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Fiction without Romance

Season 4

Episode 6


Fiction without Romance

An actor reads a selection from Fiction Without Romance; or, the Locket-Watch:

Amongst the many picturesque and romantic scenes with which Devonshire so profusely abounds, there is not a spot more beautiful than that on which stood the residence of Mr. Desbro. It was built in the cottage style — small, yet elegant — and replete with every convenience that could render it the abode of domestic comfort, without any of those superfluities, which, in the present age of fashionable refinement, are too often erroneously considered as necessary.


Host Aaron Henne: Welcome to The Dybbukast. I'm Aaron Henne, artistic director of theatre dybbuk. In this episode, presented in collaboration with the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, we explore Fiction Without Romance; or, the Locket-Watch, a novel which was written by Maria Polack in the East End of London and published in 1830. You heard a selection from the novel at the top, and excerpts from the book will be shared throughout the episode.

Dr. Heidi Kaufman, Professor of English at the University of Oregon and Regional Museum Educator at the Oregon Jewish Museum, discusses the ways in which the novel, believed to be the first by an Anglo-Jewish writer, upends some of the misconceptions and stereotypes about nineteenth-century life in the East End.

And now: “Fiction Without Romance”.


Dr. Heidi Kaufman: I began working on the East End of London when I found out about an East End author named Maria Polack.

Actor 1: Fiction Without Romance; or, the Locket-Watch, by Mrs. Maria Polack, in two volumes. London. Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange. 1830.

Heidi: I was surprised to learn about the existence of a novelist in the early nineteenth-century East End, because so much of the mythology of the East End is tied up with stories about East End depravity: poverty, murder, serial killers, drug addicts, prostitutes. And I really struggled to figure out how there could be an East End author in 1830, but, even more than that, how we could have a woman, East End author in 1830 — in a period when compulsory education had not been invented yet in England, and where it was not entirely common to educate girls. So I thought that was pretty odd. And then the fact that she was a Jewish novelist was odd too, because, of course, novels were not part of Jewish literary culture. And that the first Anglo-Jewish novel was written by a woman seemed really significant to me. Right, so how does this urban Jewish East End author write a novel about a Christian orphan in rural Devonshire in England?

Actor 1: The house was situated at the extremity of a lawn, thickly planted on each side with trees, that rendered the dwelling impenetrable to the scorching rays of the sun, and afforded a partial light and shade, such as nature so deliciously blends, and which can only be truly estimated by the lovers of rural life.

Heidi: Fiction Without Romance is a novel about education. It's spread out over two volumes and tells the story of Eliza Desbro, a young girl with a secret past. It's secret to her. Readers find out about halfway through the novel. She's raised in a rural community in England under the direction of her uncle, whom she calls Desbro; the Reverend Howard; and his sister, Mrs. Wallace. Mrs. Wallace serves as Eliza's teacher, and this relationship they have helps to establish the novel's central focus of education, and specifically, the education of girls. So in this country setting, in the first half of the novel, Eliza learns subjects that, at the time, might have seemed a bit racy for girls. She learns about geography, music, history, and poetry among other things.

Actor 1: Mr. Desbro instructed her in English, French, and Italian. Mr. Howard taught her Geography, Sacred and Profane History. And to Mrs. Wallace was left the care of those peculiar branches of knowledge which appertain to female education only.

Heidi: Along the way, the adults in the story engage in debates about why and how to educate girls. So readers begin to see how Eliza's education is informed by some of the leading ideas of the age — and some of the leading controversies of the age — about what it means to educate girls and what they were being educated for. Then, about halfway through the story, we learn the secret of Eliza's past.

Actor 1: A calm serenity diffused itself over her mind, and, having drawn her chair to the window, she commenced the narrative of her parents' woes, and her own mysterious birth, as follows —

Heidi: Eliza's mother, it turns out, died shortly after learning that her husband, whose name was Charles Courtney, was married to another woman at a point when she married him. So, in other words, he's guilty of bigamy.

