Hannah Moses Merton, née Cohen
“Monday, July 21st, 1845.
The 2nd act of my life began.”
With these lines 29-year-old Hannah Moses (1816-1898) began her journal on her wedding day. She continued to write for the next 53 years, until August 1898, four months before her death. The 18 notebooks that her descendants have preserved provide a rare first-hand account of how a conservative middle-class Jewish woman experienced family life and society in the Victorian era. These portray her values, how she wanted to be seen and understood, as well as her family’s complex identity as Jews, English citizens, and cosmopolitans.
The journals of this Victorian lady illuminate middle-class domesticity, women’s consumerism, and many other elements of nineteenth-century female culture. Hannah, who later became known as Mrs. Benjamin M. Merton, shows a keen awareness of the uniqueness of her era. Her observations, from her female perspective, widen the angle of historical vision. She clearly strives to adhere to Victorian concepts of propriety and frequently employs euphemisms. She sometimes quotes, or misquotes, a learned authority to help her formulate her opinion. She is notably prudent about expressing emotion.
Family and Education
Hannah was the youngest of eight children born in London to Solomon Cohen (1776-1864) and Hannah Samuel (1776-1871), both English-born Ashkenazi Jews. As her maternal grandparents, Moses Samuel and Rachel Phillips, had ten children and her paternal grandfather, Levi Barent Cohen, had eleven, all of whom had offspring, Hannah had many aunts, uncles, and cousins; they formed the upper echelon of Anglo-Jewish society in the Victorian era.
She recalled her father’s genial manners and cultivated intellect and was particularly attached to her mother, whom she depicted as an ideal Jewish woman. By the time Hannah reached adulthood, three of her four brothers had died, and her three married sisters had left home. She was fond of her good-natured dog, Pincher, and enjoyed visits with her sisters.
Home-educated until old enough to attend Miss Oates’s finishing school for girls, Hannah was an avid reader of newspapers, English, French and German literature, as well as the Bible (in English). She especially loved the poetry of Alexander Pope, whom she frequently quoted, and penned her own quatrains. She learned to dance, draw, play music, and ride a horse. When her eldest sister Jeannette and husband David Salomons were living in Paris, Hannah, already in her twenties, stayed with them, attended the opera, and enjoyed Parisian social life.
She married an Englishman of means, 33-year-old Benjamin Moses (1812–1881), who was four years older than her. Their children, Henry and Louisa, were born in 1848 and 1850. In 1856 Benjamin Moses and two of his brothers changed the family surname to the less obviously Jewish name of Merton.
Figure 1: Hannah Moses Merton, c. 1845, miniature portrait made for a locket. Richard Levy Family Archive, Israel.
Poems, Journals, and Translation
Three notebooks contain Hannah Merton’s undated poems, including two of eleven quatrains, “Liberty” and “Habit and Nature,” two riddles, as well as extracts on philosophy and history, some of these in her own translation from French and German. We have found no evidence that she published any of her writing. Her journals fill 15 notebooks. Her unstructured flow of consciousness, which skips from subject to subject, has no particular literary merit. Her entries nevertheless reveal her experience of daily life and thus serve as important cultural artifacts.
Merton’s vast extended and politically prominent family people her journals, including Rothschilds, Montefiores, and Jessels and many others who appear on this website. During the 1850s and 1860s, the Mertons lived mostly in Paris where they socialized with relatives as well as with members of the Parisian Jewish and non-Jewish elite. The family also frequented fashionable spas and seaside resorts in England and on the Continent, where they often met with English acquaintances. In the 1870s, when Benjamin Merton’s health began to deteriorate, they spent the summer in England and winter in Nice.
In an unsystematic manner, Merton’s journals shed light on Victorian home-schooling. She describes the education she and her husband gave their two children, which included tutors for French, German and mathematics as well as history and geography. Her son Henry studied violin, science and fencing, whereas she and her daughter Louisa enjoyed piano and harp lessons. Both children learned to dance, ride horses, and play the harmonium. Louisa read Shakespeare, Schiller and the Bible.
As a bourgeois Victorian Jewish woman concerned with status, Merton pays attention to what people wore. Throughout her journals, she comments in great detail on clothing, both her own and others’, using an extensive English and French vocabulary. She always dressed up before going out to the park, calling on a friend, and receiving visitors in her home. Names of shops, dressmakers and milliners, where she acquired patterns, trimmings and fabrics as well as fashionable apparel for members of her family, also feature in her journals. She ensured that her servants were suitably clothed, to reflect her family’s social standing. She sometimes records the cost of her purchases. She occasionally admits to having certain dresses restyled to give them new life. After her husband died, she wore black and gave away her colorful dresses. She questions the wisdom of her grandson’s sleeping bare-headed, as in her day children wore nightcaps.
Figure 2: Hannah M. Merton at Whitchurch-on-Thames, August 1889. Carte de visite, Album 8, Richard Levy Family Archive, Israel.
