Decorated initial I

n 1817 Maria Edgeworth published Harrington, a novel written in response, as her father and collaborator acknowledged in the Preface, to “an extremely well written letter” from one of her American readers, “a Jewish lady, complaining of the illiberality with which the Jewish nation had been treated in some of Miss Edgeworth’s works” (iii). For example, The Absentee (1812) portrays the Jewish coachmaker and money-lender Mordecai as an extremely unattractive character, and although the Jewish Lady Rackrent in Castle Rackrent (1800) is herself badly treated by the landed Irish gentleman who married her for her fortune, the novel presents her in an unfavourable light. Edgeworth — not much read nowadays, but hugely successful in her time and much admired by Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott – thereupon created Harrington whose protagonist is an upper-class young Englishman raised in an environment permeated by antisemitism. William Harrington Harrington’s father is “not only a member of parliament but a man of “some consequence with his party” who, though he had “usually been a staunch friend of government . . . had voted, when he first came into parliament, nine or ten years before, . . . against the . . . bill for the Naturalization of the Jews of England” (14). The book’s hero, who narrates the novel, tells how he overcomes both the primitive anti-Semitism of his own boyhood years and the less openly aggressive but no less hateful and pervasive anti-Semitism of his family and entire social environment. Over the years he becomes friendly with Jews whom he defends against widespread dislike, distrust, and disdain; and, on reaching manhood, he falls in love with the daughter of an extremely wealthy, but also extraordinarily kind and cultured Spanish-born London Jewish merchant, whom he comes to admire as a perfect gentleman.

Edgeworth refers to her own earlier publications in the narrative. Just as he was overcoming his early fear and hatred of Jews, Harrington relates,

I became fond of reading, and I never saw the word [Jew] in any page of any book, which I happened to open, without immediately stopping to read the passage. And here I must observe that not only in the old story books, where the Jews are sure to be wicked as the bad fairies, or bad genii, or allegorical personifications of the devils and the vices in the old emblems, mysteries, moralities, &c.; but in almost every work of fiction I found them represented as hateful beings; nay, even in modern tales of very late years, since I have come to man’s estate, I have met with books by authors professing candour and toleration – books written expressly for the rising generation, called, if I mistake not, Moral Tales for Young People; and even in these, wherever the Jews are introduced, I find that they are invariably represented as beings of a mean, avaricious, unprincipled, treacherous character. [12-13]

As her readers would almost certainly have known, Edgeworth was herself the author of Moral Tales for Young People, published in 1802.

Fear and dislike of Jews, the hero recalls, were first inculcated in him as a small child by his nanny, who liked to tell him

at midnight, about a Jew who lived in Paris in a dark alley, and who professed to sell pork pies; but it was found out at last that the pies were not pork – they were made of the flesh of little children. His wife used to stand at the door of her den to watch for little children, and, as they were passing, would tempt them in with cakes and sweetmeats. There was a trap-door in the cellar, and the children were dragged down; and ---- Oh! How my blood ran cold when we came to the terrible trap-door. Were there, I asked, such things in London now?

The answer was “Oh, yes! In dark narrow lanes there were Jews now living, and watching always for such little children as me; I should take care they did not catch me.” The young lad’s almost pathological aversion to Jews (he began to suffer not insignificant psychic disorders) was reinforced when he noticed that it had won him celebrity in his and his parents’ social milieu. No doubt “in our enlightened days and in the present improved state of education,” the mature Harrington observes,

it may appear incredible that any nursery-maid could be so wicked, as to relate, or any six year old so foolish as to credit such tales; but I am speaking of what happened many years ago . . . , and in further proof of the progress of human knowledge and reason, we may recollect that many of these very stories of the Jews, which we now hold too preposterous for the infant and the nursery-maid to credit, were some centuries ago universally believed by the English nation, and had furnished more than one of our kings with pretexts for extortion and massacres. [2-3]

