Helen Kelly

Dickens was prejudiced but did he also have Jewish ancestry?

He appears to have gone out of his way to hide his family background, but it could explain much about his life story


This vintage image features Charles Dickens in his study.

November 02, 2023 13:14

Charles Dickens was what one might call an equal-opportunities racist. He didn’t like the Irish. He accused blameless Inuit communities of having murdered British explorers. He was offensive about African-American prisoners and expressed his support of the man who violently repressed the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica. 

In one letter, addressed to a friend, he suggested that Hindus should be subjected to genocide. But his worst — because it is his most influential — bigotry is undoubtedly his antisemitism: slowly uncoiling itself in his early novels, dripping poison not just for the months that original serial publication lasted, but ever since. 

How much hatred has the character of Fagin spawned — that nasty, dirty, criminal old man who surrounds himself with little boys and who is, as readers of Oliver Twist are continually reminded, Jewish? The Old Curiosity Shop is too sentimental for modern tastes but Victorians loved it; they couldn’t get enough of the trials of Little Nell, who is menaced by the evil Quilp and his helpers, Sampson and Sally Brass. We’re never told explicitly that the Brass siblings are Jewish but we don’t need to be. Their names, their reddish hair, their address near Bevis Marks, frequently reiterated: together these make matters very clear. 

They keep a little girl in the basement of their house, beaten and half-starved. We seem to be veering close to blood libel until it becomes apparent that the girl is Sally’s own illegitimate daughter, and takes over as the novel’s heroine on her way to a happy ending. This doesn’t cancel out what Dickens had already written, of course, any more than his later invention of several perfectly nice Jewish characters can make up for Fagin. 

It is, though, an unexpected turn for such an antisemitic novel to take. It’s surprising, to say the least, to find Dickens suddenly encouraging his readers to celebrate Sally’s daughter, to be delighted that she has come up with a name for herself, gained an education, and married a Christian. 

Or perhaps, as it turns out, it isn’t.

In December 1821, when Charles Dickens was not quite ten years old, his aunt Mary married an army surgeon called Matthew Lamert. Dickens’s parents witnessed the marriage and a few months later Matthew probably became godfather to their new baby, who was christened Alfred Lamert Dickens. The newly-weds moved to Ireland, where in August 1822 Mary died in childbirth, her twins dying with her. 

This doesn’t seem to have been the end of the connection between the two families, however. Dickens’s official biographer, his friend John Forster, tells us that when the Dickens family moved to London, a young man called James Lamert, Matthew’s son from a previous marriage, moved with them. When, at the beginning of 1824, Charles Dickens’s father was imprisoned for debt, it was James (according to Forster) who found a job in a boot-polish factory for his young cousin. Readers may well be familiar with the affecting tale of Dickens’s experiences during this period, which sound just like a section from one of his novels and were, indeed, supposedly reproduced in David Copperfield.

A fair amount of effort has been expended over the years on trying to track down James Lamert, without success. It seems likely, now, that the reason he proved so hard to find was that he didn’t exist. When I located Matthew Lamert’s service record in the archives it gave the names of the six children born from his first marriage: George, Sophia, John, Joseph, Hannah, and Rebecca. We know from other sources that it was George who was involved in the boot-polish factory, with Sophia’s husband. Where the name James came from is a mystery — presumably the cousin in question was John, to whom Dickens was close.

The service record also tells us that Matthew Lamert’s first marriage, to a woman called Sarah Lamert, took place in 1798. Sure enough, you can find a Sarah Lamert marrying in 1798 — not to Matthew, but to Moses Lamert, in the Great Synagogue in London. 

Were Matthew and Moses the same person? Did Dickens, that notoriously antisemitic writer, really have Jewish relatives? Dates, apprenticeship records, they all match up. Further confirmation comes from a man called Abraham Lamert, a Jewish man who ran a business purveying various proprietary medicines such as the “Cordial Balm of Zura” and “the wonderful ointment, the Poor Irishman’s Friend”. Like many other business owners in the 19th century, Abraham advertised his products widely in the newspapers and in some of those he mentioned his “brother” (probably meaning brother-in-law), “Dr Lamert of the 7th RVB” — Matthew, who served with the 7th Royal Veterans’ Battalion. It’s almost certainly the same man.

There’s simply no way to tell for sure whether Dickens was aware of his uncle’s background. Given the ubiquity of Abraham Lamert’s advertisements, which continued well into the 1830s, it’s clearly possible that he was. There’s even a possibility that Dickens’s pen-name, Boz, refers to it. Forster tells us that the nickname of one of Dickens’s younger brothers was Boses, a would-be humorous variation on Moses. A literary reference, Forster suggests, but it’s also quite a coincidence.

Despite the antisemitism that mars his early fiction, Dickens seems to have given Forster the impression that he liked the Lamerts, telling a story of how John Lamert used to take him to see plays, and once bought him a toy theatre as a present. Was Dickens the kind of bigot who reassures himself that, after all, some of his best friends are Jewish? Did he perhaps reserve his hatred for a different culture or religion, looking more favourably on those who had assimilated? Or is it that he was trying to hide the truth?

Theresa Musgrove suggests that Dickens may have suspected that his mother’s forebears — a Bristol-based family called Barrow — themselves had Jewish ancestry. Whether or not her suggestion is correct, Dickens does seem to have gone to considerable trouble during his lifetime to conceal information about his background and early experiences. He provided his future biographer, John Forster, with a highly edited version of events to be published after his death, one which has succeeded in distracting our attention not only from certain episodes in Dickens’s life but also probable inspirations for his writing. 

Take Ellen Ternan, for example, who was probably Dickens’s mistress. So much ink has been expended on trying to establish the exact nature of the relationship that few biographers get around to pointing out that Ellen’s uncle, William, lived in Rochester — the nameless town where Miss Havisham resides in Great Expectations, the “Cloisterham” of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. 

And no biographer seems to have raised the very real possibility that William’s wife, Catherine, may have had Jewish ancestry. Her baptism record, and that of her brother, identify their parents as Solomon Hyman and his wife Keturah, who later anglicised her name. 

Ellen spent considerable time in Rochester with her aunt, uncle and cousins and other members of the Hyman family and there are several points of correspondence between these relations and characters and incidents in Dickens’s novels. 

The question of what Dickens knew, and what he thought, about these Jewish connections seems less important than the fact that they existed, that, though he penned two horribly antisemitic novels, both his early life and some of his later works might have looked quite different without Jewish influences. 

There are readers who harbour pardonable reservations about calling Charles Dickens one of the greatest British novelists, but he is. Boz’s stories and characters are familiar to millions around the world, still influential both culturally and politically. And it was John Lamert’s gift of a toy theatre which started it all.

The Life and Lies of Charles Dickens by Helena Kelly is published by Icon Books on November 2

November 02, 2023 13:14

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