Merton frequently entertained guests, and her journals note visitors’ names and the multi-course menus served at her dining table. She also sometimes comments on the luxury food she sampled when visiting others. On Jewish holidays, she served traditional Jewish foods: “Passover biscuits” (i.e., matzot), “soup with balls” (kneidalakh), and “orthodox (gefillte?) fish” which her cook made according to the recipes of Hannah’s mother. After one Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), Hannah broke the fast with roast chicken, vegetables, rice, stewed pears, and a Bath bun [a sweet bun-cake] favored by her maternal grandfather. At the “naming ceremony” of her firstborn grandson, clearly the circumcision ceremony, “The breakfast included many luxuries such as salmon fried, pickled or soused & smoked, Soles fried, stewed fish, ice, pineapple & grapes &c.” (May 3, 1874).
The diet she describes for a weak or sick person reflects Victorian curative medicine. Merton notes, for example, that Carlsbad salts helped her husband and son recover from a cold. Suffering from “oppression on the chest,” she herself swallowed essence of ginger before dinner to aid digestion. She found that Podophyllin and rhubarb pills benefited her when she felt wretched (probably due to constipation). When Hannah complained of toothache, a French dentist diagnosed an inflammation in the root of the tooth and recommended that she bathe her feet “in mustard & water & rinse the mouth with water in which figs have been boiled mixed with about a 4th part of milk” (January 18, 1865). She collected from her sister Harriet an Electric box, a device for administering mild electric shocks which relieves aches and pain associated with nervous disorder, a common Victorian complaint. Her grandson’s rash is treated with a homeopathic remedy.
Merton reveals her awareness of, as well as her anxiety over, the rapidity with which the world around her was modernizing. She appreciated the technological inventions such as electricity, ‘modern stoves,’ and windows, yet expresses wariness over their safety. She doubts the truths claimed by phrenologists. Suspicious of liberal laws and the social impact of novel ideas about society, religion, and education, she followed the news closely, reads books, and attends lectures.
Typical of her class, Merton’s interest in socialism in fiction contrasts with her lack of any engagement with the socialist movements of her era. For example, she read May Laffan Hartley’s The Hon. Miss Ferrard, a comic tale about an orphaned, headstrong Protestant girl who emigrates with a man in search of a more tolerant society, and Matilda Betham-Edwards’ The Sylvestres, “a Socialist story, but in which the Author does not cause the Socialist leader to prosper greatly” (August 17, 1878).
Keeping up with at least some of the hotly debated topics of the period, Merton wonders if a new law for the punishment of crime (Judicature Act 1873) introduced by Britain’s liberal government would lead, as hoped, to less crime. Having read Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, she questions whether she should pardon and welcome into her home a repentant and reformed bad character. She fired her cook for drunkenness and unpleasantness. In the street, she felt her purse being stolen from her pocket and, despite her cries, the robber got away with her money. Following Parliament’s discussion on corporal punishment of criminals, she opines that if children are whipped for misconduct, flogging adult criminals can hardly be considered cruel and antiquated.
Merton shows awareness of the challenges that Victorian science posed for Judaism, reading critical essays, including those by Thomas Babington Macaulay. She concedes on one occasion that the Bible could be read less literally, “with more latitude than of old, to agree with the modern views or revelations of science” (January 7, 1863). On another occasion, she muses again about Macaulay: “Natural Theology may seem not to be progressive, as experimental science is, but general progress may be a precursor to the times when more enlarged thought may be better appreciated by human beings” (December 8, 1880).
She read that spiritism is against Jewish law, yet finds that Allan Kardec’s book on the doctrine renders credible what sometimes appears absurd or false. Years later, she read Herbert Spencer, a non-conformist agnostic, whom her daughter and son-in-law greatly admired. Unwilling to abandon the education and beliefs of her heritage, she expresses her dislike, in a genteel manner, of Spencer’s claim that religion is futile as a source of knowledge and the only way to gain useful knowledge is through science.
Merton worried about anti-Semitic events at home and abroad and contributed to charitable appeals for victims. “We hear still of the Anti-Semitic troubles on the Continent. Is not our civilisation superficial? or what is the cause of this,” she asks. She claims, “Everybody seems Liberal, ultra-Liberal, free conscience is for all, education is for all,” and that Jew-baiting arose because German Jews showed more than proportionate talent and skill (December 10, 1881). She notes press reports of Jewish suffering in Persia (1872) and Turkey (1877–78). She documents responses of Anglo-Jewish leaders to anti-Semitic riots and the “Jewish question” in Germany (1880-1881), as well as the plight of Jews in Russia (1881) and Austro-Hungarian Pressburg (1882). She details the work of the Mansion House Committee for the Relief of the Russian Jews (1882). Like other Jewish women of her class, she felt duty-bound to help underprivileged people and contributed to appeals for needy Jews and non-Jews abroad, as well as in England.
