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Jews As the Other in Burney’s Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress

By Ariella Kharasch

In Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, Frances Burney showcases the caricature of the Jew as a conspirator through the character of Mr. Zackery; he lacks description, agency, and dialogue, but his involvement with the titular character through usury puts her fortune at risk, and his peripheral presence throughout the novel threatens her reputation. Although Burney associates Jews most closely with usury, she perpetuates similar stereotypes—such as that of the wandering Jew—in her later novel, The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties. The publication of Burney’s Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress in 1782, however, reflects the pervasiveness of antisemitism in British society following the Naturalization Bill of 1753, or the ‘Jew Bill’. In Frank Felsenstein’s Anti-Semitic Stereotypes: A Paradigm of Otherness in English Popular Culture, 1660-1830, he writes that the “perception of the unconverted Jew in his traditional role as the extrinsic Other permeates their rhetoric and is later merely elaborated upon in the more expressly demonic forum of popular literature” (191). This essay will place Cecilia in conversation with Felsenstein’s Paradigm of Otherness in order to understand the cultural significance of Burney’s depiction of Mr. Zackery within the context of the Naturalization Bill as a resurgence of antisemitism in late-eighteenth century England. Although some might consider Mr. Zackery to be a minor character, Burney uses the stereotype he embodies—that of Jews as usurers and villains—to drive the novel’s plot. 

In order to analyze Burney’s perpetuation of antisemitism through Mr. Zackery’s character in Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, it is important to establish that Burney is writing within an English tradition that perceives Jews as the Other. Before drawing parallels between the antisemitism that underlies Burney’s use of language in Cecilia and the Naturalization Bill of 1753, one must understand the controversy surrounding this bill as a reignition of antisemitic prejudice in England. Legalized antisemitism can be traced through England’s history as far back as the medieval period. Following their expulsion in the thirteenth century, Jews had no official right of residency or worship until the mid-seventeenth century when Jews, many of whom were refugees from the Inquisitions of Spain and Portugal, were allowed to reestablish (“Jewish People”). During the long absence of Jews from England, antisemitic prejudice “had flourished in the collective imagination over many centuries and had become embodied in the traditional stereotyped figure” (Felsenstein 51). Discriminatory legal restrictions for Jews upon their readmission in the late 1650’s—such as their inability to own property—led many to become valuable to England’s economy through business and money-lending. The Naturalization Bill of 1753—while it would greatly assist foreign-born Jews—was primarily established in the interest of the potential financial benefits Jewish settlers could bring with them: “A propulsive assumption behind the bill was that, given the global network of their trading connections, the naturalization of these wealthy Jews would prove of untold economic benefit to the state” (188). In “The 1753 Jewish Naturalization Bill and the Polemic over Credit,” Yuval-Naeh specifies that the antisemitic unrest following the introduction of the bill had become “entwined with the dispute over the place and status of finance in the economic, political, and social systems” (2). Despite the projected benefits for the economy, the bill was repealed in the same year due to threat of violence against the Jewish population. 

The stereotypical associations of Jews with usury, villainy, and devilry that are seen in the responses to the Naturalization Bill are emblematic of the tendency for English discourse to frame Jews as “the ultimate paradigm of the eternal Other” (Felsenstein 247). A significant portion of the responses to the Naturalization Bill came from trading and religious groups and took the form of public outcries, letters, and pamphlets. In a 1753 print, an anonymous illustrator depicts Jews standing next to a figure of the devil holding a bag of money. Behind him stand two men, Henry Pelham and the Duke of Newcastle, who were rumored to have been bribed by Jews. The caption on the pamphlet reads, “A Prospect of the New Jerusalem” (193-4). The imagery displayed by this print represents Jews as associates of the Devil, motivated by greed and power and placed in direct opposition to English society. Felsenstein comments on how this stereotype relates to the role Jews had in the developing commercial life of England. He notes, “it was not at all difficult to cast the Jews in their traditional role as usurers and counterfeiters, and so to invoke afresh, by a little exaggeration, an important aspect of the stereotype” (51). The pamphlet builds upon this stereotype by including the parliamentary authors of the bill, suggesting the two men are being controlled in a political conspiracy that is masterminded by Jews. This pamphlet rejects the Naturalization Bill in no uncertain terms; not only does the illustrator elicit a sense of fear by drawing the stereotypical Jewish devil figure, but the print’s caption threatens that if Jews are allowed to be naturalized, all of England would be completely taken over by them. According to Felsenstein,