Actor 1: The narrative of Edward Frederick Desbro, Esq., related by himself: “‘Mine, Madam,’ said the lady, ‘is a painful errand. My business concerns us both. I fear we are both the dupes of a deceitful, worthless wretch.’ Here my sister turned deathly pale.”

Heidi: In defense of his sister's honor, and in a fit of rage, Eliza's uncle, Desbro, stabs Courtney.

Actor 1: "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."

Heidi: And, believing him dead, flees with Eliza to a rural village where she's raised by the Howards and Mrs. Wallace. So readers learn this story halfway through the novel.

Actor 1: "I took my precious charge from her nurse, placed myself in a chaise, with my poor orphan in my arms, and, by easy stages, (nothing material having occurred during the journey) we arrived safe in Devonshire."

Heidi: Eliza’s illegitimacy is a big deal, and it would have been in the early nineteenth-century world in which the novel is set. Polack is therefore challenging the conventional way of seeing illegitimacy as a reason to treat people like Eliza as a second-class citizen. Polack's point is that just because Eliza's mother was duped by a philanderer doesn't mean that she should be treated as less legitimate than anyone else.

Actor 1: “Even so," replied Mr. Desbro, "Eliza is the daughter of the villain Courtney; but she is unfortunately, illegitimate!"

"Then is she the more to be loved and pitied,” said the benevolent Mr. Morland. "Nothing can certainly be better intended than the laws against illegitimacy, when taken in a general sense; the stigma which adheres to the offspring of illicit intercourse will sometimes be the means of preventing it, but is a virtuous and amiable individual to be refused the rights to which native worth and refined education entitle her, because her parents —?”

“Hold, Sir!" interrupted Mr. Desbro. “Say not parents, I beseech you, blend not the name of one of the most chaste and lovely of her sex, with that of the most consummate villain who ever disgraced creation.”

Heidi: It's important to recognize that many novelists saw the novel as a platform for furthering their political agenda. Novels, after all, were texts that young people would read and would be influenced by. And so Polack's point in raising the subject of illegitimacy in her novel is to argue that a person educated as a citizen of the world, knowledgeable about history and respectful of other ways of life, deserves our respect, regardless of their family history. And it's that first half of the novel that I call “The English Plot,” because it's set in this rural community in Devon and is anchored by the Reverend Howard and the small Christian village he leads and counsels. The second half of the novel I've called “The Jewish Plot,” and it's set in London and tells the story of Eliza's friendship with a Jewish girl named Rebecca Zachariah.

Actor 1: Nearly the whole of the remaining part of the day was employed in talking of their new acquaintance. Eliza looked forward with joyful anticipation to the day when she should again behold Rebecca. Nor was this a solitary feeling. The young Jewess had been inspired with the same predilection in favor of our heroine, who had forcibly reminded her of one whom she had dearly loved, and who, though perhaps still in existence, was in all probability dead to her.

Heidi: At this point, Eliza is a teenager, and her education is focused on learning about how to be a good citizen, to give charity and to care for others, and how to navigate her culture's courtship rituals. Along the way, Rebecca teaches Eliza about Jewish rituals and Jewish culture, and about the sad misfortunes of her sister, Sarah Zachariah, who eloped with a non-Jewish man.

Actor 1: "My ingratitude and disobedience to the best of parents,” said Sarah, “and want of confidence in the most affectionate of sisters were alone sufficient to make me wretched after the first moments of infatuation were past; but the consolation that is afforded to the generality of sufferers was denied to me; for I was cut off from the comfort of religious meditation.”

Heidi: Sarah, who's been isolated from her family, gives birth to a child who later dies, and while she awaits her husband's return from a trip to France, she finds Rebecca. They bump into each other at a park. Sarah's story is important for a number of reasons. First, her return and her parents’ forgiveness offers a window into Jewish culture as forgiving and generous.

Actor 1: Mr. Desbro said, “But Mr. Zachaiah is in that, as in every thing else, just and pious. His sense of right triumphed over his injuries, and his affection for his child subdued his long cherished anger, need I say more. His arms, his heart and his house are open to receive you."

