From the Reading Room.

‘Cherries nice, cherries nice, come choose,
Fresh and fair ones, who’ll refuse?’

This week Zahava Dalin came to the Reading Room to consult Rebecca and Rowena by William Thackeray, written under the pseudonym M.A. Titmarsh.  The edition she chose is from the Sterling Library and features 8 hand-coloured illustrations by Richard Doyle. The work was originally published in Fraser’s Magazine.  I asked Zahava why she was interested in this volume and how it related to her wider study.

‘As a student of the M.A. Romantic Studies program at Birkbeck College, I am fascinated by how the Romantics turned to medieval themes and topics as a source of inspiration for their own ideals. I took a course in the sibling program, M.A. Victorian Studies and we were asked to compile a critical bibliography on a novel from the 19th-century Farrer Collection.

Ivanhoe (in disguise), Athelstane, Rowena, Cedric and Wamba the jester.

I chose Sir Walter Scott’s work of medieval historical fiction, Ivanhoe, a Romance.  In the course of my research, I was surprised to discover this spoof of Thackeray’s in the Senate House Library’s Special Collections. It is a humorous continuation to Ivanhoe, in large part based on Thackeray and his contemporaries’ dissatisfaction with the fate of the female protagonists in that novel’s conclusion. His “Icy, faultless, prim, niminy-piminy Rowena” (p. 5) henpecks Ivanhoe, who flees England and his wife for the latest crusade. Eventually Rowena dies, Rebecca avows her Christianity and she and Ivanhoe wed. The novel not only proves that readers in the nineteenth century found Ivanhoe lacking, and in what way, but also provides evidence for Victorian criticism of Romantic ideals.

The King and Sir Wilfrid play chess as the messenger arrives.

Thackeray focuses on what he perceives as Scott’s overly unrealistic idealization of chivalry. On an entirely separate note, Thackeray’s treatment of Rebecca, whom he admires, is entirely antithetical to Ivanhoe’s original conclusion. Though both Scott and Thackeray esteem the Jewish figure, Scott also respects the role of Rebecca’s religious faith in giving her character strength. Thackeray’s solution to the Jewish protagonist, typical of his time, is to convert her.  I highly recommend this text for anyone interested in Victorian reactions to Romanticism, those researching 19th-century satirical texts, or anyone looking at 19th-century literary reactions to English Jewry.’


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