It was fairly regularly proposed that the Jews existed in such numbers as to be on the point of overwhelming both Church and State. The proposition is all the more bizarre if it is remembered that even in the late eighteenth century, apart from the occasional itinerant pedlar, the majority of Britons had rarely, if ever, encountered a flesh-and-blood Jew. (46)

The commonality of this suggestion, that England was at risk of being entirely controlled by Jews, exemplifies the deeply-rooted nature of antisemitic paranoia during the eighteenth century.

While it is unclear whether Frances Burney encountered anyone from the Jewish community, much of the underlying antisemitism in Cecilia mirrors the stereotypes of Jews that appear in response to the Naturalization Bill thirty years prior to her project. Before Cecilia even meets a Jew—for what we assume to be the first time—she conjures in her mind an image of fear and disgust. Upon hearing Mr. Harrel’s proposal, the “heart of Cecilia [recoils] at the very mention of a Jew, and taking up money upon interest; but, impelled strongly by her own generosity to emulate that of Mr. Arnott, she [agrees], after some hesitation, to have recourse to this method” (Burney 189, emphasis author’s). Cecilia does not just dislike Jews, she is disgusted by the mere mention of them. Her natural response to “recoil” from the prospect of meeting with one also insinuates that the connotation of “Jew,” for her, is tied to a sense of fear. We are reminded of this connotation each time the term resurfaces; Mr. Zackery is named only twice throughout the novel, but he is repeatedly referred to as the ‘Jew’. For example, Mr. Arnott learns that “the Jew was already come” (268), Mr. Monckton wonders how much money Cecilia had “taken up of the Jew” (437), and Cecilia worries about the possibility that “the Jew” (763) might disclose their business to the public. Burney’s repeated use of “the Jew” perpetuates the applications of the term to further demonize Jews and categorize them as the Other, while stripping the only recurring Jewish figure in her text of a name. Since the novel is largely oriented by Cecilia’s navigation of a hierarchical society in London, the namelessness of this character signifies his low status and his associations with a supposed network of other Jews.

Felsenstein analyzes the applications of the word “Jew” not just as a label, but as a derogatory epithet, which reflects Burney’s use of the term in Cecilia. He writes that when “Henry Simons, a Polish Jew and the victim of a vicious assault and robbery in 1751, appeared in court, he was constantly referred to not by his own name but impersonally as ‘the Jew’” (Felsenstein 48). Henry Simons’ case is a historical example of antisemitic violence that closely predates the Naturalization Bill of 1753. This case is significant because it demonstrates that the use of the word “Jew” as an epithet was a commonly accepted tool to dehumanize Jewish people in English society. The court saw Simons as “the Jew”—an impersonal representative of the Other—in order to avoid seeing him as a victim. For Burney, the repetition of “Jew” becomes a way for characters to dehumanize Mr. Zackery and depersonalize their interactions with him. A Jewish individual is, for Burney, nameless and inhuman; they are associated with their religion and its connotations of secrecy and villainy before themselves. Burney’s characters even suggest the term is synonymous with words such as “usury,” “extortion,” and “danger”. Mr. Harrel refers to all Jews as “those extortioners” (Burney 191), and Mr. Monckton considers Mr. Zackery a “dangerous resource” (438), when it is actually the act of usury that is dangerous for Cecilia as it was illegal. Felsenstein quotes journalist and politician William Cobbet as stating that the term “has always been synonymous with sharper, cheat, rogue” (49). Burney demonstrates the interchangeability of “Jew” with “usurer” or “cheat” as she makes it clear that Cecilia’s feelings of disgust towards Mr. Zackery are a reflex shared by the rest of her social circle: Mr. Delvile accuses her of being a “dabler [sic] with Jews” (807) and Mr. Monckton “[is] less alarmed at the sum she [has] lent him, which [is] rather within his expectations, than at the method she had been induced to take to procure it” (255). The “method” which alarms Mr. Monckton is not simply usury—it is the implication that Cecilia has worked with a Jew. Mr. Monckton’s alarm is founded in an awareness that Cecilia’s connection to any Jew could ruin her reputation—he knows that should anyone find out about her transaction with Mr. Zackery, Cecilia will become an outcast.

