by Teresita Pumará
women are but the toys which amuse our lighter hours.
Sir Walter Scott.
I have a feeling, a feeling deep inside, a feeling I can’t hide. This feeling tells me that the true main character in Walter Scott´s Ivanhoe is Rebecca, the Jewish physician who cures Wilfred of Ivanhoe´s wounds, is then kidnapped by a Templar knight and later saved from the stake by the grateful Wilfred. Furthermore, I believe that the theme of the novel (at least one of them) is the unrecognised role of women in medieval society. Surprisingly, like no other male writer of his time and very few of ours, Sir Walter Scott appears to be a feminist.
Here I want to apologize to all scholars of English literature, because I am writing with no serious investigative knowledge on the subject. I read the novel thoroughly and was deeply surprised by the writer´s subtle intelligence and clarity of judgement. I will try, nevertheless, to support my feeling deep inside by bringing forward how the narrator depicts women and how he depicts the way his male characters relate to women. To everybody´s comfort I will often refer to the narrator with the author´s name.
Rebecca is the daughter of Isaac of York, a Jewish usurer. Although her father presents some of the typical traits of Jewish characters in European literature, Rebecca on the contrary shows none of them. She is calm and self-assured, but sensible and generous. And when Sir Walter reveals her ability as a physician I immediately noticed the absence of a remark about the relation between the healer´s genre and her capacity. Not once does he say, “she was clever or skilled despite being a woman” or “she had a masculine mind”, neither he censors or punishes her for her knowledge. Furthermore: he gives Rebecca a female master.
I cannot but compare this to the way Balzac depicts women. The French writer often refers to women in general as the “weak sex”. This weakness means usually that they require the support and protection of men, and that they fall easily to the temptation of earthly pleasures, and drag men with them. The classic pattern. The uncommonly cultivated women in Balzac´s novels are silenced. If they are wise they hide willingly their disturbing knowledge. In Albert Savarus Balzac explicitly praises this attitude and wonders if it is better to educate women and so risk to produce demons, or not to educate them and leave them victims of their passions.
Regarding the male characters, Sir Walter shows them as spoiled children when it comes to women. Whenever a woman does not do as they wish, they scowl and call them ungrateful. How is it possible that you don´t like me?, they ask in much subtler ways. How can you be so cold and defensive after I kidnapped you and repeatedly expressed my wish to rape you? What is better is that there is no need for the narrator to pass judgement about his characters actions. Their doings and words are enough.
Towards the last part of the novel, for example, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, a Knight of the Temple, falls for Rebecca, kidnaps her and hides her in the Templar convent. At the same time, the Templar Grandmaster arrives to bring the Order back to order, so to say. When Rebecca´s father comes to offer a ransom for his daughter, the Grandmaster discovers that the licentious Bois-Guilbert keeps hidden a Jewish woman, who is the known disciple of a burnt sorceress. The preceptor of the convent, who is a friend of the guilty knight, finds then the way to save his friend and himself by blaming the woman. She has bewitched the valiant knight, he says. He is but a victim and he, the preceptor, has allowed her presence in the convent only to control the situation and prevent the poor knight from falling in further sin. The fanatic Grandmaster obviously loves the story and calls Rebecca to judgement.
But what makes Sir Walter in Ivanhoe a complete feminist, with the negative load all idealism implies, is that Rebecca has no flaw. She is the only character in the novel who never shows a moment of weakness. For example, when she is facing the stake and the Templar knight offers her to escape together, she rejects him with not one moment of doubt. By denying Rebecca the right to fail a little to herself, at least to doubt about what she holds sacred, Sir Walter makes an angel of her and not a woman, a human being. By doing so he places her in an unreachable position. And so it seems to us, the women who read the novel, that to be an honourable woman is never to fail. Some women understood female liberation this way and plunged into life trying to comply with all of what society demanded of them. They became successful professionals, but also beautiful desirable women, good mothers, of course, and attentive housewives. They are Rebecca. It is time, I think, to fail a little bit, step down of the pedestal, and come out of hell.