Romance in Maria Polack’s Fiction Without Romance

Heidi Kaufman (University of Oregon)

In the Preface to her first and only novel Fiction Without Romance; or, the Locket-Watch (1830) Maria Polack states, “many of the incidents alluded to in the tale, may be thought out of date, as it is now some time since it was written, having been prevented by illness from publishing it when I first intended” (Polack 1: 11).

Fiction Without Romance was published just once in 1830 by Effingham Wilson. Quotes in this essay taken from this single edition of the novel contain many typographical errors. I have not corrected these errors, nor have I called attention to them in order to let readers encounter the text as it appeared to readers in 1830.

Her submissive disclaimer hints at a number of vagaries, including elapsed time between the novel’s composition and publication and an unspecified illness. Polack lived from 1786–1849 and resided throughout her life in the East End of London. Her name appears on records connected with prominent Jewish institutions, including the Jews Free School, the Great Synagogue, and Brady Street Cemetery. James Picciotto notes that her father, Ephraim Polack, was John Braham’s music teacher and the grandfather of the playwright Elizabeth Polack (Picciotto 232).

John Braham (1774–1856) was a famous London tenor. For excellent discussions of his life and work see David Conway.

Synagogue records indicate that Maria Polack lost her father in 1812 and a child named after her father in 1816. And Cecil Roth claims that Fiction Without Romance is the first novel written by an English Jew (Roth 4).

Certainly, there were earlier fiction writers who were born Jewish, such as Benjamin Disraeli and the King sisters. I suspect Roth’s claim is based on the notion that at the point when their work was published, these earlier writers did not outwardly identify as Jews. The King sisters married Christians and had nothing to do with the Jewish community or Synagogue life. Disraeli was baptized as a child and remained Anglican throughout his adult life. Hence, Polack is the first known Anglo-Jewish writer to publish a novel while simultaneously identifying outwardly as Jewish. For a rich and impor…

Beyond these details, Polack’s life and work remain shrouded in mystery. Significantly, while extant records connect Polack with institutions in London’s Jewish world, the novel’s subject matter ties her to literary debates among English, or non-Jewish writers, of the 1790s. It is from this position, straddling English and Jewish worlds, where Fiction Without Romance makes some of its most controversial and bold arguments.

In his foundational work on the rise of Anglo-Jewish women’s literary culture in the mid-nineteenth century, Michael Galchinsky notes that most Jewish writers from this period engaged in some way with the form of the romance. In the years preceding this rise of secular Anglo-Jewish literary culture, “Jewish women were specifically targeted by ‘tolerant’ conversionist societies . . . They referred to Jewish women’s ‘malleability’ and ‘impressionability’, which was assumed to be part of the charm of their ‘oriental’ natures” (35). Writing romances offered mid-century Jewish women writers a mechanism for reclaiming earlier representations of Jewishness. Galchinsky adds, “By adopting or writing against the [romance] genre . . . Jewish women could position themselves along a continuum of Jews as traditionalists or reformers” (36). Put differently, Galchinsky suggests that this early Victorian generation of Jewish women writers used the genre of romance to comment on debates within the Jewish community regarding religious traditionalism and reform.

I’ve argued elsewhere that Fiction Without Romance emerges from this juncture where religious leaders and writers were wrestling with the demands of becoming modern.

See Heidi Kaufman, “England’s Jewish Renaissance: Maria Polack’s Fiction Without Romance (1830) in Context.”

Some wondered how to quell the seductions of conversion or to block the rise of religious laxity. Others questioned whether Jewish modernity was even possible without significant corruptions of religious rituals and Jewish identity. Polack’s novel, I argue, offers a response to such concerns signaled by its approach of addressing both the education of English readers on Jewish subjects and the education of Jewish readers on English subjects. Working from both directions, the novel promotes understanding of and respect for religious pluralism. Only then, Polack suggests, will the seductions of assimilation and conversion subside. Somewhat paradoxically, however, Polack uses a non-Jewish literary form (the novel) to lament the demise of Jewish ways of life. Yet in the process, she argues not for reason and rationalism and other Enlightenment subjects to overturn traditional religious culture, but for the two systems of belief to work together. Polack’s use of the term “rational morality” in her novel echoes language used by her Jewish contemporaries who argued that reason and religion were mutually constitutive. Michael Scrivener has noted that “Although Britain had no conventional Haskalah—modernizing Enlightenment movement of cultural renewal and reform led by an intellectual elite—which the German states did indeed have, Britain had a modernizing Jewry nevertheless, as well as reformist writers who tried to play the role of maskil, someone who was critical of traditional beliefs and practices and who adapted Jewish culture to modernity” ( “British-Jewish Writing” 159). Previously, I situated Polack within this framework, as one who sought ways to adapt Jewish culture for the modern world and who advocated for cross-cultural understanding. In the pages that follow I extend this argument to address another key context in the novel: Polack’s interest in non-Jewish, English concerns about the intersections of education, morality, and literary culture.