The nursery-maid having inspired terror in the young boy by threatening to hand him over to Simon, a Jewish pedlar who comes by the Harringtons’ house from time to time with his bag of old clothes, the boy’s mother pays the Jew to stay away. But the prospect of getting paid to stay away simply attracts “another and another Jew, each more hideous than the former” – except that, as the hero discovers later, these were in fact “good Christian beggars, dressed up and daubed, for the purpose of looking as frightful, and as like the traditionary representations and vulgar notions of a malicious, revengeful, ominous looking Shylock as ever whetted his knife” (10). At home the young Harrington hears his father “talk with horror of some young gentleman who had been dealing with the Jews.” To his request for an explanation, his father responds: “When a man once goes to the Jews, he soon goes to the devil. So Harrington, my boy. I charge you at your peril, whatever else you do, keep out of the hands of the Jews—never go near the Jews: if once they catch hold of you, there’s an end of you my boy” (12). Soon enough, Harrington begins asking himself the question “whether they [the Jews] ought to be let to live in England, or anywhere” (16).

The anti-Semitism of Harrington’s mother remains relatively subdued. It appears chiefly in her concealing a letter of introduction to a wealthy Spanish-born London Jewish merchant named Montenero. That letter for her son came from his Cambridge University Hebrew teacher, with whom he had struck up a good relationship as a student-- and to whom he had in turn been introduced by a Jewish boy he had, as a schoolboy, first defended and then befriended. Furthermore, on learning of her son’s serious interest in Montenero’s daughter Berenice, she refuses to have anything to do with the Montenero family. His father’s deep-seated anti-Semitism, which appears frequently and violently, culminates in hi threat to disinherit his son if he should ever marry “that Jewess.” Even Harrington’s skilful physical defence of Montenero’s property, where Lady de Brantefield and her daughter had been given shelter from a mob pursuing them during the Gordon riots of 1788, cannot win unreserved praise from his father.

Harrington’s vigorous rejection of his society’s endemic anti-Semitism becomes all the more determined as he encounters it everywhere, in all classes – his own upper class social milieu, the populace, and the middle class, as represented by a Mrs. Coates, the wife of an alderman supposedly on good terms with Montenero. “It’s my notion,” Mrs. Coates opines at one point in the narrative, as she is putting Berenice down, “that the Jews is both a very unsocial and a very revengeful people” (ch. XI, 99).

His escape from the prejudice inculcated in him as a child, Edgeworth’s young hero explains, began at school when, on the death of a Scottish pedlar who was permitted to stop by the school every Thursday evening to supply the students’ “various wants and fancies,” two candidates presented themselves to take his place. One was an “English lad,” who had worked in the family of Harrington’s best friend, known as Lord Mowbray, the son of “Lady de Brantefield,” and who was admitted by Mowbray to be “a rogue”; the other was “a Jew boy of the name of Jacob.” The schoolboys themselves had the right to elect the successor of the deceased Scottish pedlar. The school quickly divided into two camps, one supporting the “English lad,” the other the “Jew boy.” Reminding him of his strong fear and dislike of Jews, Mowbray “easily engaged me to join him against the Jew boy,” Harrington relates. The competition was resolved, however, when one of the simplest of the schoolchildren told the assembled young voters how he had in secret tried to get the Jewish boy to accept his silver pencil-case in exchange for a top, only to have Jacob refuse the deal, explaining to him that the silver pencil-case was worth multiple tops. By this spontaneous act of honesty and generosity, by his refusal to take advantage of the schoolboy’s innocence, Jacob won both the students’ respect and the election and became the school’s weekly pedlar. “Mowbray and I, and all our party, vexed and mortified . . . determined to plague and persecute him, till we should force him to give up.”