Heidi: But the story also touches upon another important topic: inter-religious marriage and the dangers of marrying out of one's own faith. So in the end, Polack offers two morals. First, she's writing to educate her audience of a teenage girl, and the kinds of subjects that she learns and that teach her how to be a responsible citizen. But the even bigger moral in Polack's novel is to beware of the seductions of the marriage market. Courtship rituals are tricky to navigate, and young women need help from their parents. Dozens of novels from this period in the previous decades emphasize the importance of educating daughters or of cautioning female readers to resist the allure of seductive rakes. Polack revives these earlier debates, only she does so with a twist. Unlike other novels in this period, Polack uses the friendship between Jewish and Anglican families; between these two girls, Eliza and Rebecca, as a platform to argue for respect for religious difference.

Actor 1: "Cannot we have the carriage?'' said Eliza, who had promised herself a great treat in going to the synagogue. Rebecca, smiling, shook her head. "In conformity to the rules laid down to us for the observance of the Sabbath and festivals, we may not ride on those days.”

Heidi: In my early work on Fiction Without Romance, I was really puzzled by Polack's allusions to London literary and theater culture.

Actor 1: Mr. Desbro had determined that change of residence should not effect change in his established system of regularity, which was to be always home by eleven o'clock.

“On Sundays, I suppose you mean, Sir?" said Jessy, “unless you intend to establish a Protestant convent at Paddington, and Miss Desbro to become Lady Abbess."

"Why so, my little daughter of Momus?” said Mr. Desbro.

“Because, as neither theatre, ball, nor concert can enable you to keep that sober resolution, I conclude you might, by putting Eliza in a nunnery, effectually prevent her partaking of those amusements.”

Heidi: So, historically, the East End has been remembered by many, or misremembered, as a space of darkness and danger. I had to wonder how could Maria Polack, an East Ender, have written a novel at all, let alone a novel touching on female education, romance, music, comparative religion, charity, theater, antisemitism, and courtship rituals? These were all subjects that Maria Polack was obviously well versed in — she was obviously well read — and I couldn't figure out how she might have had access to books or to learning about these subjects. When I began doing research, I wondered if maybe we had the story about the East End wrong. Maybe it wasn't so bad after all. Or maybe Polack was truly extraordinary, a diamond in the rough who'd emerged from poverty and violence but managed to educate herself and find a way to publish her book. In the end, now that I've spent a decade searching for her, I can say both are true. To be the first English Jew to write a novel shows spectacular innovation and commitment, in addition to understanding the powerful role novels play then and now in shaping narratives about the culture. But in many visits to archives, I also began to understand that the prevailing narrative of the East End as a place of depravity and total abjection was just a fiction. It was a sensational story that played well to audiences who are hungry for sordid stories about crime and danger. And, of course, once the story of Jack the Ripper began to dominate assumptions people made about the nineteenth-century East End, there was no going back.

Actor 2: "Jack The Ripper Murders Again — Double Event in London's East End” – London Daily Post, September 30th. 1888.

Heidi: From the 1890s forward, many people simply read the East End through the Whitechapel murders, rather than seeing those murders as a departure from, or an outlier in, East End cultural identity.

Actor 1: In occasional visits to the Zachariahs and Morlands, the formidable winter at length wore away. The days began to lengthen. The regular succession of shower and sunshine began to dispute their claims to the regeneration of Flora, and every coinciding circumstance announced the approach of spring.

Heidi: So Jewish people had set up communities in the East End of London. A lot of immigrants lived in the East End of London. The docks were built in the 1790s, and so a lot of people coming to England got off the docks and set up communities or moved into existing communities. And so, at the time, a lot of people thought of the East End as the place where people from other places came to live. So it was often depicted as a kind of foreign place with foreigners and foreign ways of doing business. And Polack's community was no different. She was Ashkenazi, and the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities had separate synagogues at that time. And so she was a member of London's Great Synagogue, but she had relationships with people at the other synagogue, at Bevis Marks. So this was a vibrant Jewish cultural space where a lot of artistic activity, I came to learn, was happening, but those activities were not part of the narrative of East End culture.