It is unclear what might have prompted Polack, an urban writer living in a Jewish community, to center her novel on the development of a Christian character in a rural Christian community. And what are we to make of Polack’s choice of the title, Fiction Without Romance, in a novel where she draws from romance conventions? Approaching these questions from the perspective of English literary history not only helps to highlight some of Polack’s influences, but situates the first self-identified Anglo-Jewish novelist in controversies that cut across religious boundaries. Jewish and Catholic subplots enter the narrative, certainly, but the novel’s central emphasis remains focused on the Protestant Eliza Desbro and her exemplary education in a rural cottage where she is raised by a Protestant family. While Galchinsky may see Polack’s turn to romance as a statement about Jewish reform, I suggest that it also advances an argument in favor of English literary reform, and, in particular, an argument for recouping romance to produce a new kind of literary realism—what writers of the 1790s described as life as it is.

Fiction Without Romance tells the story of an infant orphan, Eliza Desbro, rescued by her uncle, Edward Frederick Desbro, and brought to a rural cottage in Devonshire to be raised and educated by the Reverend George Howard, his wife Jane, and his recently widowed sister, Mrs. Wallace, who serves as Eliza’s preceptress. Howard, Desbro, and Mrs. Wallace contribute to Eliza’s education, discussing educational models and evoking debates from the 1790s about how best to teach morality to the young. The novel follows Eliza’s growth from an infant to her early adulthood when she marries and establishes a home of her own. Eliza’s curriculum is comprised of languages (French and Italian), sacred and religious history, music, and geography. The subjects of her studies and exposure to members of her rural community help Eliza to cultivate a “rational morality” emphasizing charity toward others and a strong moral conviction. Outside of her formal schooling Eliza meets a range of people including the Zachariahs, a Jewish family she befriends, cottagers struggling to make a living, and wealthy people living in self-indulgent, destructive circumstances. Thus, her exposure to a diverse range of people, even those lacking respectability, play a central part in Eliza’s education. The narrator explains that Mr. Howard’s pedagogy was deliberate: ‘First, the basis upon which Eliza’s education was founded, was too solid to be easily shaken. Secondly, he wished her to see something of mankind as they are, for in her uncle, Mrs. Wallace, and (he might have added himself,) she only saw them as they ought to be[.] Third, and lastly, he wished her to become acquainted with different characters, in order that she might have more scope for forming her opinions, and thus be enabled to judge for herself. (1: 122; emphasis added)’ The reference in this passage to the distinction between seeing humans “as they are” as opposed to ideals, or “as they ought to be,” draws out the novel’s tension between the ideal and the real. The best form of education, Polack argues, is that which enables young people to judge complex situations for themselves under both good and bad circumstances. To develop such consistency and conviction, pupils must be exposed to people and circumstances beyond their own social horizons. Yet, they also must learn to respect people as they are. In one early section of the chapter-less first Volume Mr. Zachariah explains, ‘our business is not to fiddle, dance, or game, but it is to be of utility to each other; and whether a man be born a prince, or a peasant, he is equally respectable, while he acts consistently in that particular sphere of life in which he is placed. So with religion,—I am a Jew, yet I love a friend, [Quaker]—I love a Christian,—I love all men that are good, and love them as they are; but the moment they swerve from that, I pity them. (1: 23; emphasis added)’ Here Zachariah promotes a cultural sphere so respectful of religious diversity as to make assimilation unnecessary. People are most worthy of respect, he suggests, when they are true to their identities, or when they resist the temptation to swerve from their distinctiveness. Noteworthy in this passage is Polack’s repeated use of the expression “as they are” which resonates directly with literary debates about romance’s proclivity for idealism versus fiction’s tendency toward representing life as it is—debates hinted at, as we shall see, in Polack’s choice of title, Fiction Without Romance.

While the novel seems mostly focused on Eliza Desbro’s education, at the center of the narrative is a mystery about her deceased parents and her uncle’s hidden past. Half-way through the two-volume novel, Eliza receives a written document explaining her family history, the effects of which shape the plot of the second volume. In that document, Eliza learns that her father, Charles Courtney, engaged in bigamy when he married her mother, Eliza Courtney. Upon learning about her would-be husband’s wife and child, Eliza Courtney becomes ill and perishes. In a fit of murderous rage and in defense of his sister’s honor, Edward Desbro stabs Charles Courtney. Believing him dead, Desbro whisks the infant Eliza to rural Devonshire to be raised by kinder people. Unbeknownst to all, Charles Courtney survives the attack, and lives out his life as a destructive profligate. Multiple plot twists later, the teenage Eliza meets Henry Cooper, who changed his surname to avoid association with his infamous father, Charles Courtney. Soon after their discovery that they are half-siblings, Eliza and Henry meet their dying father who, deeply repentant, leaves them his fortune. Along the way, Eliza befriends the Jewish Rebecca Zachariah, and learns of Rebecca’s sister, Sarah, who made an unfortunate marriage with a non-Jew that leads to her illness and death. Finally, readers learn about a Mrs. St. Clair, a Protestant woman whose marriage to a Catholic man results in disaster. The pattern of bad marriages suggests that men and women of all religions are susceptible to errors in judgement, and that young people need guidance navigating their culture’s courtship rituals. The temptation to marry out of one’s faith, however, is not exclusively a Jewish problem, nor is it solely a response to efforts in this period to convert Jews to Christianity; according to Fiction Without Romance the pressure to convert or assimilate is a wider, more universal problem that seduces the young, overly influenced by the hollow promise of romance, toward deadly missteps.

