"Romance in Maria Polack’s Fiction Without Romance" looks at the first Anglo-Jewish novelist’s engagement with 1790s debates about romance and realism. In her novel, Fiction Without Romance (1830), Polack does not simply reject romance, but instead suggests a reworking of the form to facilitate female education. By reading a Jewish writer’s work within the context of English, non-Jewish literary contexts, this essay traces the emergence of Jewish literary culture through its investments in literary reform.
Romance in Maria Polack’s Fiction Without Romance
1. 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Romance; or, the Locket-Watch (1830) Maria Polack states, “many of the incidents alluded to in the tale, may be thought out of date, as it is now some time since it was written, having been prevented by illness from publishing it when I first intended” (Polack 1: 11).  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).  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).  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.
2. 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.
3. 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.  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.
4. 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.
5. 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:
6. 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. 
7. 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:
8. 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.
9. 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:
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)
10. 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.
11. 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.  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.
12. 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.
13. 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:
14. 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:
15. 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.
16. 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.  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.
17. 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,
18. 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)
19. 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,
20. 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:
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 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
 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
 In her Preface to the novel Hays writes: