Political Correctness In The Victorian Age
[Another one of Harold's historical maunderings.]
An interesting historical anecdote has surfaced which enables scholarly types to date what we refer to as Political Correctness today, to one of its earliest manifestations, in the time of British novelist Charles Dickens. This was the same era in which Karl Marx, Frederich Engels, and the early Fabian Socialists thrived, and also the era in which the misnomer "anti-Semitism," i.e. criticism or accurate portrayal of the Jews, became "unfashionable."
The BBC reports that "Charles Dickens' portrayal of one of his most famous villains may have been altered after he received letters accusing him of anti-Semitism." The character in question, of course, was the famous East End master of thieves and trainer of young pickpockets in Oliver Twist, the infamous Fagin.
Fagin was portrayed by the novelist as a Jew for the simple reason that in Dickens' day, as in ours, crime was a very Jewish field of endeavor and the Tribe were noted for their thieving and corrupt tendencies, especially in London's teeming East End. (As an aside, the infamous Jack the Ripper who slaughtered six prostitutes in the East End in the autumn of 1888 was widely believed at the time to be a Jew, so much so that there were a number of anti-Jewish assaults and riots among local inhabitants as the killings continued.)
Getting back to the BBC report on Dickens, "Eliza Davies, the wife of a Jewish banker, wrote to Dickens in 1863 complaining of the 'vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew.' The letters are held at University College London's (UCL) library. It is thought the last chapter of Oliver Twist may have been revised in 1867 to show Fagin in a better light."
The end of the novel concludes with Fagin in the death cell screaming and cringing and fawning, out of his mind with fear, while he waits to be hanged at dawn. If that is a "better light," then it would be interesting to see how the original version of the book read.
It appears, though, that Dickens himself stuck to his guns. In those days, white men didn't roll over and play dead at the first whisper of "anti-Semitism" or "racism." I know it's hard to believe these days, but yes, some of our ancestors actually possessed spines.
According to the BBC, "Dickens wrote back to Mrs Davies saying: 'I must take leave to say that if there be any general feeling on the part of the intelligent Jewish people that I have done to them what you describe as a great wrong, they are a far less sensible, a far less just and a far less good tempered people than I have always supposed them to be.'"
By the standards of Dickens' time and class, this response is rather brusque. In the polite and elegant language of a true Victorian gentleman, Charles Dickens is telling the loud-mouthed Jewish yenta to piss off.
However, although it is difficult to tell at this distance in time exactly what happened, apparently sufficient Jewish pressure was brought behind the scenes so that Dickens (or his publisher) at least partly caved in. The BBC says "Dickens did make a few changes to his novel as a result of the letter and told Mrs Davies to 'see what I make of this in my next novel'," which was apparently nothing. There is no other major Jewish character in any of Dickens' works.
The BBC quotes some literary egghead type as saying, "'If you compare an early edition of the book, published between 1837 and 1838, and a later edition in 1867, supervised by Charles Dickens, he has made a number of changes with regards to Fagin...Instead of calling him The Jew he uses old man or Fagin and he changed the title of the last chapter from The Jew's Last Night Alive to Fagin's Last Night Alive.'"
In other words, it took the Jews almost thirty years of persistent backstairs intrigue and blackmail and pressure to do it, but they managed to at least partly get their way. This is an interesting historic first.
Of course, it might also have something to do with the rise to power of England's first Jewish prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli.
Of all her prime ministers in her sixty-four year reign, Queen Victoria loathed Disraeli more than any of the others. Even men whom she disagreed with politically, such as Gladstone and Salisbury, she always treated with regal courtesy, and in private she would allow them to sit with her and conduct a more or less normal, informal conversation. Disraeli alone was never allowed to appear before her in anything other than the exceedingly uncomfortable formal court dress--tails, spats, sash, and a stiff high stock or collar that locked the head in place like a medical neck brace. And as is famously known, not once in his entire career was the Jew allowed to be seated in the Queen's presence.
Victorian literature is rife with examples of unfavorable Jewish characters and references. In addition to Dickens' Fagin, there is the repulsive financier and swindler Melmotte in Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, and Arthur Conan Doyle's repeated references to someone in hock to the moneylenders being "in the hands of the Jews."
In view of the fact that Queen Victoria never allowed a Jew to sit down in her presence, maybe we know from whom they were taking their cue.