There were very few archives about her community. There were archives, but they were mostly institutional records about schools, synagogues, cemeteries, charities. The records that had been stored or that survived were not telling me the stories that I wanted to hear about how this woman came to be the first Anglo-Jewish novelist. And so I literally spent years and years going through archives, searching for the missing account of Maria Polack's life or, you know, the lost diary or the stash of letters that somebody, you know, stuck in a box and made their way into a dusty archive. And along the way, I started reading a lot of archival theory. I realized that, you know, the story of the archive is not always what we want it to be or expect it to be. And part of that is because we have this sort of romance of the archive; this narrative about how you go into the archive to find the lost objects, and then once you find them and they explain everything, you think somehow that you have closure and the story is complete.

But, in fact, archives are always incomplete, right? They're always recording fragments, and every fragment leads to more questions that we can't answer. So it's another kind of rabbit hole. But what I also found is that really there were no records about her life. If I, you know, was going to do any work on Maria Polack, I was going to have to find a different way to read the archive.

Actor 1: George, now addressing his father, proposed showing Miss Desbro the microscope.

"Indeed, Sir, I should feel much pleasure in seeing that curious instrument," said Eliza.

Heidi: So the traditional way of reading the archive is to sort of go on a mission to extract important documents. And maybe a decade or two ago, a new method of archival research emerged, where we stopped going into the archive as an extractive exercise, and, instead, we began reading the archive as the object itself under study, right? So the archive was no longer just a neutral holding tank, where all the good stuff was hidden and stored. Instead, the archive itself could tell us things about what brought it into being, and what was left out, and how it was organized, and what kinds of values privileged certain kinds of documents that were saved in the end versus those that were thrown away and not saved. And I started to think about reading what was left behind for evidence of what might have been saved or evidence of what was deliberately left out. So that looks like a lot of different things. On the one hand, it means looking at archives that refer to documents that were never saved. So I knew those documents existed. But it also means thinking about the ways that archives hide stories; the way that they suppress certain voices; or the way that they try to privilege other voices, and what that tells us about the values that shaped that community. And in paying attention to those values, how could that help me to understand how Polack came to be?

Actor 1: Preface: Few things are more difficult, and less encouraging, than the composing of a preface. Difficult because the author's most delicate feelings are put to the test, and discouraging because few persons take the trouble of reading it. Mine is a doubly arduous task. The work is a first attempt, and I must naturally expect that my readers will be actuated by a curiosity, which will lead to a close examination in order to discover the motives which have induced me to turn author.

Heidi: Initially, I was working with a microfiche copy of the novel that had been created probably fifty years earlier. And after a couple of years of working on it, I went to the British Library, which is like the Library of Congress, right? It's got everything that's ever been published. And I ordered their copy of Fiction Without Romance. And when they brought it out for me to look at, I discovered that it wasn't the same copy as the one that I had been using. Now this is a book that was only published once, so I hadn't expected to find a different version of the novel. And what was different about it were the paratexts. The paratexts are the sort of framing texts in a publication. So, for example, the title page or a preface or any other kinds of documents that help to prepare the reader for what they're about to find. And so what I found was a different title page that had biographical information about Maria Polack. And I found a notice that she wrote — a note to subscribers — and I found a subscription list.

Actor 1: To subscribers: The laying this little work before the public, having been attended with considerable expense, and the number of subscribers not being as large as might have been expected, it is earnestly requested, that those ladies and gentlemen who have obligingly honored the author with their patronage, will extend their kindness still farther, by not lending their books, as they may be had at most circulating libraries.

Heidi: The title page that I found had a reference to Maria Polack's father.

Actor 1: By Mrs. Maria Polack (daughter of the late Mr. Ephraim Polack). Printed for the author, 49 Church Street, Minories, by J. Wertheimer, 58 Mansell Street, Goodman’s Fields, 1830.

