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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Washington Irving and the model for Rebecca in Ivanhoe

Born in Philadelphia in 1781, Rebecca Gratz began her philanthropic career at twenty when she helped establish the first of many organizations to help the needy. A devout Jew, Gratz founded the first Sunday school for Hebrew children in America in 1838. One of her brother’s closest friends was Washington Irving and Gratz’s own dearest friend was Matilda Hoffman, the object of Irving’s first, last, and only love. This shared affection—Matilda died at eighteen in her friend Rebecca’s arms—formed a lifelong bond.

So it was that when Irving visited Sir Walter Scott in 1817 and the conversation turned to his host’s next novel. According to an unsourced (and still unconfirmed) article by Graetz van Rensselaer, “The Original of Rebecca in Ivanhoe,” in an 1882 issue of Century Magazine, Irving had a ready recommendation for the model for a character.
During one of their many conversations, when personal and family affairs were the topics, Irving spoke of his own, and Miss Hoffman’s cherished friend, Rebecca Gratz, of Philadelphia, described her wonderful beauty, related the story of her firm adherence to her religious faith under the most trying circumstances, and particularly illustrated her loveliness of character and zealous philanthropy. Scott was deeply interested and impressed, and conceived the plan of embodying the pure, moral sentiment, that like a thread of silver ran through the story. Although “Rob Roy” was then unfinished, he was already revolving in his mind the plot and characters of “Ivanhoe.” He immediately determined to introduce a Jewish female character, and, on the strength of Irving’s vivid description, he named his heroine Rebecca.
Susan Sklaroff writes an ongoing and engaging blog about the life of Rebecca Gratz in which quotes from Irving frequently appear. Here’s a recent entry about the fad in 1802 of keeping engagements and even weddings secret:
There is nothing that seems more strange and preposterous to me than the manner in which modern marriages are conducted. The parties keep the matter as secret as if there was something disgraceful about the connexion . . . they sneak into matrimony as quietly as possible, and seem to pride themselves on the cunning and ingenuity they have displayed in their maneuvers.
Related LOA works: Washington Irving: Fiction, Tales, and Historical Works

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