By Brenda S. Cox
I have reviewed many Christian Jane Austen variations, and one Muslim variation (Unmarriageable). Recently I was interested to find The Meyersons of Meryton by Mirta Ines Trupp, a novel which adds a Jewish rabbi and his family to the families of Meryton, in a variation on Pride and Prejudice. Trupp gives us another dimension of life in Austen’s England.
In the story, during Elizabeth and Darcy’s engagement period, the Meyersons move to Meryton. Because of their connection with the Gardiners, as well as the Rothschilds and other influential Jewish families, Mr. Bennet welcomes them. Before long Mrs. Bennet, the Lucases, and others are also welcoming them and asking questions about their faith and practices.
Besides the arrival of a new family, the preparations for Elizabeth’s wedding are intertwined with a surprising adventure. Mr. Bennet and Rabbi Meyerson help track down corruption and counterfeiting in Brighton. Wickham and Lydia are of course also involved. It’s a fun story, and I hope you’ll enjoy it!
Jewish People in England
A few things I learned about the Jews in Jane Austen’s England from this book (quotes are from The Meyersons of Meryton):
- There had been Jews in England since the 1650s, when Oliver Cromwell readmitted them to England.
- Rothschild, a Jew, helped to bankroll Wellington and his troops in the war against Napoleon. His brother-in-law and business partner Moses Montefiore plays an indirect part in the novel.
- Jews in the upper classes in England struggled with how much they should follow their dietary laws. Judith Montefiore was “ever experimenting and creating new recipes, refusing to lower her standards . . .” She and her husband entertained “many prominent families of the highest social circles, and even more astonishing, their Christian acquaintances [were] demanding their own chefs learn to prepare a kosher cuisine. . . .[they found it] a delight to their fastidious digestion.”
- Upper class Jews formed societies such as the Jewish Ladies’ Loan and Visiting Society and the Jews’ Orphan Asylum, similar to the societies being promoted by Christians at that time. Schools for underprivileged Jewish girls trained them to be kitchen maids and ladies’ maids for Jewish households, and nurses.
- A committee developed Jewish communities around England, helping provide schools, clergy, and houses of worship.
- The Jewish community was “living in an enlightened era of unprecedented freedoms, thanks, in part, to the removal of legal discrimination and forced conversions.”
Outreach to the Jews in Austen’s England
I am no expert on the Jews of Austen’s England, and was delighted to learn more. I have, however, done a lot of research on the Christians of Austen’s England. I think that one comment in this book is misleading. The Meyersons and Bennets discuss William Wilberforce and the Society Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews.
Mary Bennet says, “While I am aware that this is a charitable attempt to convert the Jew, I do not condone the action. Let the convert come to Christ on his own volition, not by reprimand or coercion. Surely the example of our Savior has shown us the way to it.” This remark implies that the Society was converting Jews by “coercion.” According to my understanding of Wilberforce, and my reading about this society, this Society did no such thing. They invited Jews, explaining the Christian gospel to them through conversations and tracts. They also worked towards helping Christians understand their Jewish roots, and promoted tolerance. There was no coercion involved, and in fact few converted from one faith to another. But there seems to have been some progress in understanding one another better.
Wilberforce said the goal was “to do them [the Jews] good, spiritual and temporal.” An early leader of the Society, Lewis Way, “agreed with the Jew who told him, ‘The only way to make converts of our nation is to show them personal kindness and prove that you consider them as entitled to the common respect paid to other people of different religions’” (Scult, 6).
I think such an approach, with kindness and respect, is how a member of any religion should treat those of any other religion. In The Meyersons of Meryton, we see Christians and Jews of Austen’s England treating each other kindly and respectfully, as it should be.
The Author’s Response
In this spirit of respect, I asked Mirta Ines Trupp to respond to my comments above. Here is what she wrote, including some very helpful points:
“Mary Bennet states she has some knowledge of Wilberforce and The Society Promoting Christianity Amongst Jews. Her understanding is that the purpose of the Society is to ‘rescue unhappy Jews from the state of moral degradation.’ To which Rabbi Meyerson replies: ‘I assure you, Miss Mary, we are neither unhappy nor are we in need of rescuing.’
“Herein lies the problem. While good and kind-hearted Christians may believe they are performing a service when they proselytize, the vast majority of Jews do not see it in the same light. One must recall what has occurred to Jewish people—to my people—throughout the course of history. They were slaves in Pharaoh’s Egypt. The Greeks came and tried to destroy them. The Romans came and tried to destroy them. Nebuchadnezzar dispersed them throughout Europe and Northern Africa. The Crusades. The Inquisition. The Pogroms. The Holocaust. At every turn, if they refused to give up their faith they were faced with torture, expulsion or death.
“In nineteenth-century England, there was, indeed, some movement into the upper echelons of society, but at what cost? My research shows that many Anglo-Jews considered conversion as a necessity to provide a better—safer—life for their loved ones; and in the process, countless family lines were lost. A brief look at The Jewish Emancipation Controversy in Nineteenth Century Britain (U.R.Q. Henriques/ JSTOR.org) states the following: ‘…Since their return to England in the 17th century, the Jews had occupied a precarious legal position. The naturalization act of 1753 for foreign born Jews had been repealed after a tremendous anti-Semitic storm. In 1828, they were still excluded from Crown office, from corporations, from Parliament and from most professions, the entrance to which bristled with religious tests, oaths and declarations. It was not even certain whether a recently discovered five-hundred-year-old statue of Edward I did not apply which forbade them to own land. The repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1826, and the admission of Roman Catholics to Parliament in 1829 left the Jews worse off than before. They were now the only religious minority (apart from atheists) subject to serious political disabilities.’
“Mary Bennet used the word ‘coercion’ with regards to conversion. Perhaps that word is misleading. Perhaps the reader will think only of violent or physical acts. But there are other ways to manipulate a person who may be weak, without recourse—or worse yet, ignorant of his/her own religion. Traditionally, in Orthodox Judaism, a prospective convert is rebuffed by the rabbi or teacher. To be exact, they are rebuffed three times. This is to test their conviction. To allow time for reflection and introspection. Mary said, ‘May the convert come of his own volition.’—not out of fear, not out of necessity, but fully ready to accept the precepts and theology that they themselves have chosen. As you have stated, the people of Meryton, both Christian and Jew, treated one another with kindness and respect. That was my entire premise for writing The Meyersons of Meryton. I am grateful for readers who have an open mind and an open heart. Thank you again for your interest and your generous spirit in inviting me to this discussion.”
Do you have daily encounters with people of other religious beliefs than your own? Perhaps in your neighborhood, at the store, or at the doctor’s office? If so, how can you treat those people with kindness and respect, and learn to understand them better?
For Further Reading
The Meyersons of Meryton by Mirta Ines Trupp (available on kindle unlimited)
The Jews of Georgian England, 1714-1830: Tradition and Change in a Liberal Society, by Todd M. Endelman, is one of Trupp’s sources; it appears to be a scholarly look at this period for those who want more information.
“English Missions to the Jews: Conversion in the Age of Emancipation” by Mel Scult, Jewish Social Studies, 35:1 (Jan., 1973), pp. 3-17, gives more information about the history of the Society Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews.