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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Jewish Subtext of Burney's Cecilia as a Mirror illuminating shadows in Pride & Prejudice and Northanger Abbey

This morning in Austen L and Janeites, Anielka Briggs brought forward the following passage, being the very beginning of Fanny Burney's Cecilia:

"Peace to the spirits of my honoured parents, respected be their remains, and immortalized their virtues! may time, while it moulders their frail relicks to dust, commit to tradition the record of their goodness; and Oh, may their orphan-descendant be influenced through life by the remembrance of their purity, and be solaced in death, that by her it was unsullied!" Such was the secret prayer with which the only survivor of the Beverley family quitted the abode of her youth, and residence of her forefathers; while tears of recollecting sorrow filled her eyes, and obstructed the last view of her native town which had excited them."

One of the responses came from Elissa Schiff, who wrote, in relevant part:

"But Jews the world over - even not very observant ones - would instantly recognize this prayer as a basic translation of the important Yiskor prayer said four times a year, on the Day of Atonement and again during each of the three pilgrimage Festivals of Succoth, Passover, Shavouth, by children (especially sons) for remembrance of their deceased parents and grandparents. Somewhere in the Church of England liturgy this important prayer must have been incorporated."

I responded as follows:

I disagree as to Burney's source for that prayer being from the Church of England liturgy. I think there's no reason to posit that intervening step, and instead we may infer that Burney was actually making a veiled allusion _directly_ to the Yizkor prayer of the Jews!

And here's why I think so:

As I wrote in both Janeites and Austen L 3 years ago this week (how time flies!).......

...I was already of the opinion then that Jane Austen, in the Lydia-Wickham London marriage episode involving "the horrid Mr. Stone", was herself making a veiled allusion to the anti-Semitic representation of the Jewish moneylender in _Cecilia_. But, when I wrote that 2008 post, I thought Burney was endorsing the anti-Semitic remarks made in her novel, and that JA was satirizing Burney for same in P&P (and also in NA when the horrid John Thorpe spews his virulent prejudice not only against Jews, but also against Fanny Burney and her "immigrant" husband).

Now I think I need to reverse my criticism of Burney, as I believe she may well have _herself_ been satirizing anti-Semitism in her world after all. Which would make Burney one very sharp elf if true. Here's how I analyze it, at first blush:

Well, first, if Burney really is echoing the Yizkor prayer in the very first lines of the novel, that means this is a very significant theme in the novel as a whole, it seems to me. And if Cecilia is saying the Yizkor prayer for her parents, that suggests that she herself is a Jew, even if she does not realize it!

Now, that sounds crazy, right? Except when I did a little Googling, look what I found in two letters sent to Fanny Burney by "Daddy" Crisp:

April 1774: I tell you what—You are a Jew—an Ebrew Jew—of the line of Shylock, & I shall henceforth call You, Jessica—because you, an overgrown Rich Jew can give me an Entertainment of a hundred Dishes, do you expect the like from such a poor, forked, unbelieving Christian, as I am?—You riot in Provisions of all Sorts, & have nothing to do, but to choose, or reject; & your Cookery is at your Fingers ends, & to do you Justice has the true relish, & is highly season’d…

ante 15 May 1779: You are a Jew, Fannikin, an Ebrew Jew—so you won’t trust me to take a copy of your 2d part! Now you must know, in this 1^st part, I have so managed it, that if a stranger was to get possession of it, they could never find out who are meant—nothing but Initial letters… add to this my solemn promise, that no Soul, without your particular, individual separate leave, shall ever see or hear this manuscript—on these Conditions if you refuse, you are a most accomplish’d Jew & have lost all that Confidence in me, which you once had…nevertheless, if you still adhere to Circumcision, you shall be obey’d…

Now what's particularly interesting is that Evelina was published in 1778, and Cecilia in 1782. And, what's more, there is in Cecilia an _explicit_ reference to The Merchant of Venice (which of course has Shylock the jewish money lender as its protagonist, and Jessica as his daughter--two characters mentioned by Crisp), in addition to the obvious allusion to Merchant in the Jewish money lender who lends to Cecilia herself, causing such problems during the story.

And isn't Cecilia supposed to be an autobiographical character? That is, at least, what several Burney scholars seem to think. So, if we have a veiled allusion to the Yizkor prayer to start the novel suggesting Cecilia Beverley is Jewish, and we have Cecilia as a self-representation by Burney, that suggests that, whether literally or metaphorically, Burney was playing with the conceit of herself as a Jew.

Now why might she do that? That question leads me straight to a pretty good start on an answer, which is Fanny Burney receiving the above letters from Daddy Crisp, in which he clearly (and playfully) refers to the Jewish themes in Cecilia (which _clearly_ is the manuscript which Crisp swears he will not show to a soul without Fanny Burney's specific permission), but more important, he calls Fanny a Jew several times!

What does this all mean? And how much of this was Jane Austen aware of? Both very interesting questions to ponder, but my personal opinion is that this allusion is a mirror that reflects a great deal of light into the shadows of both P&P (per my 2008 post) and Northanger Abbey.

Cheers, ARNIE

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