For important discussions of English efforts to convert Jews in this period see Black, Ragussis, and Scrivener.

Polack’s motif of a child raised in rural seclusion is a direct response to earlier works—most famously, perhaps, is Rousseau’s Emile; or On Education (1762) made even more (in)famous by Mary Wollstonecraft’s critique of that work in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In his educational novel, Rousseau charts a male child’s development into a rational being. Wollstonecraft expands and critiques Rousseau’s vision in her articulation of female education: ‘The most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason. This was Rousseau’s opinion respecting men: I extend it to women. (52) ’ The subjects of female education and reason tie Polack to these earlier debates of the 1790s by Wollstonecraft and others. Polack’s choice to name the heroine’s mother Eliza Courtney would have recalled Mary Hays’s sensational Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1795) whose provocative semi-autobiographical subject matter—meant to be a cautionary warning—nevertheless ruined the author’s reputation.

In her Preface to the novel Hays writes: ‘In delineating the character of Emma Courtney, I had not in view these fantastic models: I meant to represent her, as a human being, loving virtue, loving virtue while enslaved in passion, liable to the mistakes and weaknesses of our fragile nature. —Let those readers, who feel inclined to judge with severity the extravagance and eccentricity of her conduct, look into their own hearts; and should they there find no record, traced by an accusing spirit, to soften the asperity of their censured—yet, let them bear in mind, that the errors of my heroine we…

In her novel, Hays traces Emma Courtney’s unrequited passion for a man who turns out to have been secretly married all along. Marilyn L. Brooks maintains that, ‘from its opening pages Hays insisted that her novel be assessed within the new tradition of the Jacobin novel or the “fiction of reform” which developed after 1789, and which was epitomized by Godwin’s Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams: novels which are predicated on the philosophical insistence on the shaping power of circumstances and the tracing of the development of the mind and character. (18)’ In these texts we see the foundations of Polack’s interest in linking narratives about people “as they are”—which Zachariah echoed in his promotion of self-respect for religious identity—with questions of character development and reform. And while Jacobin advocates of reform may have had something very different in mind than early Anglo-Jewish debates over religious reform, Polack weaves them together in her depictions of an English girl’s education. Alan Richardson notes that, ‘While nearly all women writers of educational treatises and conduct books asserted the need for more substantial education and condemned the emphasis on superficial ‘accomplishments’ in girls’ boarding schools, they did so with a variety of ideological motivations, ranging from Wollstonecraft’s radical egalitarianism to the efforts of reactionaries like More and West to buttress the existing political and social order through selective reform. (170) ’ While Fiction Without Romance wasn’t published until 1830, Polack anchors her model of educational reform in literary debates from the 1790s, the period of her own youth.

To situate Polack’s work within the tradition of Jacobin writers might be heavy handed, as it would align her with a range of political views and a revolution of ideas far broader than Fiction Without Romance explicitly indicates. However, 1790s debates about reform clearly resonated with Polack’s interest in secular literary culture’s power to address questions of Jewish modernity and religious reform. Indeed, it’s difficult to ignore the appearance of Jacobin book titles and phrases in Fiction Without Romance, such as Things as They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb Williams; her references to “Miss Edgeworth’s moral and entertaining english [sic] tales,’ or the more beautiful french [sic] ones of ‘Marmontel” (Polack 1: 96); and her naming of characters that evoke progressive writers from the period (Mary Hays’s Emma Courtney, for example) as well as anti-Jacobin writers, such as Eliza’s conservative preceptress, Mrs. Howard, who evokes Elizabeth Hamilton, author of the more conservative Letters on Education (1801). Polack’s Prefatory admission that her novel might be thought out of date at the moment of publication—1830—makes more sense when contextualized by the novel’s interest in debates from the 1790s. How Polack stages these debates by including Jewish characters, combined with her method of appropriating features of romance, situate her novel within a number of key intersecting contexts. As I suggest below, her choice of title—Fiction Without Romance—in a novel that advocates for “rational morality” wants readers to believe reason and romance are separable aesthetic fields. Read through the lens of the novel, however, the title seems like a tactical choice aimed at questioning romance’s ambit and realism’s rising significance. Fiction Without Romance, therefore, signals some of the ways Anglo-Jewish writers adapted and contributed to non-Jewish, English literary debates.

