Disraeli’s Jewish Fantasy Novel (British Fantasy and the Jewish Question, pt. 2)

In my last post I talked about Almamen, the protagonist of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1838 historical romance Leila, or the Seige of Granada. A fiery Jewish nationalist born in the wrong era, Almamen is a gifted political strategist, driven and charismatic.

One suspects that there a bit of Benjamin Disraeli in Almamen. The future prime minister of England and Bulwer-Lytton were friends, and the writing of Leila may have been provoked by Disraeli’s own novel The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1833).

Alroy chronicles the rise and tragic fall of the medieval Jewish messiah David Alroy. (The historical Alroy, not of great concern to Disraeli, was a Kurdish Jew whose name was actually Solomon ibn al-Ruji.) Disraeli’s novel was clearly begun as a blank verse play, abandoned and then reworked into overwrought prose. For all its literary flaws, it marks out interesting genre territory: between gothic orientalism, historical fiction, and something close to modern fantasy. Indeed, with its magic items and not-entirely-historical landscape, it could be argued that Alroy is the first modern Jewish fantasy novel.

it could be argued that Alroy is the first modern Jewish fantasy novel

Alroy (like Bulwer-Lytton’s Leila) is a fable about Jewish politics—or the impossibility of Jewish politics. It was written by a Jew, baptized on his father’s wishes at the age of 13, who would go on to hold the highest political office in the British Empire. When the twenty-five year old Disraeli began taking notes for what would become the novel, such aspirations would have seemed delusional. He was then suffering from depression, not a surprise given the formidable list of failures he had racked up in his young life. He was sunk in debt with the possibility of arrest and incarceration, possessed neither the right connections nor the reputation needed to realize his political ambitions, and his Jewishness was a disability his opponents would never let him forget. It was during this period that he began sketching ideas for a story about a failed messiah.

The experience that allowed Disraeli to shake off his psychic exhaustion was a trip in 1830-31 through the Mediterranean and the Near East. He began writing Alroy toward the end of the trip, and it was published two years later. He made use of his father’s extensive library for Jewish historical materials, reflected in the counterpoint of the novel’s extensive footnotes. Disraeli’s sources were often anti-Jewish Christian historians, yet in Disraeli’s historical footnotes one senses the exuberance of a first discovery of Jewish history and postbiblical literature, of aggadic tales and kabbalistic lore, the academies and exilarchs of medieval Babylon—in short, of a Jewish past usable by one who had earlier thought such a past not worth the trouble.

Young Disraeli

The opening chapters of Alroy sound the theme of Jewish political powerlessness. Young David Alroy, nephew of the Jewish exilarch of Baghdad, bristles at his uncle’s willingness to tolerate insult and indignity in exchange for stability and wealth. Despite his family’s prominence, he finds his position no different that that of “a most dishonored slave,” an assessment shown to be correct when, a few pages later, his sister is assaulted by the Muslim governor, whom Alroy slays, an act that forces his flight into the wilderness. Alroy already dwells on the possibility of Jewish political regeneration. “Israel still remains,” he muses. “A word, a deed, a single man, and we might be a nation.”

A different approach is articulated by Honain, a Jew who has converted to Islam. While his conversion is insincere, it allows him to make his way in the world free of the humiliating restrictions imposed on non-Muslims. One might expect Alroy to embrace this character, who after all hews most closely to Disraeli’s path in life as an acculturated convert to the majority religion and its prerogatives. Yet Alroy rejects Honain’s counsel, instead following the kabbalist Jabaster who recognizes Alroy as the messiah. Jabaster gives Alroy the magical scepter and talisman of Solomon, symbols and agents of Jewish political power (and which play a role in later fantasy writing). With these magical items, Alroy begins a meteoric rise as military conqueror and would-be world emperor.

His career ultimately founders, though, on the tension between his role as a Jewish leader and his aspirations to a world stage—the particular versus the cosmopolitan. Jabaster is the voice of the Jewish national and religious ideal as Disraeli understood it: uncompromising, fanatical, and parochial. While Alroy wants to rule a world empire from the imperial capital of Baghdad, Jabaster warns him: “Sire, you may be King of Bagdad, but you cannot, at the same time, be a Jew.” Judaism, as Disraeli understood it, bars Alroy from both cultural cosmopolitanism and modern, imperial politics. Disraeli rejects its particularism and set his sights on the universal. “Bagdad shall be my Sion,” he decides and, to the scandal of Jabaster and his Jewish theocrats, he marries the Muslim princess Schirene as a step to win rulership of the world-empire, the Islamic Caliphate.