Heidi: It had her address, and it had the address of her printer, and her name was written as Mrs. Maria Polack. So she's writing under the approval, she's telling her audience, of a father and a husband. So even though it was kind of uppity for her to write a novel as a woman and as a Jewish woman, what she's signaling here is that, you know, the men in my life have approved this, so I don't want you to think that I'm doing anything too sordid and out of hand. So she lived in the East End. Her printer was also an East End printer. And then I looked at the subscription list which — subscription is an early nineteenth-century form of marketing whereby an author would gather the names of a group of people who were going to support their literary venture, and, in loaning their names to the list, famous people could offer a kind of endorsement. You know, if you're publishing a book and you have, like, a famous author's name on the back of it who says, “This is a great novel, you have to read it.” So the subscription list was doing a similar sort of thing. And what was also interesting about that list is that the names of the people were followed in many cases by their addresses. So I started to think about what was going on here with the construction of the East End and with the way the Jewish community — because most of the people on this list were from the Jewish community. What were they telling us by lending their names to Maria Polack to help sell her book?

Actor 1: Mr. S. Abrahams, Sun Square; widow of Colonel Andrews; Mr. Lewis Aarons; Mr. Assur, Leman Street; Mr. Mark Abrahams; Mr. Alexander, Cannon Street; Mr. Lewis Abrahams; Mr. Ansell, Savage Gardens.

Heidi: Perhaps this book, if nothing else, was giving us evidence of the fact that the stereotypes of the East End were wrong — were nothing more than stereotypes. But they were also telling me something about the way this Jewish community understood the rise of women writers in this period. I discovered that other women were writing plays, and Emma Lyon published a collection of poetry called Miscellaneous Poems in 1812. And Emma Lyon was another Jewish woman writer. So I started to realize that Jewish women in this community were writing literature and were also supporting one another. Emma Lyon's name shows up on Maria Polack's subscription list and on the subscription list for later Jewish women writers, right? So not only is the community supporting this venture, but other women writers were supporting the emergence of what I came to understand eventually was the rise of Jewish secular literary culture. So these were women writing about secular subjects rather than religious subjects. And they were writing for other reasons besides religious reasons.

Actor 1: On the morning that Eliza completed her thirteenth year, she was surprised, on her entrance into the parlour, to see a large and elegant pair of globes. She stood for some time gazing on them, but did not speak till her uncle said, "Those globes are for you, my love.''

Heidi: So in the 1790s, there were a number of writers, including people like Mary Wollstonecraft, who came forward to argue that girls needed to be educated and they needed to be educated to be rational creatures. This would make them better wives and better mothers, and that men needed to understand that women were not to be subjugated, right? That women could be their partners in life — their thought partners — and men were not always smarter than women. Women could be just as smart as men. So debates followed, and all kinds of writing emerged about, you know, how would you educate girls to become respectable, enlightened women. And what's really interesting about this novel is that Polack taps into this debate. She tells us in the preface that her novel might be thought out of date because she wrote it many years earlier, but illness prevented her from publishing it.

Actor 1: 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.

Heidi: So what that tells us is that she was very deliberately tapping into a debate about education and female education. One of the things that happens throughout the novel is, periodically, Desbro will sort of go off on these tangents about his theory of education and why he believes women need to be educated. And he's almost, almost kind of the mouth of Mary Wollstonecraft. So Polack puts a lot of very forward, progressive feminist ideas into the mouth of a man to deliver, which I think is strategic. I think maybe she's thinking her audience will hear them better coming from a man than a woman.

Actor 1: “Perhaps I may be rather singular in my opinions on female education,” said Desbro, “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. Many a brilliant imagination is cramped, and its finest ideas destroyed for want of encouragement from those beings whom they are taught to love and look up to. 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.”

Heidi: At a certain point, he talks to Eliza about the trip that they're going to take to London to sort of complete her education. She's been living in this sequestered place in the country, which was a perfect place to be educated, but now it's time for her to enter the world and to see things that she's not going to be able to see in the country. And among those things are Jewish people.

Actor 1: "You are, I am happy to say, free from the illiberal prejudices which still exist in some degree against that unassuming nation, but if even you were not, I think an acquaintance with the worthy Zachariahs would go a great way towards emancipating you."