In The English Jacobin Novel, Gary Kelly notes that while novels included in the category “Jacobin Novel” engaged with a wide array of views and political objectives, what they all had in common was the notion “that reason should decide the issue in human affairs and human government, not power based on money, age, rank, sex, or physical strength” (8). Jacobin texts sought a more democratic society based on equality and respect. As Polack integrates such concerns about charity—particularly for cottagers, members of the working classes, and women—over brutish, selfish assertions of power, she nevertheless remains focused on a discourse of reason and rationalism, even in salacious sections of the text concerning the “mystery attached to the birth of Eliza” (1: 179). The sympathetic Desbro, Eliza’s uncle and teacher, stands as a model for how equality can be both exercised individually and taught to the young, thereby insuring its persistence in the future. Desbro becomes the spokesperson for female education and rational morality. He is described as one who would not marry a woman “unless I truly loved her” (1: 42), as he explains: ‘Personal admiration alone is not sufficient to ensure a life of happiness, or even comfort. While I admire the person, I must be able, also to admire the mind. Perhaps I may be rather singular in my opinions on female education, but I am not so foolish as to be frightened at what the vulgar term “a learned woman.” Be assured, Sir, the female mind is equally strong and capacious with our own; and when a woman is ignorant, it is the fault of man that she is so. It is a sort of vanity, or conscious superiority in our sex, that disdain to acknowledge an equal in the other. . . . And I firmly believe, that the frivolity, so often depreciated in women, would cease to exist, if they were properly encouraged in the pursuit of more rational amusements. (1: 42)’ Here Polack likely refers to Bathsua Pell Makin’s expression “a learned woman” in her work, An Essay to Revise the Antient Education of Gentlewoman, in Religion, Manners, Arts and Tongues (1673). Desbro, a refined and thoughtful male character, becomes the defender of a “learned woman” and an educational philosophy aimed at “rational amusements” promoted in a previous era—the very kind of arguments that surfaced more than a hundred years later in the 1790s. In her Essay Makin argues,

To all Ingenious and Vertuous Ladies ...
Custom, when it is inveterate, hath a mighty influence: it hath the force of Nature itself. The Barbarous custom to breed Women low, is grown general amongst us, and hath prevailed so far, that it is verily believed . . . that Women are not endued with such Reason, as Men; nor capable of improvement by Education, as they are. It is lookt upon as a monstrous thing; to pretend the contrary. A Learned Woman is thought to be a Comet, that bodes Mischief, when ever it appears. To offer to the World the liberal Education of Women is to deface the Image of God in Man, it will make Women so high, and men so low, like Fire in the House-top, it will set the whole world in a Flame. (129)

In both the 1670s and 1790s the question of female education turned on the subject of women’s capacity for reason and rationalism. Whereas Rousseau would argue in Emile that women should be educated to serve men, and not to develop their own capacity for independent thought and self-possession, Polack would respond—armed with allusions to women writers of the 1790s— in her novel’s Preface where she states, “I have endeavoured, as much as possible, to keep within the limits of simplicity, for, were I to soar above the mediocrity of power, my ignorance would soon be detected and despised . . . I have, therefore, confined myself to that rational morality which many, I hope, will admire, and which all can comprehend” (1: i–ii). Here Polack hints at her confidence in her readership, and her assumption that “rational morality” is something all—and not just men—can comprehend.

We may wonder why a religiously traditional writer and the first Anglo-Jewish novelist would root the plot of her 1830 novel in debates from the 1790s among non-Jews. Born in 1786, Polack likely came of age as a reader in the years immediately following these debates. While she would have followed strict religious observances as a member of The Great Synagogue, she would not have read Jewish secular fiction, as none had yet been written. Hence, her reading habits and intellectual interests would have been shaped by books to which she had access, books written by non-Jews that rebuked popular gothic romances, promoting in their place texts advocating women’s capacity for reason. Polack’s knowledge of the very romance her title seems to reject and Jacobin writing from the 1790s is suggestive of her access to a broad range of literature. Indeed, her novel’s litany of references to novels, political treatises, plays, poetry, and religious history indicate that she was a learned woman in her own right.

While Kelly notes the persistence of debates in Jacobin fiction about the abuses of power, Polack’s engagement with rationalism pushes these debates into new territory. On the one hand, she includes passages that stridently promote women’s causes from across the social landscape; for Courtney abuses middle class women like Eliza’s mother as well as the working poor, such as the young maid Susan. Both women perish, suggesting that male abuse is a universal problem unaffected by social barriers. It is here, in depictions of emotional and physical abuse, where Polack weaves together educational philosophy and the mystery of Eliza’s father’s identity. While I agree with Galchinsky’s claim that Jewish women’s resistance to romance is tied to conversionist efforts of the period, I want to suggest that Polack is up to something else in Fiction Without Romance.

According to Galchinsky, “All of the earliest Anglo-Jewish women writers felt that they had to respond to the romance genre” (36).

Certainly gothic features frequently associated with romance are absent from the novel; but the novel’s emphasis on mystery and intrigue, murder, un-restrained passions, and women’s sexual vulnerability in the face of seducers and philanderers tie the novel to the tradition of eighteenth-century romance writing. As I suggest in the following analysis, Polack seems far less interested in rejecting the tradition of romance, than she does in reforming it. In effect, her novel moves romance away from the preserve of entertainment and toward a foundation for rational education. Thus, when she refers to fiction without romance, Polack signals both an approval of fiction (as it was defined by her contemporaries) and a concern for the potentially threatening effects of romance novels (as they were written) on young, female audiences. She therefore bends the tradition of romance to serve her higher goals of promoting female reason and morality.

