divisive figure, a celebrated writer described by the JC as "the great prose poet of our age", but one known for his consistent use of anti-Jewish caricatures and stereotypes.

Most famous of these was his portrayal of the career criminal Fagin in Oliver Twist. "The Jew" as he was described more than 250 times - more frequently than he was referred to by name - was a "hideous old man [who] seemed like some loathsome reptile".

JC front page on March 7, 1851

JC front page on March 7, 1851

By way of justification, the author said: "It unfortunately was true of the time to which the story refers that class of criminal, almost invariably, was a Jew."

Dickens later amended the portrayal - a final reading he gave of the book in the year before he died included no reference to the character's religion - and also created the rather more flattering Jewish character of Mr Riah in Our Mutual Friend. But Fagin was not unique in the Dickens canon.

As a flurry of correspondence from JC readers in the 1850s reveals, it was a series of "libels" in Household Words, the weekly periodical Dickens edited, that was most controversial.

The 1852 story Old Clothes, in which Dickens appeared to suggest that all Jews were "old-clothesmen in disguise" - essentially, lower-class peddlers - was the subject of a long and sarcastic letter to the JC from reader "P".

He thanked Dickens for bringing to his attention the previously unknown fact that "carrying the bag, and crying 'Ogh clo,' seems to be a sort of... apprenticeship which all Hebrews are subjected to", and speculated that Dickens must be haunted by a spectre from his childhood who caused him to see "in every beard a Jew, and in every Jew an old-clothesman, even in countries where no such thing as the "Ogh clo" trade exists".

P pointed out sharply that if Jews were dealers of second-hand clothing, it was largely because Dickens' ancestors had prevented Jews from taking up more "ennobling" pursuits.

A few weeks later, Dickens was offered "proof" that "the Jews have minds and ideas above the "old clothes bag", when several University of London graduates sent the JC notice of their examination success in fields including anatomy and physiology. "Is Mr Charles Dickens yet disposed to do us justice, and retract his unjust aspersions?" they asked.

In March 1851, the JC devoted a front page to coverage of Dickens' article "Biography of a bad shilling", in which "a Jew" was held responsible for the atrocious crime of melting down a respectable zinc door plate.

The JC complained that the author "once more seizes on the opportunity of adding to the insults and calumnies he had previously heaped on the Jewish community".

Noting that Dickens was influential enough to "eradicate from the vocabulary the fatal word 'prejudice'," the JC questioned why so many criminals in Dickens' work were Jewish when this did not match the "criminal calendar of the country".

The previous year, a debate raged in the JC over The Old Lady in Threadneedle Street, which claimed that the gold of the Bank of England was "sweated by Jews".

Reader "L L" complained that Dickens had "held up my creed to scorn and detestation in charging Jews with this dishonest practice" and suggested that the Jews of whom Dickens was writing must belong to the tribe "that has been charged with the murder of Christian infants, to make the Passover-bread with innocent blood".

Another reader claimed there was "no more enthusiastic admirer", but was saddened that Dickens only alluded to the Hebrews "for the purpose of attaching to our nation reproaches of vice, meanness and unworthiness". He added: "Were Dickens a miserable penny-a-liner, his observations would have been unworthy of remark."

Yet despite complaining of "20 years of misrepresentation on the part of the most generally read novelist", Dickens was still considered worthy of a fulsome editorial on his death in June 1870. The paper mourned the fact that "the greatest ornament of the press of England passed away".

And perhaps the clearest indication that Dickens would remain as loved by Jews as by his wider readership was a piece published in April 1870, just two months before he died, in which the JC implored another notorious artist to learn from Dickens' about-turn. In a message to German composer Richard Wagner, it noted: "It is never too late to remedy a mistake, when that mistake is only a literary one, A great man (certainly as great a man as Mr Wagner) once made an amende to the Jews for a published attack on them. May Mr Wagner take an opportunity of doing likewise?"

To the Jewish community, a man who was once criticised for libelling a people with his words was, by the time of his death, a hero to be celebrated for years to come.

Last updated: 12:46pm, December 22 2011