“But how is it, my dear uncle,” said Eliza, "that you seem so much more attached to the members of that nation than of some others? For instance, do you not think highly of the society of friends?"

"Most assuredly I do," said Mr. Desbro, "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.”

Heidi: And this sort of ties into another concern I think that Polack is thinking about — not just the education of women, but she's also writing in a period when a lot of people were trying to convert Jews to Christianity. And she's trying to push back against this sort of steady stream of evangelical, proselytizing publications and pressures, particularly in the East End. And her argument is that people who are enlightened do not feel threatened by people who are different. In many ways, this is a novel that's written for Christian audiences to teach them about Jews to try to stop them from trying to convert Jews.

Actor 1: Next morning, he received an early visit from Mr. Howard, to whom he communicated the incidents of the preceding day, and the invitation for the following one.

“I am glad,” said that gentleman, "you have informed me of this previous to my writing home, as it must unavoidably defer our departure for at least a day, and I would not lose the opportunity of an introduction to your Hebrew friends on any account. They are a people of whom I have heard much but seen little, and I am led to believe, from several circumstances that have occurred within my own knowledge, they are becoming more enlightened."

"I fear, Sir," said Desbro, smiling, ''it would offend my friend, Mr. Zachariah, if he heard you speaking in this way.”

Heidi: Maria Polack publishes Fiction Without Romance in 1830, and this is an important date, because in the years immediately preceding this, several important novels were published that looked specifically at the relationship between Jews and Christians in England. The first one was Maria Edgeworth's novel Harrington, published in 1817, that depicts a Jewish woman named Berenice Montenero, a Sephardi Jew, who it turns out isn't Jewish. She's converted. But it's a novel that looks at the place of Jewish people in British culture and whether they can become English.

Actor 2: From Harrington, Chapter Two:

“What have we been talking of?”

“The Jews, to be sure, Papa.”

“Right,” cried my father, “and what about them, my dear?”

“Whether they ought to be let to live in England, or any where.”

“Right again, that is right in the main,” cried my father, “though that is a larger view of the subject than we took.”

Heidi: England was a country where in order to be English, you had to be Anglican, right? If you were Jewish, you could not be English. So the place of Jews in this country wasn't just about how are Jews going to become Anglo-Jewish, and it wasn't just about how are Jews going to fit into the British public sphere. There was a question about whether or not Jewish people could even be English that was getting batted around in a lot of novels, and, in Harrington, the answer is no. Jews have to convert in order to become part of the cultural sphere. So Harrington is one of the early novels to raise this issue, and it was followed two years later by Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, which became wildly successful on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a bestseller and widely read throughout the 19th century. And Ivanhoe follows a Jewish and early English love story, and sort of raises the question of whether or not Jewish people could ever have a place in England. And the answer is no, right? So at the end of the novel, the Jewish people go off and they leave England.

Actor 2: From Ivanhoe, Chapter 44:

"You leave England then?" said Rowena, scarce recovering the surprise of this extraordinary visit.

"I leave it, lady, ere this moon again changes. My father had a brother high in favour with Mohammed Boabdil, King of Grenada — thither we go, secure of peace and protection.”

Heidi: And so Polack is reading these novels and, I think in some ways, her novel, Fiction Without Romance, is a kind of response in the sense that she's imagining a different kind of British public sphere, whereby Jewish people could live as Jews, and Christian people could live as Christians. Quakers could live as Quakers, right? And she's sort of interested in imagining a way for people to be English that is inviting of different religious groups, and that those religious groups are not just comfortable and are not just treated with respect, but that they can actually become English.

Actor 1: Mr. Zachariah said, “I was beginning to fear that the dispersed people no longer held a place in your remembrance."

"Is it possible you could suppose us so ungenerous?'' said Mr. Desbro, who entered at that moment. ''You must learn to know us better, my dear Sir," said he, as he pressed Mr. Zachariah's hand.

"Of all your nation, I only know yourself, yet I am willing to take you on credit for the rest. Henceforward shall the Jew be an equal sharer with the Christian, of my hand, my heart, and my purse.”

Mr. Zachariah bent his head, and a tear fell upon the hand which still grasped his.

