QUAINT #1 Raphael Aben-Ezra from Rev. Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia

Illustration from Hypatia titled "Raphael and the Mob"

Raphael Aben-Ezra was created by the Reverend Charles Kingsley and appears in Hypatia; or, New Foes with an Old Face, which first appeared in Fraser’s Magazine beginning in January 1852. It was published in two volumes in 1853.

Hypatia is set in Alexandria in 415 C.E. and follows the final months of the life of Hypatia of Alexandria (370-415 C.E.), the first major female mathematician and the head of the Alexandrian Neoplatonic School. Her former student and friend Raphael Aben-Ezra, a cynic, also begins to question the truth behind his personal philosophy.

Hypatia has in common with Kingsley’s Westward Ho! the almost overt clash between Kingsley the Muscular Christian and Kingsley the Storyteller. The themes of Hypatia are those of the Muscular Christian: the triumph of Christianity over paganism, in the form of Neoplatonism; the sins of Jews and Catholics; and the moral superiority of Christianity. And as in Westward Ho! there is a sizable didactic element in Hypatia, not just for the purposes of touting Christianity but also to educate the reader about Neoplatonism and its flaws.

Raphael Aben-Ezra is a wealthy, cynical Alexandrian Jew. He is an acquaintance of Orestes and a former student of Hypatia. Raphael’s relationship with them both is similar; he isn’t their friend, exactly, and they distrust him as he does them, but they enjoy his company. With Orestes Raphael is enjoyably sardonic and witty, indulging himself in various mild vices such as gambling. With Hypatia Raphael is a challenging conversationalist. Hypatia lectures to the intelligentsia of Alexandria, most of whom are young men in love with her, but Raphael challenges her views and forces her to exert her intelligence to the utmost while debating with him.

Raphael is Jewish by culture and descent, and is loyal to his people, but he lacks religious sentiment and is deeply cynical about the entire affair. He muses about killing himself but lacks the compulsion to do so. He is a version of the Byronic Manfred homme fatale, who is so jaded and world-weary that he can only experience true feelings while in pain. Raphael values his cynicism, but he values his honor more, and when the anti-Semitic pogroms begin he gives up all of his sizable wealth and leaves Alexandria, just as he often boasted that he could. This astonishes Hypatia, who now sees in Raphael a man capable of being true to his word even at such an extravagant cost. Though she dislikes him, she respects him enormously, never more so than for this deed.

It is in leaving Alexandria that Raphael’s life changes. He takes along his faithful mastiff Bran, saves the lives of some Christians and falls in love with one of them. He proves himself good to his boast that he is one of the best swordsmen in Alexandria and through the love of his wife and the kindliness of Christians toward the poor becomes a Christian. In his conversion he undergoes a change of personality so that his despair is replaced with hope, although his biting cynicism never entirely leaves. Although Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Petronius, in Quo Vadis, is based on the historical Petronius, Sienkiewicz’s Petronius is not a little similar to Raphael Aben-Ezra in personality. Aben-Ezra is Kingsley’s creation, but he possibly based on him on Benjamin Disraeli.

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2 responses to “QUAINT #1 Raphael Aben-Ezra from Rev. Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention QUAINT #1 Raphael Aben-Ezra from Rev. Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia | Beyond Victoriana -- Topsy.com

  2. Hypatia is a historical figure whose life has been variously rewritten to serve an assortment of agendas. The best history I’ve been able to unearth is Maria Dzielska’s “Hypatia of Alexandria” (Harvard University Press, 1996) [Trans. F. Lyra]. See my own views on her here: http://www.bayyinat.org.uk/hypatia.html