Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Rabbi’s Spell: A Russo-Jewish Romance

by Stuart C Cumberland, New York: The F M Lupton Publishing Company, 1886.

Stuart Cumberland’s melodrama never reaches anything approaching three-dimensional characterisation but keeps up a cracking pace in its depiction of the sufferings undergone by the Jewish community in late-nineteenth century Tsarist Warsaw (Poland having been partitioned in the eighteenth century by Russia, Prussia and Austria). It tells the travails of a pair of star-crossed lovers when a young Jewish woman’s father, a rich money-lender, is murdered. Her lover, who had been forbidden to marry her by the father, is accused of killing him and thrown into prison. Needless to say all is not as it seems, as we quickly learn.

Published in 1886, this was a period of heavy discrimination towards Jews in the Russian territories, and Cumberland emphasises the harsh treatment meted out to them by supposed Christians, showing how few rights the Jews enjoyed. He also clearly expresses his dislike of the Russians generally and the corruption to be found at all levels of officialdom (the novel actually stops while Cumberland describes his own experience of having to pay bribes when visiting Russia to perform his ‘thought reading’ act).

Tsar Alexander III makes an appearance and Cumberland, always ready to look on the positive side of royalty, suggests that part of the cause of the rampant anti-Semitism was that Alexander’s terror of assassination had led to his isolation from the people, and he was not aware of the violence being meted out to the Jewish population. In reality, Alexander actually supported the pogroms. Not all Russians in the novel are bad, however. The Tsar’s trusted advisor, who plays a key role in freeing the lover from his dungeon, is described as having intense will-power, skill as a mesmerist, and an uncanny ability to see into men’s souls and divine their innermost secrets. He is clearly an idealised self-portrait of Cumberland himself.

The story ends with the lovers and the titular rabbi emigrating to the safety of Canada, home to “the most hospitable people in the world”, while the murderer, who had committed the deed to avoid repayment of a loan made by the father, is driven mad by visions of the dead man and subjected to a justice that by-passes the earthly legal system. The scene where the dead man appears to the terror-stricken murderer is strongly reminiscent of the 1867 play The Polish Jew, a memorable part for Henry Irving, and which Cumberland was likely to know.

While acting as a vehicle for Cumberland’s preoccupations, and betraying his own prejudices, The Rabbi’s Spell performs a service in highlighting the plight of Russian Jews, millions of whom fled to make a new life for themselves in England and North America. Cumberland went on to write two more novels, The Vasty Deep: A Strange Story of To-day and A Fatal Affinity: A Weird Story (both 1889). Presumably though, his friends advised him not to give up the day job.

The Rabbi’s Spell is available on a CD of works by Stuart Cumberland, issued by The Miracle Factory in Los Angeles, called Stuart Cumberland: The Victorian Mind Reader.