The threat that Mr. Zackery’s Jewish identity poses to Cecilia’s reputation is a recurring theme that Burney leverages throughout the text to drive the plot. Cecilia’s participation in usury is a significant plot point. In a crucial moment when Cecilia hopes to cement her future with the Delvile family, Mr. Delvile uses his knowledge that Mr. Zackery is the usurer to vilify her: “O, I am mistaken, it seems! misinformed, deceived; and you have neither spent more than you have received, nor taken up money of Jews?” (761). Suddenly, Cecilia is confronted by the possibility that her transaction with Mr. Zackery could cost her the respect of Mr. Delvile, and thereby all hopes of a future with his son. While the danger to the marriage is partially based on Mr. Delvile’s fear that Cecilia has misused her finances, the connection to Jews is shown to be the worst transgression. Even when referring to one Jew she has interacted with, the plural is used, reinforcing Mr. Zackery’s supposed connections to a system outside himself. Following Mr. Delvile’s outburst, Burney continues, “two charges such as these, so serious in their nature, and so destructive of her character, filled [Cecilia] with horror and consternation” (761-2). Cecilia’s reaction to Mr. Delvile’s accusations, despite their accuracy, fill her immediately with a horror that is reminiscent of her intense feelings of fear and disgust when Jews are mentioned for the first time. The resurgence of this intensity suggests that she is impacted by Mr. Delvile’s criticisms because it is at this moment she is faced with the truth of how perilous her connection to a Jew could be for the outcome of her social life.

Burney further uses Mr. Zackery’s Jewish identity as a plot device through Mr. Monckton’s character when he discovers Cecilia’s business dealings. Burney writes that Mr. Monckton “[offers] to pay the Jew without delay, clear her wholly from his power, and quietly receive the money when she [comes] of age” (436). In part, Mr. Monckton is reacting just as any Englishman would be expected to at this time; just as the anonymous illustrator of the aforementioned pamphlet was concerned about the power of Jews to work with the devil and conspire against the state, Mr. Monckton is worried about the “power” Mr. Zackery holds over Cecilia due to his Jewishness. Moreover, by taking over Cecilia’s debt, Mr. Monckton hopes to assume the role of a hero, placing Mr. Zackery in the stereotypical role of the Jew as a villain. Of course, Cecilia’s situation has not truly changed. She will still be indebted to a man, and she could still be accused of spending more than she has received – the sole difference is to whom Cecilia is indebted. Due to underlying antisemitic prejudice, that it is far safer for her to allow Mr. Monckton to take over her debt and stop all transactions with Mr. Zackery. 