The romance obviously has a long history, changing over time to accommodate shifting audiences and tastes as well as cultural functions of fiction. Toni Wein has noted of this history that “the aesthetic conflicts provoked by the romance revivalists [in the late eighteenth century] speak to a growing awareness of literature’s fitness for ideological service [. . . while] arguments on its behalf testify to the increasing importance of reading as a mode of entertainment” (40). She adds that one of the dominant features of romance in this period was the “topos of discovered origins” and of creating fictions that “reinstill[ed] the desire for social hierarchy” (40). On one level, Fiction Without Romance emphasizes a more democratic and pluralistic image of English society, one inclusive of immigrants, Jewish people, Catholics, and those living in poverty, and thus speaks to some of the ideological conventions Wein details. The novel’s interest in charity simultaneously imagines beneficent communal leaders who model forms of kindness and respect for the poor while using their higher social positions to benefit others. Discussions among characters about how to educate children or why learned women shouldn’t be perceived as a threat advance the novel’s political and literary concerns. Nevertheless, the mystery of Eliza’s past and the revelation of her rakish father and murderous uncle aestheticize mystery, drawing readers into a hidden plot of damsels in distress, sexual predators, and acts of intrigue performed by characters of ill-repute. Indeed, the novel’s emotional draw emerges through the slow unfolding of family secrets and the salacious revelation that, had such details not been revealed, Eliza may have accidentally married her half-brother. For these reasons, romance is not just present as a sub-plot in the novel; it’s the aesthetic force driving discussions about slow courtship rituals, the advocacy of parental authority in questions of marriage selection, and the importance of marrying into one’s faith group. In other words, Polack is not rejecting romance: she’s using it to further her vision of a rational educational agenda.

When Desbro arrives at the Howard home without explanation and with an infant in his arms, the narrator notes, “There was much mystery in the affair, and mystery is seldom the companion of virtue” (1: 14). Subsequent references to his unknown past repeat the word “mystery” as if to build wonder and suspense with each new mention. In a later passage even the level-headed Howard notes, “there was a mystery attached to the birth of Eliza, some parts of which were still wrapt in obscurity, in fact, they might never be elucidated” (1: 179). Withholding information to keep readers in suspense was a well-known trait of the romance. As Eliza’s Jewish friend, Rebecca Zachariah, explains when Eliza impatiently asks too many questions, “You would make a terrible heroine of romance . . . you want to know all the mystery at once” (2: 34). The mysteries of Desbro are disclosed in the final pages of the first volume. His history, which has been transcribed and saved by Howard, recounts Desbro’s moment of pure passion and unreason upon hearing Courtney confess without remorse, “It has ever been my fate, to love variety, and as your sister was not really my wife, [because he was already married] I was not compelled to sacrifice my inclination longer than I pleased” (1: 241). Desbro details his reaction to his would-be brother-in-law’s arrogant disregard for his sister Eliza’s well-being: ‘The cool, taunting, and insulting tone in which all this was uttered, irritated me more than the coarsest invectives could have done, I felt chokeing,—my eyes rolled with all the wildness of passion, unfortunately, a knife lay on a table near which I stood,—I seized it, and in a moment of phrenzy, plunged it into his bosom to the very haft[.] The noise he made in falling, roused me in some measure to the recollection of what I had done, and its probable consequences, I left the house, regardless of my own safety, but my niece! the orphan so awfully bequeathed to me! the thought of her, brought me to a full sense of my situation. . . . I ran without stopping, till I arrived at the house of Mrs. Ellis [Eliza’s caretaker]. . . . I laid down, and soon found myself incapable of rising, the agitation of my mind, had brought on a fever, I lay for a fortnight hardly conscious of my own existence; and when I recovered, it was some time before I was in a state fit to travel. . . . (1: 241) ’ The novel’s careful withholding and eventual disclosure of the attempted murder sub-plot recall tropes of romance novels, including bigamy and murder. Desbro’s wildness of passion in response to Courtney’s bigamy aligns Polack’s anti-romance novel with the very qualities it purports to define itself against. The reader’s challenge is to find a way to integrate seemingly contradictory pressures on romance and rationalism.

Gillian Beer explains that in the late eighteenth century the romance was thought to focus on “ideal possibilities” in contrast to the novel, which focused on “actual possibilities” (53). Richardson’s eponymous hero, Pamela, summarizes some of the most compelling arguments against romance when she claims: ‘There were very few novels and romances that my lady would permit me to read; and those I did, gave me no great pleasure; for either they dealt so much in the marvelous and improbable, or were so unnaturally inflaming to the passions, and so full of love and intrigue, that most of them seemed calculated to fire the imagination, rather than to inform the judgement. (qtd. in Beer 14) ’ Beer adds that the romance Pamela critiques, “drowns the voice of reason, it offers a dangerously misleading guide to everyday life, it rouses false expectations and stirs up passions best held in check” (14). The distinction between romance and realism was not simply a literary delineation, but was one bound up by questions concerning the effects of literary form on unsuspecting readers. The 1780s and 90s witnessed a rise of criticism of the kind of romances Pamela critiques. In The Progress of Romance (1785) one of Clara Reeve’s characters declares, “If read indiscriminately they [romances] are at best unprofitable, frequently productive of absurdities in manners and sentiments, sometimes hurtful to good morals” (7). Later this same character notes, “A Circulating Library is indeed a great evil,—young people are allowed to subscribe to them, and to read indiscriminately all they contain; and thus both food and poison are conveyed to the young mind together” (77). In such descriptions, literary dangers are tied to education and the choice of reading material. If only parents would teach young readers how to read and select works of literature, these critiques suggest, they could mitigate romance’s dangers.

