Charlotte Elizabeth and the Restoration of the Jews

by Ibn Warraq 

From New English Review, February 2010.

George Eliot is usually considered the first novelist to have discussed “Zionism,” that is the restoration of the Jews to Palestine, inDaniel Deronda, which was published in 1876. Perhaps we should now change that to “the first distinguished novelist,” after considering the work of one Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, who wrote under the name, “Charlotte Elizabeth.” Her “Zionist novel,”Judah’s Lion was published in 1843. The erudite Hugh Fitzgerald, and incidentally, one of the great prose writers in English of the last fifty years, comparable to Roger Scruton, Christopher Hitchens, and Bernard Lewis, advised me to have a look at her works before assigning priority. I confess I had never heard of her.

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna [1790 – 1846] wrote prolifically under her baptismal name, Charlotte Elizabeth. She was born in Norwich, Norfolk, the daughter of Reverend Michael Browne, an Anglican priest and a canon at Norwich Cathedral. Charlotte was brought up in a Tory, royalist, Church-of-England family. Early in her life, Charlotte Elizabeth acquired her passions: first, the plight of English factory workers, second, evangelical religion, and finally gardening. On the death of her father [1812], she moved to London with her mother. There she met Cpt. George Phelan whom she married six months later. After two years in Canada, where her husband was stationed in the British army, they moved to Ireland where they lived from 1819 – 1824. During this time, she converted to Evangelical Protestantism, became anti-Catholic, and began her literary career, writing for the Dublin Tract Society in the early 1820’s. Legally separating from her husband who was posted abroad once more, Charlotte Elizabeth eventually returned to England where she took residence in Clifton near Bristol. There, she met Hannah More who also wrote religious tracts and homilies.
In her Personal Recollections written at the end of 1840,[1] Charlotte Elizabeth explains her interest in Jews and Palestine, or as her husband put it, “her long-cherished hopes, the incipient restoration of Israel”:[2]
“One of the most interesting and delightful subjects opened to me by my study of the Scriptures during this happy period was that of the Jews. I had always felt deeply interested for them, and looked forward to their conversion, individually, to Christ; but nationally I was still in the dark about them. Now I plainly saw the nature and extent of God’s covenanted pledge to Abraham, and became fully convinced that their national restoration was a revealed truth, and that the church would never attain to any triumph on earth in which the Jews, as Jews, did not bear a very prominent part. Happily untaught in the spiritualizing process by which the divine promises to Israel are wrested from their evident, literal sense, I took all that I read as primarily applicable to those who were distinctly addressed by name, though plainly seeing that there was an allowable adaptation of them to the Gentile church. Many a time have I knelt down, with the ninth chapter of Daniel spread before me, fervently and with tears pleading in his words for his people. It was not until long afterwards that, on urging upon a pious clergyman the duty of combining in some great effort for the conversion of the Jews, I learnt to my surprise and delight of the existence of such a society. I need not tell you that the impression made on my mind by the Bible when I had no other teacher, has been continually deepened for twenty years; and that nothing which man could say or write ever for a moment shook my conviction on the subject. I laid hold on the word of promise, and urged it on all within my reach, from my very first intercourse with Christians ; and I have watched with joy the rapid unfolding of God’s purposes towards the Jews, both in disposing the hearts of Gentiles towards their course, and in evidently preparing the way for their speedy restoration”.[3]
Some critics and historians see Tonna as a “Zionist” –though strictly speaking the term[4] itself did not come into use until 1896- and her novel Judah’s Lion as a Zionist novel.[5] Elizabeth’s novel recounts the story of an English Jew, Alick Cohen, and his voyage to the Holy Land where, moved by his experiences, he converts to Christianity, retaining, however, his Jewish identity. The title of the novel is itself a subtle reminder of the theme of the inextricable and intertwined destinies of two nations, England and Jewish Palestine. The character Gunner Gordon reflects on this theme; his sense of gratitude to Judaism recalls George Eliot’s remark in her letter to Harriet Beecher Stowe that “… towards the Hebrews we western people, who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt, and whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religion and moral sentiment…[the English reveal] themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relations of their own social and religious life to the history of the people they think themselves witty in insulting. They hardly know that Christ was a Jew… ”.[6]
As Alick gazes at the flag of England with its three lions, Gordon remarks, “Ay, Mr. Cohen, there floats the Lion of Judah.”
“The Lion of England, I suppose you mean,” said an officer somewhat sharply, who had caught the remark as he passed.
“The Lions of England, Sir, and the Lion of Judah also, I believe,” answered the Gunner, touching his cap, “I have heard it so remarked, and by one well read in heraldry.”