Heidi: So on the one hand, she's trying to say Jews can be Jews, Christians can be Christians. We need to learn to respect difference, and educated people are not threatened by difference. It's only people who are not well educated who have all kinds of stereotypes and fears about the other. She's putting forward this platform of education, and she's arguing against conversion, and she's arguing against assimilation, but she uses the novel, which is not a form of Jewish literature, to make the case that Jewish people should not assimilate. So there are many moments in the novel where it's clear that Polack is arguing, at least in 1830 when she publishes this novel, that assimilation is fine as long as there's a limit to it, and that Jewish people shouldn't be pressured to convert. But then, you know, 15 years later, she converts. Or she is baptized. I don't know if that means she converts. And then I find later evidence that, you know, she knew Jewish music, and she taught her daughter all about Jewish music. It's clear to me that she lived in a Jewish community, she was active in the synagogue, she wrote an anti-conversion novel, and an anti-assimilation novel, and was then baptized. And so I had to figure out how to line up all of these pieces. And I finally landed in thinking that, you know, I don't think her baptism was undoing any of the messages she was putting forward in her novel. I think, ultimately, she was interested in making those claims and in pushing back against this pressure to convert. But I also think that maybe for her — and I found evidence of this with other Jewish people in this period — that the categories were a little bit more fluid for this community as they were trying to figure out what does it mean to be Anglo-Jewish.

Actor 1: "In this country,” said Mr. Zachariah, “though tolerated, we are still not an accepted people, and those very laws which prohibit our becoming active members extend to us the most unlimited protection. It therefore behoves us to respect the existing government whatever may be its tendency, and to be particularly circumspect in the publishing of our opinions. This, Sir, is my father’s resolution, and I make no scruple in confessing it to be mine also.”

Heidi: How do you become English without losing your Jewishness, and how do you hold on to the pieces of Judaism that matter and make them modern, right, without compromising Jewish values? And this is something that a lot of nineteenth-century Jewish writers are wrestling with everywhere in the world. It's not an East End thing specifically, but she does give us a kind of window into what this looked like for one East End writer.


Aaron: Thank you for listening to this episode of The Dybbukast, “Fiction Without Romance”. Actors featured in this episode were Julie Lockhart and Mark McClain Wilson. Thank you to Dr. Heidi Kaufman for sharing her insights. Story editing was led by Julie Lockhart with support from me, Aaron Henne. This episode was edited by Mark McClain Wilson. Our theme music was composed by Michael Skloff and produced by Sam K.S.

Please visit us at, where you will find links to a wide variety of materials which expand upon the episode’s explorations. And if you want to know more about theatre dybbuk’s work in general, please sign up for our mailing list on that same website.

And if you want to learn more about Maria Polack, Dr. Kaufman's book, Strangers in the Archive: Literary Evidence and London’s East End, follows Kaufman's search to find archival evidence of Polack. A companion project, “The East End Digital Library,” which can be found at, features virtual exhibits and archives documenting literary work by members of the nineteenth-century East End community.

This episode was presented in collaboration with the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center For Holocaust Education. This season of The Dybbukast is generously supported by a grant from Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. The Dybbukast is produced by theatre dybbuk.


Actor 1: Our heroine was now in the full possession of happiness. Surrounded by all those she loved, she had not a wish ungratified. She corresponded regularly with her friends in Devonshire, from whom she had the satisfaction of learning that the school was in a most flourishing state. Her time was equally divided between the dear circle in which she resided, the Zachariahs and Monsieur Duval, whose wife and daughter occasionally enlarged their little party. She neither sought, nor coveted, a large acquaintance; those which she had were sufficient to satisfy a rational mind, and a heart formed for the enjoyment of pure and refined friendship. 

The families continued to reside constantly together, and Mr. Morland lived to caress a lovely group of grandchildren, who, like their parents, dwelt in the utmost harmony with each other. When any dispute did arise, it was only an amiable contention for the right of performing some kindly office for their venerable grandfather, or for being foremost to receive the notice of dear aunt and uncle Desbro. 

The end.

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