Other significant strands of the debates about romance’s dangers focused on distinctions of literary form. Isaac D’Israeli among others claimed that “From Romances, which had now exhausted the patience of the public, sprung NOVELS,” adding, “It is not surprising that romances have been regarded as pernicious to good sense, morals, taste, and literature” (D’Israeli 2: 258). Sir Walter Scott responded to Dr. Johnson’s definition of romance by claiming, “We would be rather inclined to describe a Romance as a ‘a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvelous and uncommon incidents;’ thus being opposed to the kindred term Novel, which Johnson has described as ‘a smooth tale, generally of love’; but which we would rather define as ‘a fictitious narrative, differing from the Romance, because the events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human events, and the modern state of society’” (65). In her Preface to The Old English Baron (1778), a response to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Clara Reeve argued that history, fictional or not, “represents human nature as it is in real life, alas, too often a melancholy retrospect! Romance displays only the amiable side of the picture; it shews the pleasing features, and throws a veil over the blemishes” (12). Her emphasis on real life anticipates later literary interests in realism. However, at the point when Polack is writing—the first two decades of the nineteenth century—writers are not thinking about later Victorian debates about realism’s limits, but instead are preoccupied with the challenge of representing plausible events as a model for instruction. In fact, another Jacobin novel to which Polack refers, Things as They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) in which the titular figure engages in a murder in the name of justice, much like Desbro’s attempted murder of Charles Courtney, readers are led to sympathize with murderous acts committed for just causes that seek an end to abuses of power. And while stories of love had the potential to lead young women astray, or to mistake the fantasies they read about in romance novels with the actual worlds in which they lived, it was also the presence of what Deborah Lutz calls “the dangerous lover” who was considered to be a threat to young girls. Lutz describes this type of character as “the one whose eroticism lies in his dark past, his restless inquietude, his remorseful and rebellious exile from comfortable everyday living” (ix). In Fiction Without Romance dangerous lovers do manage to hurt several women, and stand in stark opposition to the more educated, refined gentleman who turn out to be far better marriage material. Yet, characters such as Desbro bridge these categories, and suggest either that what looks like romance might in fact be something else—something more like life as it is. Alternately, Desbro’s care of his niece Eliza and dedication to his sister’s good character spin moments of passion and violence as potentially worthy of forgiveness. If romances depicted villains giving way to passionate outbursts and violence, Polack’s adaptation of this form is to make their violence both justified and redeemable. In her vision of life as it is, characters grow and change, and therefore stand in sharp contrast to romance’s stock and static characters who stand for recognizable villainous types.

I’m suggesting that to read Fiction Without Romance exclusively in the context of Anglo-Jewish literary history misses an opportunity to understand Polack’s engagement with English writers. Similarly, to read English writers of this era outside of the contexts of the rise of Jewish secular culture, and that of other marginalized writers, is to miss seeing how literary debates from the center were variously interpreted, how they were evoked by writers from the margins, such as Polack, who expanded discussions of reason and rationalism as they advocated for religious pluralism and reform. Michael Ragussis illuminates other related features of these debates. During the very period when writers were carving out distinctions between romance and fiction, Protestant English culture became focused on what he describes as “the rhetoric of conversion and the figure of the Jewish convert” (1). Conversion entailed more than acts of transforming Jews into Christians; it was also interested in, Ragussis notes, advancing a form of repentance and reconciliation with God in the wake of transgressive acts. Ragussis explains, “the conversion of the Other (heathen, infidel, or Jew) is the surest sign of the conversion of the self, so that the true convert proves himself by becoming a proselytizer” (2). The prominent model of conversion in English fiction was therefore one that welcomed Jews (and others) into Christianity. Such logic had the advantage of positioning the English as liberal and tolerant of difference, open to accepting Jews, as long as they were willing to abandon their Jewish identity.

For a fuller discussion see Heidi Kaufman, English Origins, Jewish Discourse, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel, especially chapters 1 and 3.

Polack’s interest in promoting respect for religious difference surely grew out of conversion pressures in this period that rejected religious pluralism. Polack’s insistence on religious consistency, read in light of this context, is not a sign of Jewish resistance to change, but serves as a bulwark against the seductions of conversionist rhetoric, much of which had been imbibed and propelled by romance novels.