“Holloa, Sharp!” cried the other, “come, here’s this fellow Gordon making Jews of us all!”
“Pardon me, gentlemen,” said the Gunner, as several gathered round at this summons,“I believe you will find on examination, that the arms of England contained only two lions, until our Richard the First added a third, after his conquest in Palestine, and that third lion he probably adopted as the well-known standard of the country where his greatest exploits were performed, and a chief type of Him, ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah,’ whose cause he professed to uphold against the infidel Saracens.” ….
“Judah’s Lion!” thought [Alick]; “what a strange idea that is; and yet I don’t see but it may be perfectly correct. Richard bore the title of Coeur-de-lion, and might, in consideration of that distinction, clap a third lion upon his shield. He might, to be sure; but on the other hand, how very natural it would be that he, who became by his conquests lord of Palestine, should incorporate that trophy with his own. Judah’s lion!” he again repeated, chuckling as the thought arose, “if so, why England fights under our banner—she may point to the standard of the despised Jew, and say, ‘in hoc signo vinces.’ [Under this sign / banner, you shall conquer] I’ll go this very night to the Gunner’s cabin, and get some further information from him.Twill be better at any rate than turning into bed at such an unreasonable hour.”…
“May I sit with you a little while, Mr. Gordon? May I ask you a few questions about the Lion?”
The Gunner sprang from his seat, bolted the door, and said in a voice that faltered with suppressed emotion, “As long as you please you shall sit here, and nobody shall interrupt us while we talk, as by God’s blessing we will talk”—and he clasped his hands together as he leaned them on the Bible—“on the most stirring, the most glorious of all subjects—” the Lion of the tribe of Judah !’ ”
“You are very fond of our people, Mr. Gordon,” said Alick, smiling.
“Sir, I owe to your people more than my life: I owe to them this book, the writings of Moses and the prophets, who were all Jews; the writings of the Evangelists and Apostles, who were all likewise Jews: and through them the knowledge of my Lord and Saviour, the King of the Jews, God over all, blessed for ever!”[7]
Despite her evident sense of gratitude to the Jews for all that has given her life any kind of meaning, Charlotte Elizabeth does not, unlike George Eliot, see the Jews and their aspirations as ends in themselves, but as a means to the fulfillment of an Evangelical Christian prophecy. Daniel Deronda is also taken to be a Zionist novel, at least in the sense of being a “prophetic inspirer of Zionism and of the state of Israel.” But as Gertrude Himmelfarb in her masterpiece, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, argues “[t]here is some warrant for those claims. Daniel Deronda appeared twenty-one years before the first meeting of the Zionist Congress in Basle and seventy-two years before the establishment of the state of Israel. But Eliot was a Zionist with a difference. When Deronda emigrated to Palestine, he did so not out of the fear of pogroms, or as a response to a Holocaust, or even to escape the barbs and slights of the English mode of polite anti-Semitism, but rather to fulfill a proud and unique heritage. His mentor, Mordecai, was a learned as well as a passionate Jew who felt in his soul, as he said, the faith and the history of his people- his ‘nation’. It was this sense of nationality that inspired his vision of Judaism and that he transmitted to his disciple Deronda. And it was this theme that Eliot returned to in her last essay, when she likened Jewish nationality to the admirable sentiment that had inspired her own countrymen in their evolution as a nation”. [8]
Eliot’s “vision of Judaism and a Jewish state was all the more remarkable precisely because it was disinterested, because, unlike Deronda…, she was not Jewish and had no personal stake in it.”[9]