Alroy woos Schirene. The illustration is from a 1904 edition of the novel, as is the featured image.

Yet the novel does not simply champion its protagonist’s universalism. On the contrary, it makes clear that Alroy’s personal power derives from the Jewish national identity he scorns. When Jabaster, who leads an insurrection against Alroy, is killed, Alroy’s power fades. “All about me seems changed and dull and grows mechanical,” he muses. The scepter of Solomon vanishes and the talisman crumbles to dust. His armies are defeated and he is brought captive to Baghdad and given a choice between conversion and death.

Facing his execution with new Jewish pride, he prophesies: “The time will come from out our ancient seed, a worthier chief will rise.” Disraeli here foretells some other version of himself, or some future leader such as Theodor Herzl, who might be both a Jew and a world leader. Disraeli could not in the 1830s imagine that combination, and so the novel is a chronicle of what Adam Kirsch has poignantly called “another life, which Disraeli was destined never to lead.”

Disrael’s Jewish preoccupations found new expression over a decade later in his novel Tancred (1847), which offers a kind of solution to the tension between the universal and the particular in the idea of race.  The title character of Tancred is a talented, young English aristocrat who scandalizes his complacently bienpensant parents by taking his Christianity seriously, and deciding to understand its sources in the Jewish race and their ancestral land in Palestine.

Tancred is advised by a brilliant Jewish financier named Sidonia. The character draws on Disraeli’s close relationship with the Rothschild family, who gamely overlooked Disraeli’s apostasy and in their friendship gave him the Jewish family setting he lacked.  Disraeli was unembarrassed by the conspiracy theory aspects of this character: imagining Jewishness in racial and romantic terms led easily to foregrounding the mysterious international influence of a Jew like Sidonia, a notion Disraeli enjoyed and saw as positive.

Encouraged by Sidonia, Tancred’s yearnings ultimately lead him to Palestine where he meets Eva, a beautiful Jewish woman who seems to represent the vital racial forces of the orient that can save Europe from its materialist torpor. “Send forth a great thought,” Tancred tells Eva as the novel ends, “as you have done before—from Mount Sinai, from the villages of Galilee, from the deserts of Arabia —and you may again remodel all their institutions, change their principles of action, and breathe a new spirit into the whole scope of their existence.”

Alroy was far from a literary success. Contemporary reviews described it as “a sort of monster, a Hybrid, composed by the union of bad, stale drama, and poor historical romance,” and “a mere emanation of an eccentric fancy rioting in its own licentiousness,” though one reviewer called it “a kind of prose opera . . . full of all sorts of beauties.” The Athaneum, with that English oscillation between antisemitism and philosemitism, lauded “the spirit of Judaism in it—not the fallen and money-changing spirit of these our latter days, but of that martial and devout spirit which kindled in the Hebrew bosoms of old.” Where the novel did find a receptive readership was among German Jews when it was translated into German later in the century and read as a kind of proto-Zionist historical novel.

I am currently in Jerusalem, so I made sure to snap a photo of the street named for Alroy, in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood.

The most telling contemporary English “review” of Alroy, though, was a satirical piece written by the popular humorist and clergyman Richard Harris Barham. Barham’s “The Wondrous Tale of Ikey Solomons” appeared soon after Alroy was published, and maps Disraeli’s plot onto the career of the Anglo-Jewish crook Ikey Solomon, infamous for fencing stolen goods, including, legend has it, the sacristy plate of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Barham’s squib is quite funny, though it reflects the representation of Jews as petty criminals that, combined with older and darker tropes of Jews as child-snatchers, would take on enduring literary form in Dickens’s Fagin. As the century went on, Jews were also likely to be portrayed as financial parasites and social interlopers, far more frequently than as eastward-gazing messiahs and warrior-kings.

Coming up: H. Rider Haggard, Edith Nesbit, G. K. Chesterton, and Tolkien

2 thoughts on “Disraeli’s Jewish Fantasy Novel (British Fantasy and the Jewish Question, pt. 2)

  1. A fine new article by Eitan Bar-Yosef, “Israeli Disraeli: Benjamin Disraeli’s Afterlives in Israeli Culture,” notes that Alroy was translated into Hebrew in 1883 in Warsaw and republished multiple times from the 1880s to the 1900s, with new translations published in both Warsaw and Tel Aviv in the 1920s and 1930s. What I suggest might be thought of as the “first Jewish fantasy novel” was very much taken up as part of early Zionist culture in Europe and Palestine.

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