Figures of Conversion

“The Jewish Question” and English National Identity

Figures of Conversion

Post-Contemporary Interventions

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Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 20 illustrations Published: April 1995

History > European History, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

"I knew a Man, who having nothing but a summary Notion of Religion himself, and being wicked and profligate to the last Degree in his Life, made a thorough Reformation in himself, by labouring to convert a Jew."
—Daniel Defoe, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719)

When the hero of Defoe’s novel listens skeptically to this anecdote related by a French Roman Catholic priest, he little suspects that in less than a century the conversion of the Jews would become nothing short of a national project—not in France but in England. In this book, Michael Ragussis explores the phenomenon of Jewish conversion—the subject of popular enthusiasm, public scandal, national debate, and dubbed "the English madness" by its critics—in Protestant England from the 1790s through the 1870s.
Moving beyond the familiar catalog of anti-Semitic stereotypes, Ragussis analyzes the rhetoric of conversion as it was reinvented by the English in sermons, stories for the young, histories of the Jews, memoirs by Jewish converts, and popular novels. Alongside these texts and the countertexts produced by English Jews, he situates such writers as Edgeworth, Scott, Disraeli, Arnold, Trollope, and Eliot within the debate over conversion and related issues of race, gender, and nation-formation. His work reveals how a powerful group of emergent cultural projects—including a revisionist tradition of the novel, the new science of ethnology, and the rewriting of European history—redefined English national identity in response to the ideology of conversion, the history of the Jews, and "the Jewish question."
Figures of Conversion offers an entirely new way of regarding Jewish identity in nineteenth-century British culture and will be of importance not only to literary scholars but also to scholars of Judaic and religious studies, history, and cultural studies.


“Ragussis makes a definitive contribution to the growing scholarly exploration of race in nineteenth-century historiography. He adds powerful insights to the ongoing rediscovery of Scott. His acccount of Disraeli’s fiction and the fictions around the figure of Disraeli himself should prompt reconsideration of the importance of his related roles as writer, politician, and cultural symbol. Perhaps most importantly, Figures of Conversion shows how deeply that central trope, and the ‘hegemonic plot of conversion,’ is embedded in the history of the novel. The transformation of character, so often at the heart of the fictional growth of fictional heroes, will never look quite the same.” — Richard L. Stein , Judaism

"I was astounded by the depth and brilliance of this book. Ragussis makes the case that the Jew for British culture has always been the defining figure of difference. His literary examples are striking, but he also shows how the changing atmosphere alters and restructures the very notion of the Jew in British cultural life. His audience, readers interested in Jewish questions and British culture, will find material and insights not to be found in any existing literature." — Sander L. Gilman, University of Chicago

"This is the most stimulating and original treatment of representations of the Jew in English literature that I have ever read. It moves the discussion of images of the Jew in literature on to a new, more nuanced and intellectually challenging plane. What is important about Ragussis’ work is that it links representations of the Jew in English culture to what is now a central issue for students of English history and literature: constructions of Englishness and the formation of English nationalism." — Todd M. Endelman, University of Michigan


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Michael Ragussis is Professor of English at Georgetown University. He is the author of Acts of Naming: The Family Plot in Fiction.

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1570-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1559-9
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