Interactions between Jewish and Christian families in Fiction Without Romance are presented as an opportunity to dispel prejudice and to help readers see and respect people as they are. Polack’s insistence on respect for religious difference and promotion of religious diversity invites us to consider how religious instruction converged with literary debates. Richard Altick notes that the rise of religious-based criticism against romances intensified in the early years of the nineteenth century as, he explains, ‘The hostility to novels which had been building up for several decades reached its peak in the early nineteenth century. The primary target was the circulating-library novel, compact of sensationalism, sentimentality, and (in the evangelical view) salaciousness. It was this very kind of book, however, which was best adapted to the taste of the reader whose limited education equipped him to relish little else . . . By barring from cheap religious reading matter the qualities most attractive to the novice reader; by denying him any acquaintance with pleasurable reading in elementary schools, village libraries, and other educational agencies under their control . . . the religious parties severely limited both the range and the attractiveness of the literary experience available to the working class. (123) ’ What gets lost in Altick’s discussion is a fullness of religious perspectives, and an awareness of the ways non-normative religious groups—and particularly Jewish working-class writers like Polack—actively participated in educational and religious debates through the use of romance. In the 1841 census Polack is listed as a teacher. Given the reading level of Fiction Without Romance, it’s likely that Polack wrote it for classroom use to educate children about the dangers of romance and the importance of cultivating rational morality. Perhaps it’s not surprising that an educator would preface her novel by stating, “I am not so presumptuous as to say, that I do not fear criticism; nor am I so pusillanimous as to shrink from it. I shall receive it as the wholesome chastisement which a judicious tutor bestows on the pupil whom he wishes to train towards proficiency” (1: i). Indeed, the novel and its paratexts are tied on all fronts to an educational philosophy rooted in reading and writing with proficiency. Yet, in such opening remarks Polack places herself in the position of the student who awaits “wholesome chastisement” from her teacher/reader. While this might be a sign that Polack had hopes of publishing again under the tutelage of her critics, it also reveals her opinion of how book reviews should work. Sadly, Polack never received the kind of feedback she describes in this passage. Her novel is listed in several newspapers announcing newly published books, but most fail to offer commentary—wholesome or otherwise—on the quality of the writing or her treatment of her subjects.

Only two Reviews mention Fiction Without Romance: The Literary Gazette and Edinburgh Review, and neither include additional material beyond the title and author of the novel.

A single anonymous review in The London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, Etc. notes, “Evidently the production of one anxious to benefit by the inculcation of excellent principles—the leisure hours of many of our young readers may be much worse employed than in the perusal of these well-meaning pages” (303).

While Fiction Without Romance has clear associations with English literary culture, one of its boldest moves was to connect Jacobin concerns about educational reform with Jewish debates about modernity and emancipation. In the novel’s publication year (1830) ‘all public offices were closed to professing Jews. They were debarred from Parliament and from civic office and were disqualified from any employment connected to the administration of justice. In the civil sphere, Jews were obstructed from entering professions which demanded a Christian oath: most branches of schoolteaching, medicine and the Bar were closed to them and, for the same reason, Jews were ineligible to take degrees or hold any office at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Between the years 1830–1871 these political and civil disadvantages were erased. (Feldman 1) ’

As Anglo-Jews fought for and won political emancipation, they simultaneously faced evangelical conversionist efforts. In fact, the rise of conversionist activity and discourse had the effect of mobilizing Jewish communities throughout London. Gerry Black explains, ‘The most important Societies were the Missionary Society (not specifically aimed at the Jews), founded in 1795; the London Missionary Society, effectively a committee of the Missionary Society that was created to work exclusively among the Jews; and the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews (LSPCJ), founded in 1809. Between 1806 and 1813, three missionary schools were established in and around the Jewish quarter. (Black 29–30) ’ As a resident and teacher in the Jewish quarter, Polack would have known first-hand the work of these missionary schools and her community’s response. The Rabbi of her Synagogue, Chief Rabbi Hirschell, spoke out on several occasions about the manipulations of missionary groups who made a habit of bribing Jewish children with food, clothing, and money (Black 30). According to Ragussis, “missions to convert the Jews became the subject of public scandal in the opening decades of the nineteenth century [during which] . . . English national character and its reputation for tolerance were called into question” (3). In subsequent years these conversion efforts made their way into British literary culture. He adds, ‘What had been throughout most of the eighteenth century a steady (if somewhat negligible) stream of literature on the conversion of the Jews and their restoration to Palestine became nothing short of a torrent in the 1790s. In the tumultuous events of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, millenarians saw the signs of the Second Coming, which, according to biblical prophecy, was to be preceded by the restoration of the Jews to Palestine and their conversion. (Ragussis 4) ’

