Anti-Semitism in Victorian Literature

The widespread existence of anti-semitism is one of the ugliest aspects the Victorian Era, having permeated almost every aspect of society.  This is especially evident in this section of She, during which Holly and Ayesha spend a good deal of time discussing the evil of the Jews.  Haggard’s inclusion of such wildly anti-semitic speech reinforces the popularity of bashing Jews in Victorian society.

Ayesha herself speaks directly of stereotypes surrounding Jews in the 19th century.  “They would care naught for any God if he came not with pomp and power,” she says of the Jews regarding the arrival of Jesus.  Jews were “a high-stomached people, greedy of aught that brought them wealth and power.”  She speaks of them breaking her heart and driving her to her current wilderness.  Indeed, “at the Gate of the Temple those white-bearded hypocrites and Rabbis hounded the people on to stone [Ayesha],” and left a physical scar on her after she tried to teach them about wisdom (never mind the fact that Rabbis did not even exist until well after the destruction of the Second Temple and the beginning of the Jewish diaspora, when Ayesha was already supposedly residing in Africa).

Holly fights back against none of these claims.  As far as he is concerned, the Jews were scattered across the world because they crucified their messiah.  The author, Haggard, clearly agrees with many “facts” presented in Ayesha and Holly’s dialogue, and spends by far the most time of any culture recapping the history of the Jewish people.  However, anti-semitism is not limited to She by any means.  Caleb Garth claims he will be “as rich as a Jew” in Middlemarch, and Will Ladislaw is described as being the son of a “thieving Jew pawnbroker” (379, 727).

Anti-semitic sentiments like those presented by Haggard and Elliot serve to date their respective works, but also to remind modern readers just how widespread anti-semitism was in an age of supposed social and scientific progress.  Stereotypes like anti-semitism existed in Victorian England, and literature only served to perpetuate and communicate them to a larger audience.

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