Cecilia, Mr. Delvile, and Mr. Monckton share a foundational belief with those who reacted to the Naturalization Bill of 1753 – that all Jews are to be feared and regarded as Other. In “The Jew Bill of 1753: Masculinity, Virility, and the Nation,” Dana Rabin asserts that “the advocates and the opponents of the Jew bill shared an underlying assumption: that Jews, whether born in Britain or abroad, were a cohesive group that did not have the attributes of the rest of British society and never could” (Rabin 167). In the 1750’s, Jews were broken into two groups: foreign settlers and those born in England. However, they were united in their Jewish identity and therefore always constituted as Other. While Cecilia, Mr. Monckton, and Mr. Delvile share this view, Burney presents a contrasting view with Mr. Harrel, who displays a different attitude towards Jews despite his harsh condemnations of Mr. Zackery. Whereas Cecilia and Mr. Monckton act upon an instinctual repulsiveness when Mr. Zackery appears or when Jews are even mentioned, Mr. Harrel divides Jews into two categories of good and bad. For example, he admits that he does not like to engage in financial transactions with Jews because once one enters “into such hands … ‘tis hard ever to get them out of them” (Burney 191), yet he clearly places a level of trust in “honest old Aaron” (190), and is disappointed to find that he must employ Mr. Zackery instead of him. The fact that Mr. Harrel believes Aaron “went out of town the moment he had done with [him] yesterday” (190) also suggests that, despite his consistent claims to hate employing Jews, Mr. Harrel has worked with Aaron quite a few times. To Mr. Harrel, Aaron constitutes the exception; he is a “good” Jew, whereas Mr. Zackery becomes representative of all Jews who remain, in Mr. Harrel’s mind, execrable. He explains that he would never trust another Jew, “never any but old Aaron. I dread the whole race; I have a sort of superstitious notion that if once I get into their clutches, I shall never be my own man again; and that [induces] me to beg your assistance” (192). In this way, Mr. Harrel echoes the fears of Mr. Monckton’s and those who opposed the Naturalization Bill, however his trust and higher regard for Aaron mirrors the attitude of the non-Jewish supporters to the Naturalization Bill who mainly thought of the economic benefit from trade. The coexistence of Mr. Harrel’s sentiments about Mr. Zackery and Aaron demonstrate the same tensions that appeared thirty years prior to the novel’s publication. 

Frances Burney includes two Jewish characters in Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, but she limits their characters to the stereotype of Jewish money-lenders. By focusing on the character Mr. Zackery, and how he is treated and referenced by Cecilia, Mr. Monckton, Mr. Delvile, and Mr. Harrel, it becomes clear that Burney creates a caricature of the Jewish conspirator. Burney’s treatment of Mr. Zackery reflects a cultural mindset that largely regarded Jews as Other—a sentiment that was reignited in England after the Naturalization Bill of 1753 was introduced and subsequently repealed. Felsenstein writes that the “sense of an almost ineradicable difference between Jew and Christian, as perceived through English eyes at the time of the Jew Bill, is initially revealed in the surviving texts of opposition speeches during the parliamentary debates on the question of naturalization” (191). This same sense of difference is created by Burney in the two scenes in which  Mr. Zackery appears, but she furthers the disparity with each indirect reference to Mr. Zackery as characters speak about “the Jew” and worry over Cecilia’s reputation. The parallels drawn between Burney’s treatment of Mr. Zackery in Cecilia and the antisemitic responses to the Naturalization Bill, such as the print “A Prospect of the New Jerusalem,” are emblematic of the pervasiveness stereotyping of the Jew as a villainous figure. Despite Mr. Zackery’s lack of dialogue or depth, it is the stereotype that he embodies that allows him to drive the plot of Cecilia.

Works Cited

Burney, Frances. Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, edited by Peter Sabor and Margaret Anne Doody, Oxford University Press, 2008.  

Felsenstein, Frank. Anti-Semitic Stereotypes: A Paradigm of Otherness in English Popular Culture, 1660-1830. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

“Jewish People and Communities in Britain and Its Former Colonies.” The National Archives, Accessed October 16, 2021.

Rabin, Dana. “The Jew Bill of 1753: Masculinity, Virility, and the Nation.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 39, no. 2, Johns Hopkins University Press, American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS), 2006, pp. 157–71,

Yuval-Naeh, A. “The 1753 Jewish Naturalization Bill and the Polemic over Credit.” Journal of British Studies, 2018. 57(3), 467-492. doi:10.1017/jbr.2018.82