A book entitled ‘A Conspiracy of Paper’ by David Liss (published by Ballantine Books, New York, 2000) recently came into my hands by chance. The main subject – intrigues, violence and even murder in connection with trading on the stock exchange in early eighteenth-century England – is not one that would normally attract my interest. However, the opening pages revealed that the main character, who is also the narrator, is a Jew, and this naturally aroused my curiosity.
As luck would have it, and again purely by chance, another book I read recently (‘A Second Daniel, A Tudor Intrigue’ by Neal Roberts), was also – albeit incidentally – about the situation of Jews in England, this time in the period of Elizabeth the First. At that time Jews had not yet been officially allowed to reside in England, yet nonetheless some did, and even the queen’s physician was a Jew, although he came to a bad end. Jews were officially allowed back into England during the rule of Oliver Cromwell in the seventeenth century, although they were subject to various restrictions as to where they could reside and in which occupations they could engage. Thus it was that, as was the case in most of Europe, Jews were not allowed to own land or engage in any profession other than certain kinds of commerce or usury.
Jews had been living in England since the time of William the Conqueror (eleventh century), but were increasingly subjected to restrictions, harassment and eventually persecution, murder, expropriation of their property and expulsion by Edward 1 in the thirteenth century.
In eighteenth-century England certain aspects of trading on the stock exchange seem to have been open to Jews, and the ins and outs of these transactions are described in considerable detail in the book, particularly in relation to the rivalry between the two major financial institutions: the South Sea Company and the Bank of England. The events described in the book take place a few years before the famous South Sea Bubble, in which shares in the South Sea Company suddenly lost most of their value, causing many investors to lose a great deal of money.
According to an interview with the author that appears at the end of the book, its main protagonist, Daniel Weaver, is based on a real person, Daniel Mendoza, a Jewish boxer who was well-known for his successes in the ring in his day. Like his fictitious counterpart, Mendoza eventually became a debt-collector and thief-taker at a time when London was without a police force, and crime and violence were everyday occurrences.
The plot of ‘A Second Daniel,’ contains several parallels to ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ and the events surrounding the actual trial and death of Dr. Lopez, Queen Elizabeth 1’s physician, may well have served to inspire Shakespeare to write his play. The legal status of Jews in England at the time was precarious, to say the least, though the fact that Lopez was able to serve as the queen’s physician indicates that exceptions could be made. Fortunately, the author spares us a graphic description of Lopez’s death, although the mere knowledge of it is enough to give anyone nightmares.
‘A Conspiracy of Silence’ contains lively descriptions of the London underworld at the time, as well as of the life of the Jewish inhabitants of the city. Particularly telling is the following statement made by the narrator’s uncle: ” …you would understand the dangers of being a rich Jew in this country. We cannot own property, we cannot engage in certain kinds of business. For centuries they have herded us into dealing with their money for them, and they have hated us for doing what they permitted.”
Daniel Weaver finds himself maligned for being a Jew, albeit not an observant one, and attacked for trying to find the person or persons responsible for the murder of his father. He is successful in his quest, but loses the woman he seeks to marry. His tale is typical of the fate that befell many Jews throughout the centuries and wherever in the world they happened to be living. Harried and harassed, persecuted and subjected to indignities, insults and maltreatment for generations, their sad and tragic history culminated in the Holocaust that sought to eliminate them from the face of the earth.
And yet they have survived. Their situation today, with a State of their own, is one which can only be described as little short of miraculous.