A Speculative Discussion at the Rosenbach: Sir Walter Scott, Rebecca Gratz, and Washington Irving

Washington Irving

An event I’ve been waiting to announce has at last become officially Official—but before I post it, I need to give you a bit of context first.

In 1817, Washington Irving spent several days with his literary idol, Sir Walter Scott, at Abbotsford, Scott’s stately home near Melrose, Scotland. At the time, Scott was known more for his romantic poetry than his novels, though at the time of Irving’s visit, Scott was reviewing the proofs of his historical novel Rob Roy, part of his popular Waverley series.

Rebecca Gratz

Three years after Irving’s visit–right around the time Irving was enjoying international success with the publication of The Sketch Book—Scott published a blockbuster of his own, another installment of the Waverley series, the medieval adventure novel Ivanhoe.  Featured prominently in Scott’s story is the character Rebecca, the beautiful daughter of a Jewish moneylender, as well as a healer who saves Ivanhoe and is later tried–and, with the help of Ivanhoe as her champion, cleared–of charges of witchcraft.

Walter Scott

Rebecca doesn’t get Ivanhoe in the end—he marries the Lady Rowena instead–but to most, Rebecca is the heroine of the novel.   She was also a strong Jewish character in a novel written at a time when Jews were struggling for emancipation in England–and Scott’s sympathetic portrayal of Rebecca is credited by some as helping pave the way for reforms in English law that began to give  Jewish citizens—or, at least, the men—the same status as other “emancipated” Englishmen.

Why is that relevant here?  This is where it gets interesting.  Shortly after the publication of Ivanhoe, the Jewish Philadelphia philanthropist Rebecca Gratz—who was also a friend of Washington Irving–was constantly being collared by friends  who had read Scott’s novel and swore up and down that the character of Rebecca was based on her.  Gratz had never met Scott, and Scott had never met Gratz.  That left only a mutual acquaintance–the aforementioned Mr. Irving—who could possibly have told Scott about Gratz.

But did he?  Was Scott’s heroine indeed based on Gratz?  And if so, did Scott learn of Gratz through Irving?

On Thursday, March 3, Gratz scholar Susan Sklaroff and I are going to talk about it in a “speculative discussion” at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. More information can be found on the Rosenbach’s website by clicking here. The discussion starts at 6:00 p.m., and if you’re in the City of Brotherly Love at that time, come by and throw in your two cents. This one’ll be fun.

My thanks to Susan and the folks at the Rosenbach for inviting me.  Susan also writes a fine blog on Rebecca that you can see right here.  Check it out.

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One response to “A Speculative Discussion at the Rosenbach: Sir Walter Scott, Rebecca Gratz, and Washington Irving

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