Was Dickens’ guilt about Fagin a product of his Jewish family?

Documentary evidence, including contemporary copies of the JC, sheds fascinating new light on Dicken’s Jewishness


This vintage image features Charles Dickens in his study.

May 23, 2022 14:32

The recent BBC series Dodger, a “prequel” to one aspect of Charles Dickens’s story of Oliver Twist, has revived once more the eternal controversy over the malevolent figure of Fagin, and this character’s role in the dark history of antisemitism.

In 1863, some 25 years after the publication of Oliver Twist, Dickens was taken to task by Eliza Davis, a middle aged Jewish woman who persuaded him to make at least some reparation for the damage he had caused. Their correspondence, which was published soon after his death, is held to be responsible for his decision to remove much of the most offensive material in the novel, as well as for inspiring the inclusion of the saintly Jewish character Riah, in Our Mutual Friend.

Eliza Davis’s influence on Dickens can be said to have resulted in the restoration of his reputation in the eyes of the Anglo-Jewish community — or at least in the eyes of the editors of the Jewish Chronicle. The paper had accused Dickens of “pandering to a vitiated taste” in creating Fagin, and being “a contaminating influence”. Yet after his death, he was described in terms of real affection, indeed something approaching reverence, and accompanied by a genuine sense of loss. The JC observed that the novelist’s work had struck a chord, “broke it to a pure echo and helped to make us — each of us — wiser and better.”

New evidence reveals the true significance of Dickens’s acquaintance with not only Mrs Davis, but her husband, James Phineas Davis — and raises some very interesting questions about Dickens’s own family background.

Eliza’s correspondence with Charles Dickens began in 1863, three years after she and her husband had bought from him the lease of Tavistock House. Eliza wrote to Dickens on the pretext of seeking his support for a charity appeal — a memorial to the late Lady Judith Montefiore — but the underlying purpose was to challenge him for the “great wrong” he had done to the Jewish people with the character of Fagin, and to ask him to “atone” for his actions in failing to extend to Jews the magnanimity and compassion for which he was so well regarded.

Eliza Davis was born in Jamaica in 1816, but later settled in England, marrying her cousin James Phineas Davis in 1835. Her husband was a successful and well-respected lawyer. But two years after the correspondence with Dickens had begun, James’s reputation was viciously attacked in the course of a scandalous libel case, one which has been overlooked until now.
In January 1865, Davis took legal action regarding the publication of a repellent, grossly antisemitic, 15-page pamphlet The Vampires of London. It was a vile composition, steeped in the worst imaginable slurs, comprising a prolonged accusation of extortion and exploitation by Jewish money lenders, in which it was falsely asserted that “Finny” Davis was the “arch-vampire”.

Although Davis won his action against the author, John Colborne, it had been coolly suggested in court that simply by being a Jew, Davis should expect to be associated with the supposed nefarious practices of money lenders. The hearing lasted only half-an-hour, the Judge awarded only a nominal sum, and Colborne left court to a round of applause.

This case was widely reported in the press and it is highly unlikely that Dickens did not read or hear about Davis’s experience. One might hope that it sharply reminded him that he had once, in a letter to a friend, described the purchaser of his house as “the Jew money lender”.
At the time of this case, Dickens had begun writing Our Mutual Friend. I would suggest it is possible to trace the direct influence of the Davis case on his evolving depiction of the kindly Riah, in an attempt to challenge the widely disseminated, antisemitic portrayal of Jewish money lenders.

Eliza Davis had an important influence on Dickens’s work, and helped to restore his standing within the Anglo Jewish community. But the motivation for her appeal to him might be more complex than previously realised.

Let us return to the issue of the Jewish Chronicle published days after Dickens’s death.
Below the tribute to him, there is an article with a headline in bold print: THE JEWS OF HOLLAND. My research suggests that Dickens may well have had some Dutch Jewish ancestry, and it is possible that Mrs Davis — who had family connections with at least one journalist who worked for the JC — and possibly other members of the Jewish community may have wondered if this was the case.

It is surprising how little is known about Dickens’ family origins. Early Dickensian scholars soon gave up any close investigation of his background, largely out of snobbery, when his ancestors turned out to include a grandfather who was a fraudster and a maternal great-grandfather who was a common barber-surgeon.

The latter was William Barrow, who married a woman named Ann Casteel in Bristol in 1758.
Further research now reveals that Ann came from a family of gilders and frame-makers who left the Spanish Netherlands during the late 17th century and settled originally in London.
Living in Bristol at the time of Ann’s marriage was a Lewis Casteel, who had worked as a gilder and owned the Unicorn Inn in Frog Lane.

The earliest documentation of this family is found in papers held in the House of Lords library. These include a 1678 petition from a number of “alien” craftsmen pleading to be released from prison, where they had been sent following an accusation of being Papists during the time of intense anti-Catholic hysteria surrounding the supposed Popish plot.

Lewis Casteels was one of these prisoners, claiming to be “Her Majesty’s Frame-maker” (meaning Charles II’s wife, Catherine of Braganza).

Another document, from Ireland, shows that four years earlier, a Lewis de Casteele was married in Dublin to one Beatrice Mountaseene. This is likely to be the same individual, or if not, a close relative.

Rather than being Catholics, the Casteels are far more likely, in origin at least, to have been Sephardi Jews. Casteel is a variant of Castile, a surname occurring in Jewish communities all over the world, including the Spanish Netherlands, and anywhere there had been settlement of Jews exiled from Spain or Portugal, and forced either to abandon or disguise their Jewish identities.

Looking again at the marriage in Dublin, where there was a new, small and covert Jewish community, it would seem likely that “Mountaseene” was a phonetic transcription of Montesinos, another Sephardi surname.

There had also been an early covert community in Bristol. Here we must consider the theoretical possibility that the Barrow family were of Jewish origin, as well as the Casteels.
Eliza Davis grew up in the West Indies, where there certainly were Jewish families with the name Barrow (derived from Baruch), as there were in London, and within the Montefiore family.

Some of Dickens’ Barrow relatives, such as his journalist uncle Edward and his cousin Grace, who was a singer, were referred to in the press at the time, in connection with him. Dickens’s aunt, Mary Barrow, had also been married to a Jewish military doctor, Matthew Lamerte, and this connection may well have been known to the Davis family.

Eliza Davis might not have known about the Casteel ancestry in Dickens’s ancestry but rightly or wrongly, she may have speculated that his Barrow relatives were originally Jewish. If so, asking Dickens to “atone” for his sins may well have been a deliberate and pointed moral mission.

Whether Dickens himself had ever suspected his own family origins demanded that that moral mission should succeed, we will probably never know.

Theresa Musgrove is a writer and researcher. This essay is based on material that was first published in The Dickensian

May 23, 2022 14:32

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