Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Rebecca Gratz & Ivanhoe. 1. Not Just Any Novel

"Rebecca and the Templar"
10" dinner plate
Ivanhoe pattern, Wedgwood, 1880

Rebecca Gratz was celebrated in her lifetime and revered after her death as the inspiration for the character of Rebecca, the beautiful Jewish girl in Walter Scott's historical novel Ivanhoe.  As such she became a role model for Jewish women and a figure of romance to the larger community.

The problem today with discussing her association with the character is that no one has read Ivanhoe in 50 years.  Even though some are still familiar with the title and can recall it as a story about medieval England, their knowledge comes from a film version rather than the book itself.  No one has firsthand experience of the Rebecca of the novel and we are too far away from Ivanhoe's publication date to have any idea of the impact it had on 19th-century readers.  So, before we look into the Gratz link, we have to understand how a novel could have the power to change a woman's life.

Ivanhoe was published in December 1819, in three volumes, 1000 pages long.  Overstuffed with characters and plot lines, it is too much to summarize (see the Wikipedia synopsis) but here is a taste:

12th-century England -- a Saxon knight, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, just returned from the Crusades -- a Norman Knight Templar -- Jews in constant peril -- a tournament -- Rowena, Ivanhoe's childhood sweetheart -- two abductions -- a battle -- Rebecca, a "Jewess" (Scott's word) -- Robin Hood and Friar Tuck -- an attempted sexual assault -- an accusation of witchcraft -- trial by combat --  Good King Richard the Lionhearted -- Bad Prince John -- a host of Norman knights -- lots of Saxon servants and peasants -- a bittersweet ending.

This melange of action and romance, vividly portrayed by Walter Scott, turned out to have universal appeal. 

The publisher set a price on Ivanhoe which was higher than that put on any of Scott's earlier works. Nevertheless, copies seem to have flown out of the bookshops and into the hearts of the British reading public.  The same would occur in the United States within a few months and soon after, as translations were produced in the major European languages, Ivanhoe would become an international bestseller.

In fact, the public's appetite was so great, the book alone could not satisfy it.  The first plays based on the novel appeared on the London stage within three months of its publication.  There would be at least 25 theatrical versions performed in Britain over the next decades, some of them running concurrently.  Composers across Europe produced numerous operas over the same period, so that it was possible to hear Ivanhoe in English, French, German, and Italian.

Painters found the novel irresistible as a source of inspiration.  More than 100 paintings of scenes from Ivanhoe would be produced in the 19th century; at least 30 paintings of Rebecca were exhibited in London between 1830 and 1850.  Eugene Delacroix alone made a series of lithographs and painted four oils based on Ivanhoe.  In the 1850's he drew up a list of 20 more scenes from the novel which would make good paintings, but died before he could execute any of them.

Ivanhoe played a role in the revival of interest in the Middle Ages, contributing to the growing popularity of the Neo-Gothic in architecture and furnishings.  The novel also had an impact on cultural politics:  the Eglinton tournament based on Ivanhoe took place in Scotland in 1839, attracting more than 100,000 people.  It was ridiculed by the Whigs (the progressive political party) who saw it as Conservatives cosplaying in support of (really) old values and reveling in an outmoded and romanticized version of aristocracy.  In the United States, readers throughout the country loved Ivanhoe, but only in the South were tournaments inspired by the novel a form of popular entertainment from the 1840's to the 1880's. With Ivanhoe Southerners could see themselves as heirs to a traditional feudal society, chivalric and superior to the peasants in the industrialized North.  When Mark Twain blamed Scott for starting the Civil War, his overstatement was amusing but he wasn't exactly joking. After the Civil War Ivanhoe became a symbol of the South's lost way of life, and helped to foster the "moonlight and magnolias" version of southern history which downplayed the brutal slave system which supported that past.  (I do not think it is a coincidence that one of the Ku Klux Klansmen in Spike Lee's 2018 movie BlacKkKlansman is named Ivanhoe.)

Although Ivanhoe picked up this unlooked-for political and cultural baggage along the way, for most people it remained an exciting story appropriate for the whole family.  The most telling evidence of how deeply Ivanhoe had been baked into Anglo-American popular culture comes from Wedgwood, famous for its bone china and Jasperware.  Around 1880 the company was casting about for a new pattern to be used in its cheaper and sturdier stoneware line -- something which would appeal to the mass market.  The choice was Ivanhoe, still going strong 60 years after its publication and recognized by virtually everyone who was literate.  More than 20 scenes from the novel appear on various pieces in each set.  The pattern was a success throughout the British Empire and in the United States.  Wedgwood continued to produce it for nearly a quarter of a century, and several generations of children learned about Ivanhoe from their breakfast plates.  (There are plenty of pieces to be seen on eBay, a tribute to the pattern's popularity.)

There is much more evidence, which I am sparing you, that Ivanhoe was not just another novel.   It was a literary and cultural phenomenon, as well as a story beloved by readers of all ages.
To be associated with this book was to arouse the intense interest of the public.  To be identified with Rebecca, the novel's most appealing character, brought not only celebrity, but adulation.

Next we will look at Scott's Rebecca and see why readers, especially women readers, found her so compelling.

(My main source for the information about Ivanhoe was:  Ann Rigney, The Afterlives of Walter Scott:  Memory on the Move.  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Thank you to Jesse Rosenberg, Associate Professor of Musicology, Northwestern University, who gave me information about the  Ivanhoe operas.)

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