Every Thursday evening, the moment he appeared in the school-room, or on the play-ground, our party commenced the attack upon “the Wandering Jew,” as we called this poor pedlar; and with every opprobrious nickname, and every practical jest, that mischievous and incensed schoolboy zealots could devise, we persecuted and tortured him, body and mind. We twanged at once a hundred Jew’s-harps in his ear, and before his eyes we paraded the effigy of a Jew, dressed in a gabardine of rags and paper. In the passages through which he was to pass, we set stumbling-blocks in his way, we threw orange-peel in his path, and when he slipped or fell, we laughed him to scorn, and we triumphed over him, the more he was hurt, or the more his goods were injured. We laughed at his losses, mocked at his gains, scorned his nation, thwarted his bargains, cooled his friends, heated his enemies – and what was our reason? He was a Jew. [ch. III, 18-19]

But, patient and enduring, “he was as unlike to Shylock as it is possible to conceive,” Harrington has to note. And he asks himself retrospectively how he, who “was not in other cases a cruel or ill-natured boy, could be so inhuman to this poor, unprotected, unoffending creature.” Finally, having seen how Mowbray tried to cheat the young Jew by buying watches from him and refusing to pay for them on the grounds that he had been overcharged, and then threatening to make him regret it if the young pedlar should appeal to the schoolmasters, Harrington began to question his support of his domineering friend Lord Mowbray. Further developments in the episode -- the interference of Mowbray’s haughtily “aristocratic” mother after her son was finally reprimanded and told to return the watches or be expelled from the school; her accompaniment of the money owed to Jacob with strong reproof to her son, not for cheating the young pedlar, but “for his folly in ever dealing with a Jew”; the insulting manner in which Mowbray threw down the money to Jacob (“There’s your money, take it -- aye count it . . . and thank Heaven and my friends, the pound of flesh next my heart is safe from your knife, Shylock”); and Jacob’s restrained and dignified response – led him to cry “Shame” to Mowbray. “’I could not use a dog so,’ said I. ‘A dog, no! Nor I,’” Mowbray responds; “‘but this is a Jew.’ ‘A fellow-creature,’ said I.” Soon the two friends come to blows, as Mowbray accuses Harrington of being “a Jew at heart” and Harrington retorts, winning the support of all the other boys, “more of a Christian – by sticking more to the maxim ‘Do as you would be done by.’”

The upshot is that – for the sake of peace among the schoolboys, and to the regret of almost all of them, from both parties, those favouring the Jew, but also those who had favoured the “English lad”-- Jacob resigns. “Young Lord, and dear young gentleman,” he says to Mowbray and Harrington, “let poor Jacob be no more cause now, or ever, of quarrel between you” (26).

Fortuitously – this is, after all, a fiction – Harrington, bound for Cambridge years later to continue his studies, comes upon Jacob again on the road and the two bond together in kindness, affection, and mutual respect. Jacob, who turns out to be the son of the pedlar Harrington’s nanny used to evoke to strike fear in him as a child, has a pile of books in a pedlar’s box and begs Harrington to take one of them, a biography of Moses Mendelssohn, “the Jewish Socrates.” Noticing that one of the books is addressed to a Mr. Israel Lyons, Cambridge, Harrington explains that he is on his way to study there and, urging Jacob to visit him, gives him directions to his college. A few days later, Jacob shows up and, as Mr. Lyons is out of town, asks Harrington to deliver the book to him on his return. Having heard Lyons described by Jacob as “a learned rabbi . . . the son of a Polish Jew,” currently employed as a teacher of Hebrew to Cambridge scholars, albeit also the author of books on mathematics and botany, Harrington -- liberated from prejudice as he believes he is -- expects, when he calls on him to deliver the book, to find “a man nearly as old as Methuselah, with a reverend beard, dirty and shabby.” Instead, he relates, “I saw a gay looking man, of middle age, with quick, sparkling black eyes, and altogether a person of modern appearance, both in dress and address.” He is so taken aback that he thinks he may have made a mistake. But no. “Though he was a Hebrew teacher, he was proud of showing himself to be a man of the world. I found him in the midst of his Hebrew scholars, and moreover with some of the best mathematicians, and some of the first literary men in Cambridge.” The two soon enter into conversation, “much to our mutual relief and delight,” allowing Harrington to find “by his conversation, that though he was the son of a great Hebrew grammarian, and himself an accomplished Hebrew scholar, and though he had written a treatise on fluxions, and a work on botany, yet he was not a mere mathematician, a mere grammarian, or a mere botanist, nor yet a dull pedant” but “a man of a remarkably fertile genius,” with a “carelessness about money” and “disregard, on all occasions, of pecuniary interest” that convince the young Harrington of “his liberal spirit.”