Fiction Without Romance’s emphasis on marrying within one’s faith emerges directly from such fears about conversion and religious intermarriage. By imaging a friendship between Jewish and Christian young girls who educate one another on their differing religious cultures, Polack sets up a model for anti-conversionist tactics and learned respect for religious difference. In the process, she forges a new relationship between Jews and Christians governed by education and respect rather than a the compulsion of one group to conquer the other through conversion. We see this pattern played out repeatedly in conversations about the treatment of Jewish characters in the novel. A discussion of religious persecution between Eliza and Desbro helps to ground and unite these isolated moments. Eliza asks, “But, how is it, my dear uncle . . . that you seem so much more attached to the members of that nation [the Jewish people] than of some others? For instance, do you not think highly of the society of friends?” (2: 10) to which Desbro replies: ‘Most assuredly I do . . . but they are not so much entitled to our commiseration, having never undergone the various kinds of persecution, at least, in so great a degree, as the Jews have been fated to endure . . . while in the society of the Israelite . . . though their tenets are rigidly severe among themselves, yet, in the company of others, they are sprightly, intelligent, and among the better sort, generally men of refined education and polished manners. . . . [their women are] amiable and very lively; they have the reputation for great modesty, and for their exemplary conduct as wives and mothers, I believe they almost stand unrivalled. (2: 10–11) ’ Desbro supports the notion that children should be made to feel at ease with a range of people from disparate cultures and religious backgrounds, and to sympathize with those who have suffered from unjust persecution and prejudice. While much of Eliza’s education takes place in the cottage, sequestered from urban life, she has opportunities to meet visitors from London, and later to travel to London where she encounters refugees from Europe, and learns from her uncle Desbro—the would-be murderer with a passion for violence—how and why one must treat others with respect. Through these narrative turns, Polack focuses on questions at the center of secular English culture about the importance of educating children to honor religious pluralism. In so doing, Polack sketches the stakes of those debates for a wider audience of novel readers that included both Jewish and English audiences. The putative turn away from romance was thus a turn toward plots that readers could find in real life, things as they are, and from which they could develop a moral sensibility through the experience of reading romance in fiction without romance.

Works Cited

Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800–1900. U of Chicago P, 1957.
Beer, Gillian. The Romance. Methuen & Co Ltd, 1970.
Black, Gerry. JFS: A History of the Jews’ Free School, London since 1732. Tymsder Publishing, 1998.
Brooks, Marilyn L. Introduction. Memoirs of Emma Courtney. Broadview, 2000.
Conway, David. Jewry in Music: Entry to the Profession from the Enlightenment to Richard Wagner. Cambridge UP, 2012.
———. “John Braham—from meshorrer to tenor.” Jewish Historical Studies: Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, vol. 41, 2007, pp. 37–62.
D’Israeli, Isaac. “Romances.” The Curiosities of Literature, 5th ed., vol. 2, John Murray, 1807, pp. 245–60. 5 vols.
Feldman, David. Englishman and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture 1840–1914. Yale UP, 1994.
Galchinsky, Michael. The Origins of the Modern Jewish Woman Writer: Romance and Reform in Victorian England. Wayne State UP, 1996.
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Hamilton, Elizabeth. Letters on Education. Printed for H. Colbert, 1801.
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Kaufman, Heidi. “England’s Jewish Renaissance: Maria Polack’s Fiction Without Romance (1830) in Context.” Romanticism/Judaica: A Convergence of Cultures, edited by Sheila A. Spector, Ashgate, 2011, pp. 69–84. 
———. English Origins, Jewish Discourse, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel. Pennsylvania State UP, 2009.
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Polack, Maria. Fiction Without Romance; or The Locket-Watch. Effingham Wilson, 1830. 2 vols.
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———. Jewish Representation in British Literature 1780–1840: After Shylock. Palgrave, 2011.
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1. Fiction Without Romance was published just once in 1830 by Effingham Wilson. Quotes in this essay taken from this single edition of the novel contain many typographical errors. I have not corrected these errors, nor have I called attention to them in order to let readers encounter the text as it appeared to readers in 1830. [back]
2. John Braham (1774–1856) was a famous London tenor. For excellent discussions of his life and work see David Conway. [back]
3. Certainly, there were earlier fiction writers who were born Jewish, such as Benjamin Disraeli and the King sisters. I suspect Roth’s claim is based on the notion that at the point when their work was published, these earlier writers did not outwardly identify as Jews. The King sisters married Christians and had nothing to do with the Jewish community or Synagogue life. Disraeli was baptized as a child and remained Anglican throughout his adult life. Hence, Polack is the first known Anglo-Jewish writer to publish a novel while simultaneously identifying outwardly as Jewish. For a rich and important conversation that challenges Roth’s view see Michael Scrivener, especially chapter 5, and Diane Long Hoeveler. [back]
4. See Heidi Kaufman, “England’s Jewish Renaissance: Maria Polack’s Fiction Without Romance (1830) in Context.” [back]
5. For important discussions of English efforts to convert Jews in this period see Black, Ragussis, and Scrivener. [back]
6. In her Preface to the novel Hays writes: ‘In delineating the character of Emma Courtney, I had not in view these fantastic models: I meant to represent her, as a human being, loving virtue, loving virtue while enslaved in passion, liable to the mistakes and weaknesses of our fragile nature. —Let those readers, who feel inclined to judge with severity the extravagance and eccentricity of her conduct, look into their own hearts; and should they there find no record, traced by an accusing spirit, to soften the asperity of their censured—yet, let them bear in mind, that the errors of my heroine were the offspring of sensibility; and that the result of her hazardous experiment is calculated to operate as a warning, rather than as an example. (36)’ [back]
7. According to Galchinsky, “All of the earliest Anglo-Jewish women writers felt that they had to respond to the romance genre” (36). [back]
8. For a fuller discussion see Heidi Kaufman, English Origins, Jewish Discourse, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel, especially chapters 1 and 3. [back]
9. Only two Reviews mention Fiction Without Romance: The Literary Gazette and Edinburgh Review, and neither include additional material beyond the title and author of the novel. [back]