Edward Said and The Question of Palestine
I. “A Land without a People for a People without a Land.”
Not only does Edward Said incorrectly attribute the first use of the phrase to Israel Zangwill, a British writer, he also misquotes it, as “a land without people [sic], for a people without land [sic]”.[10] As Adam M. Garfinkle has noted, “the absence of the indirect article ‘a’ before the word ‘people’ substantially changes the meaning of the phrase from the political to the demographic and literal. The omission obscures the phrase’s proper nineteenth-century intellectual context and substitutes a literal and obviously false remark suitable for marketing the real and imagined Zionist insensitivities of the past for current uses.”[11] In the political sense, the Palestinian people were not constituted politically as a nation before 1920; as Zeine N. Zeine writing in 1973 noted, “The world in which the Arabs and Turks lived together was, before the end of the nineteenth century, politically a non-national world. The vast majority of the Muslim Arabs did not show any nationalist or separatist tendencies except when the Turkish leaders themselves, after 1908, asserted their own nationalism….”.[12]
We have already encountered Lord Shaftesbury as the Evangelical Christian who wished to see the Restoration of the Jews to Palestine. His wish was rekindled at the height of the Crimean War over what the eventual disintegration of the Ottoman Empire might portend. Speaking of Greater Syria, a large indeterminate area of the Ottoman Empire, Shaftesbury wrote in July 1853 that it was “ a country without a nation,” and needed to be matched to “a nation without a country.” He asked, “Is there such a thing? To be sure there is, The ancient and rightful lords of the soil, the Jews!”[13]
John Lawson Stoddard [1850-1931], an American lecturer who illustrated his talks with slides (stereographs) of the many exotic countries that he visited. In his lectures that were published in 1897, Stoddard revealed his own Christian Zionism and wrote, “At present Palestine supports only six hundred thousand people, but with proper cultivation it can easily maintain two and half millions. You [the Jews] are a people without a country; there is a country without a people. Be united. Fulfill the dreams of your old poets and patriarchs. Go back, – go back to the land of Abraham”.[14]
Though published in 1897 these remarks were in fact written in 1891. Stoddard clearly does not believe that Palestine was uninhabited since he a gives a census figure (600,000), and thus “without a people” was meant in the political sense, and that is how it was transmitted to and taken by Zionists such as Herzl.
II. Daniel Deronda.
I have already discussed Christopher Hitchens’ defense of Daniel Deronda. Here I should like to quote a much deeper analysis of Edward Said’s contemptuous dismissal of George Eliot. Irfan Khawaja in a critique of analytical brilliance that he sent to me and also posted on the comments page at the New English Review[15] makes short shrift of Said’s arguments.
Said quotes a long passage from the novel, placing phrases in italics; [ironically given his casual way with the indefinite article in his quote on “land without people,” instead of “land without a people”, Said puts in one which is not in the original novel, “there is a store of wisdom” when in fact Eliot wrote “there is store of wisdom…”]
“They [the Jews] have wealth enough to redeem the soil from debauched and paupered conquerors; they have the skill of the statesman to devise, the tongue of the orator to persuade. And is there no prophet or poet among us to make the ears of Christian Europe tingle with shame at the hideous obloquy of Christian strife which the Turk gazes at as at the fighting of beasts to which he has lent an arena? There is a store of wisdom among us to found a new Jewish polity, grand, simple, just, like the old—a republic where there is equality of protection, an equality which shone like a star on the forehead of our ancient community, and gave it more than the brightness of Western freedom amid the despotisms of the East. Then our race shall have an organic centre, a heart and brain to watch and guide and execute; the outraged Jew shall have a defence in the court of nations, as the outraged Englishman or American. And the world will gain as Israel gains. For there will be a community in the van of the East which carries the culture and the sympathies of every great nation in its bosom; there will be a land set for a halting-place of enmities, a neutral ground for the East as Belgium is for the West. Difficulties? I know there are difficulties. But let the spirit of sublime achievement move in the great among our people, and the work will begin.” [Said’s emphases]
As philosopher Khawaja notes, Said devotes seven pages to a novel in a book “that is supposed to be making a moral and juridical case for Palestinian rights. The literary criticisms do almost nothing to bolster that case.” In the above passage, Said draws attention to six phrases “in an attempt to suggest that there is something untoward in Mordecai’s views, hence in Zionism, hence in Eliot’s, hence in ‘the culture of high-liberal capitalism’ [The Question of Palestine, p. 66)] But every move in this ‘argument’ is a non-sequitur:  (1) We have not been told what is untoward in Mordecai’s views. (2) We have not really been given evidence that Mordecai’s views are Eliot’s. (3) Mordecai is a fictional character, not an all-purpose stand-in for Zionism. (4) And Zionism is not emblematic of capitalism.”
Khawaja continues, “[t]he “critique” proper comes on p. 65 [The Question of Palestine], and it is little more than a critique of the Mordecai speech. The crux of the criticism is that neither Mordecai nor by extension Eliot give sufficient thought to “the actual inhabitants of the East, Palestine in particular.” Said assumes without the slightest argument that failure to think about the natives in a place to which one is emigrating ipso facto implies a desire to expropriate them, dominate them, harm them, rule them, or expel them. In fact, it implies none of those things. How many Arab or other Asian immigrants to the US, Canada, and UK give careful thought to the nature of the native inhabitants of those countries? How many would-be immigrants sit around thinking, ‘I’d like to immigrate to the US, but I’m torn: immigration has adverse consequences on native wages, after all!’ Since many of them give no thought at all–the West is a place to make money, not engage in cross-cultural dialogue with Westerners–would Said then infer that they should be assumed to have predatory purposes here? In that case, his reasoning would differ little from that of the average nativist anti-immigrant zealot. What is concealed by his rhetoric is that when it comes to Palestine, that is precisely what he is. The sheer act of a (fictional) Jews’ immigrating to Palestine becomes, in his view, a desire to harm the native population.