The relationship, sustained during Harrington’s years as a student at Cambridge, led to the young man’s telling Lyons, as he was taking his leave of him, of his early anti-Semitism, how “even as a schoolboy,” he “had conquered this foolish prejudice,” and how much he appreciated that at Cambridge it had been his “good fortune to become acquainted with one, whose superior abilities and kindness of disposition” had formed in his mind “associations of quite an opposite nature” where Jews were concerned. To confirm him in those sentiments, the young Harrington relates, Mr. Lyons gave him a letter of introduction to a good friend in London, “Mr. Montenero, a Jewish gentleman born in Spain who had early in life quitted that country, in consequence of his horror of tyranny and persecution,” been “fortunate enough to carry his wealth, which was very considerable, safely out of Spain,” and to settle “in America, where he had enjoyed perfect toleration and freedom of religious opinion,” before moving finally to England itself (ch iv, 30-34). Thus began what was to be the central experience of Harrington’s life, his friendship with Montenero and his love of Montenero’s daughter Berenice.

Edgeworth pursues her fictional hero through a number of dramatic episodes illustrating his attachment to Montenero, the latter’s humanity, generosity, and culture (he is a connoisseur of art and has a fine collection of paintings), the mean-spiritedness and narrow-mindedness of those prejudiced against Jews, no matter how high the latter may have succeeded in placing themselves in the social register, the hidden hostility of his supposed friend Mowbray in contrast to the loyal friendship of Jacob, and, at the centre of it all, his love of Berenice, who, after turning down Mowbray, accepts his marriage proposal. In light of Montenero’s generosity in bailing him out of a serious financial difficulty, Harrington’s father and mother finally come around to accepting, uneasily, the marriage of their son with “the Jewess.” At the end, however, in the final pages of the novel, it is revealed, to the immense delight of Harrington’s parents, that Berenice is not in fact Jewish. Montenero does indeed consider her and love her as his daughter, “but her mother was a Christian, . . . daughter of an English gentleman, of good family, who accompanied one of your ambassadors to Spain,” and in accordance with “my promise to Mrs. Montenero, Berenice has been bred in her faith – a Christian – a Protestant . . . , an English Protestant” (ch. XIX, 203). The novel does not close on this convenient revelation, however, but on an act of compassion and generosity on the part of Montenero the Jew.

Edgeworth has been criticised for ultimately evading the difficult issue of intermarriage – as Scott was to be later when he has Ivanhoe marry Rowena rather than Rebecca. To some critics, the revelation that Berenice is, after all, an English Protestant, points to what they see as a wider shortcoming of the novel as a whole, namely that the other (the Jew) in general is acceptable as a member of English society insofar as he or she has in fact adopted Christian values and behaviours, as have Jacob, Mr. Lyons, and Montenero. According to Rachel Schulkins, “the means through which Edgeworth attempts to ‘overturn’ the traditional Jewish stereotypes are by portraying the Jew as essentially a good Christian” (477-78; for a different view of Harrington, as a utopian novel, see Howitt, 293-314). In other words, complete acculturation is the condition of integration and emancipation. From the point of view of modern multiculturalism, this is no doubt a serious limitation; in the early nineteenth century, however, integration and emancipation through acculturation and without conversion was a progressive, modern position.

The Novel’s Social and Political Contexts: Jews and Judaism in Great Britain


Maria. Harrington in Tales and Novels. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1969), IX: 1-208 (rprt. of The Longford Edition, 1893).

Howitt, Regina.“Maria Edgeworth’s ‘Harrington’ as a Utopian novel.” Studies in the Novel, 46 (2014): 293-314.

Ragussis, Michael. Figures of Conversion: “The Jewish Question” & English National Identity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Schulkins, Rachel. “Imagining the Other: The Jew in Maria Edgeworth's  Harrington.” European Romantic Review, 22 (2011): 477-499.

Last modified 9 July 2020