Sunday, September 06, 2009


It's been a while since I plunged into a big fat novel that I couldn't get my nose out of. Was up till all hours this morning with the old "just one more chapter" syndrome. I'm so glad I surrendered to my sister Geni's coaxing about this one as I had actually returned it to her unread saying "life's too short" and "it looks too old-fashioned." There are reasons why books receive the hallowed title of "classic" including powerful plot, unforgettable characters, and mastery of the writing craft. Yep, Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott wins on all counts and more besides. It's a rollicking adventure romance set in the time of King Richard the Lion Heart and Robin Hood, both of whom feature in the tale. I'm a third of the way through and have granted myself the delicious right this rainy Sunday to lounge on the sofa and finish the book. Here is the most amazing thing about it: the heroine. Truly, this book could be called Rebecca. Given that Sir Walter Scott displays a pervasive anti-Semitism throughout - in offensive comments about the general nature of the Jewish people stated simply as if they are facts or general knowledge (no doubt a sign of his times and culture, yet not everyone throughout the ages fell prey to anit-Semitism so I let no one off the hook with that excuse) - it is astonishing that he has created such an amazing heroine in "the Jewess." Beautiful, brilliant, multi-lingual, steadfast, loyal, courageous, modest, practised in the healing arts, her virtues are inestimable and yet at all times believable as we can see she was forged like an exquisite blade from the persecution of her tribe. The scene in which she threatens to throw herself from the tower rather than be raped by Brian de Bois-Guilbert is spell-binding. And the patience with which she deals with the innate racism of the hero Ivanhoe - who is wholely indebted to her - is heart-breaking and only further adds to our admiration of her. Here's a thought. Might Sir Walter Scott have been quietly subversive and not anti-Semitic at all? There's not only the invention of such a heroine in the first place, but the tower scene contrasts directly with the behaviour of the Saxon princess Rowena who collapses into hysterics in a similar situation and Ulrica, the other Saxon noblewoman, who gave into her Norman captor for power and pleasure, becoming a depraved old hag. You have to wonder what Scott was up to. He does express sympathy for the persecuted Jews of England and we are encouraged to be concerned for Rebecca's father, Isaac, though he is depicted as a piteous and ignoble character. Might all the generalised comments on the avarice etc of the Jewish people be a smoke-screen - reflecting the attitudes of Scott's time - through which he presents the picture of outrageous persecution and the superiority of the Jewish heroine over every other character in the book, Saxon or Norman, including Ivanhoe? Hmm.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

Has always been a favorite and you are correct in it being a volume. Love your comments about Scott and believe you are correct. Is it not sometimes in the subilities that the greatest truths are revealed?

Hope you have a lovely day. I always enjoy reading your blogs.