Merton’s journal-writing and letter-writing, ubiquitous activities in Victorian times, became a life-long habit. Her journal served as an aide-memoire, especially when she wrote during her travels and recorded charitable donations, as well as letters and gifts received or sent. She sometimes pasted newspaper cuttings into her journals. She also tacked in, between the pages, letters and printed invitations to bar mitzvahs, weddings and charity dinners.
Her journal also enabled her to engage in conversation with herself. It became a tool for thinking about ideas, news, as well as pleasant and unpleasant daily experiences. Some pages in the notebooks and journals have been cut out, suggesting self-censorship, although we do not know if this was at the time of writing or later, in retrospect. During the coup d’état in Paris, in December 1851, she reports watching the soldiers and cavalry from the window of their house. Why and when did she cut away the lines that followed? (See Figure 3). On January 11, 1876, she mentions discord and agitation in the Merton’s home. The two-week upset is solved after Benjamin Merton summons their daughter-in-law’s father for a talking-to. Hannah does not reveal what the young woman did to upset them so much.
Figure 3: Hannah M. Merton, Journal 1, 1851. Richard Levy Family Archive, Israel.
Figure 4: Hannah M. Merton, Journal 13 1887. Richard Levy Family Archive, Israel.
Merton’s writing is personal, but not particularly private. She often made statements that appear intended to educate future readers. Fully aware of the size and complexity of her family, Merton sometimes describes how a person she mentions is related to her, such as Uncle Denis, her mother’s brother, later Baron de Samuel. She explains the custom of visiting the cemetery on the August fast (Tisha B’Av). Were these explanations merely to refresh her own memory, or did she expect that her journals would be read by others who would not know these facts?
In her later years, she may have intended that her collection of notebooks serve as a family relic. In the 1930s, Merton’s granddaughter, Hannah Floretta Cohen, had a transcript typed of most of the journals, skipping passages that evidently bored her. In 1937, Cohen published Changing Faces, a memoir about her mother, Louisa Lady Cohen, Merton’s daughter, quoting some passages from Merton’s journals. She chose those that illuminate the story of Anglo-Jewish emancipation and England’s attitude towards the Jewish persecutions in the nineteenth century which, Cohen noted, was growing in historical importance (after Hitler’s rise to power). She passed over the nearly 1500 entries that reveal Merton’s domesticity, her multiple roles as a woman, as well as her female experience and perspective on daily life.
Figure 5: Hannah M. Merton (far right) with the family of her daughter Louisa (center with child on her lap) and son-in-law Benjamin L. Cohen (second from left), his brother Leonard Cohen (front left), and the children’s governess, The Mount, Ascot, 1882. Album 19, Richard Levy Family Archive, Israel.
Hannah F. Cohen, Changing Faces: A Memoir of Lady Louisa Cohen (London: Martin Hopkinson, 1937).
Michele Klein, "The Anglo-Jewish Identity of a Victorian Middle-class woman: A Case Study of Mrs. B.M. Merton (1816-1898)" Nashim, Journal of Jewish Women Studies and Gender Issues, No. 33, Fall, 2018, pp. 38-63.
Notebook A, undated: A lengthy text with many corrections, entitled "Dialogue ̶ Reason, Imagination, and Religion"; another entitled “Modern Stoics and Epicureans.” Thirteen quatrains entitled “Thoughts, Feelings, Practices of A.V. Esq. by Hannah Cohen, now H. B. Merton.” Maxims of Francois La Rochefoucauld, followed by Merton's remarks about a text on the Copernican system she read in an old copy of Companion to the Almanack.
Notebook B, undated. Three extracts copied from books that impressed her: Henry Hart Milman, History of the Jews (London, 1829) 2ff., Samuel Warren, Ten Thousand a Year (Edinburgh and London, 1841) 171-172 about what makes countries and men great, and A. B. Cleveland, Studies in Poetry and Prose: consisting of selections principally from American Writers (Baltimore, 1832) 435 also about what makes countries and men great. Also, her own translation of the preface of Jean Pierre de Florian, Eliezer et Nephtaly (London: J.J. Leathwick, 1827); an English translation in quatrains (her own?) of a German ballad about Sir John de Courcy, her translation of Friedrich Schiller's On the Aesthetical Education of Mankind, and a reference to the German poet Klopstock.
Notebook C, undated: Six poems, including two riddles, an unfinished story, and a loose foolscap page with another poem.
Journal 1, 1845-1853
Journal 2, 1853-1858
Journal 3, 1859-1863
Journal 4, 1865-1870
Journal 5, 1871-1874
Journal 6, 1875-1877
Journal 7, 1877-1879
Journal 8, 1879-1880
Journal 9a, 1881
Journal 9b, 1881-1882
Journal 10, 1882-1883
Journal 11, 1883-1884
Journal 12, 1885-1886
Journal 13, 1887-1889
Journal 14, 1889-1892
Journal 15, 1898