“How does Said demonstrate that a desire to settle in Palestine means a desire to mistreat Palestinians? To demonstrate this, one has to demonstrate that there was no way to settle in Palestine without mistreating them. But this claim is demonstrably, obviously, false. The burden of proof here is Said’s, and he doesn’t begin to meet it. Indeed, he has no clue that there is a burden there to meet.
“Later on the same page, Said accuses Eliot, along with Mill and Marx, of racism. I don’t much care to defend Marx (I think he wasa racist), but the supposed case against Mill that he makes in Orientalism is highly equivocal. More to the point, he has not offered a particle of evidence for the claim about Eliot. He has simply conjured up, out of the blue, the claim that she must be a racist because her failure to discuss Palestinians in a discussion of immigration to Palestine entails a racist desire to expropriate them. Unfortunately for Said, not a single element of this reasoning has actually been vindicated anywhere in his text. It takes more than overheated rhetoric to show that someone’s failure to mention X entails a desire to violate X’s rights.
“On p. 66, Said makes the vast claim that Eliot’s view was representative of ‘the culture of high liberal capitalism.’ Put aside the blatant obvious essentialism of this claim, completely at odds with the supposed anti-essentialism to which he so loudly claims allegiance. What sense does it make? In what way is Eliot a defender of capitalism? In what way is Zionism connected to capitalism? In what way does capitalism have anything at all to do with Daniel Deronda? What, by the way, is ‘capitalism’ and how is it related to ‘culture’? Without answers to these elementary questions, Said’s claims are unintelligible. But he offers no answers to them.
“I think the real target of Said’s critique of Eliot is something deeper than Zionism. I think what so offends him is the passage from the novel he quotes about how a human life ‘should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth…’ Said tells us repeatedly that this attitude is precisely what he lacked and repudiated all his life (see Culture and Imperialism, pp. 335-6). And yet he spent his life defending a form of nationalism based on the very rootedness he repudiated. That contradiction, like so many in his work, produced cognitive dissonance, and with it, the belligerent incoherence that marks so much of his writing.”

[1] L.H.J.Tonna .Memoir of Charlotte Elizabeth in The Works of Charlotte Elizabeth, New York: M.W.Dodd, 1848, Vol. 1, p. 115.
[2] L.H.J.Tonna .Memoir of Charlotte Elizabeth in The Works of Charlotte Elizabeth, New York: M.W.Dodd, 1848, Vol. 1, p. 126.
[3] The Works of Charlotte Elizabeth, New York: M.W.Dodd, 1848, Vol. 1, p. 45
[4] Zionism was coined by an Austrian Jew, Nathan Birnbum, in 1890; Birnbaum worked with Theodore Herzl on the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, zionism first appears in print in England in the Jewish Chronicle, May 1896.
[5] Elizabeth Kowaleski, “‘The Heroine of Some Strange Romance’: The Personal Recollections of Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Fall 1982): 141–153 (n. 6, 152); Linda H. Peterson, Traditions of Victorian Women’s Autobiography (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999), pp. 44–46); Monica Correa Fryckstedt, “Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna and The Christian Lady’s Magazine.” In Victorian Periodicals Review, 14:2 (Summer 1981) 43-51.
[6]     The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon S.Haight , New Haven, 1954-5, 1977-8, Vol. VI , Oct. 29, 1876,
pp.301-302 Oct. 29, 1876,
[7] Charlotte Elizabeth. Judah’s Lion. New York: Charles Scribner, [1843] 1852, pp.29-35.
[8] Gertrude Himmelfarb. The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot. New York: Encounter Books, 2009, pp.10-11.
[9] Ibid.,p.153. Emphasis added by Ibn Warraq
[10] Edward Said. The Question of Palestine. New York: Vintage Books, [1979] 1980, p.9.
[11] Adam M. Garfinkle. On the Origin, Meaning, Use and Abuse of a Phrase, in Middle Eastern Studies Oct. 1991, p.541.
[12] Quoted by Adam M. Garfinkle. On the Origin, Meaning, Use and Abuse of a Phrase, in Middle Eastern Studies Oct. 1991, p.541.
[13] Quoted by Adam M. Garfinkle. On the Origin, Meaning, Use and Abuse of a Phrase, in Middle Eastern Studies Oct. 1991, p.543
[14] Quoted by Adam M. Garfinkle. On the Origin, Meaning, Use and Abuse of a Phrase, in Middle Eastern Studies Oct. 1991, p.544.