Isaac Brandon (17691847)



  • Merchant
  • Author
  • Librettist

Philip Trotter, University of Toronto
February 2023

Isaac Brandon (1769–1847), an unsuccessful merchant who was also a Sternean imitator, poet, and librettist during the turn of the century, aspired to but never achieved the leisurely life of a man of letters. He was likely born in London and was circumcised on 12 March 1769 by Abraham de Paiba, mohel of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in Aldgate. His parents, Aaron Brandon and Rebecca (Vaz Martinez) Brandon, had three sons, the youngest of whom was Isaac; they were prominent members of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation of London. Aaron, a merchant who sold indigo, coffee, and wood (no doubt among other commodities), owned and operated warehouses in Hoxton with his business partner, Samuel Cortissos, whose wife, Rachel, was Isaac’s godmother. Isaac and his older brother, Moses, worked with their father until he died in January 1802, when they took over the business. Isaac’s career as a merchant was not without its troubles, as the Hoxton warehouses were robbed several times (some of the culprits were caught, brought before the Old Bailey, and charged), and Moses eventually left Isaac to run the business on his own. Isaac and Cortissos’s son, Samuel, went bankrupt in March 1810, following in their fathers’ footsteps; Aaron and Cortissos had gone bankrupt years earlier, in October 1764.

Brandon married Harriet Isabella Page (1777–1864) by license in the parish of St. Marylebone on 10 May 1795. Lacunae in the Synagogue’s books of ketubot, or marriage contracts, conceal key details, but theirs might have been an interreligious marriage; as such, it would not have been recorded or solemnized by the Congregation. Brandon and Harriet do not appear to have had any children, but all evidence indicates they were happy together: Brandon inscribed books to his wife and mentions her with fondness in his florid letters. Marital bliss aside, they were regularly plagued by poor health, which prompted several moves from London. Brandon described one such move in a letter, dated 30 September 1799, to his good friend Isaac D’Israeli, the well-known essayist, who sporadically attended the Synagogue until he withdrew his membership in 1821 (following his years-long dispute with its wardens): “I doubt not you were much astonished to find I had quitted London.—Sickness and I came at last to close quarters, and like a hard-pushed Soldier, I was obliged to fly or run the risk of perishing.—or rather I was banished,—banished to behold Nature expanding in a luxuriant space around me, while she did her office slovenly within me.” Writing from Bartley, New Forest (Hampshire), Brandon believed he was all the “better for [his] short absence from bustle.”

D’Israeli’s friendship was a constant in Brandon’s life. “Return in good health,” D’Israeli wrote to Brandon on 19 October 1799, worried by his friend’s letter, which would have been “most agreeable,” he added, “did it not bring me the portrait of my friend, somewhat discoloured by a line of querulous melancholy, which pains me, for it excites my sympathy.” Yet he was greatly amused by Brandon’s “interesting” account of a conversation he had with Samuel Jackson Pratt, the highly productive author of Gleanings through Wales, Holland, and Westphalia (1795–1799), in which he praised D’Israeli as a “man of Genius.” (Brandon also made a joke at Pratt’s expense: “I do think he is a Reaper instead of a Gleaner if we may judge by the quantity of produce he brings to market.”) Brandon was on good terms, too, with his friend’s family, who “often enquired” after him. Benjamin Disraeli, the future Prime Minister, writing to his older sister, Sarah, on 21 December 1845, playfully dubbed Charles Victor Prévôt, vicomte d’Arlincourt, “a regular Brandon, the same Whig wig, nose, voice, mind!” Years earier, Brandon penned a “picturesque Effusion” for Sarah, which, D’Israeli reported in an undated letter, she was “much delighted by.” D’Israeli himself thought the poem was “like so many which [he had] often admired of [Brandon’s] Muse, […] most graceful.”

Brandon’s erratic literary career began with the anonymous publication of Fragments: In the Manner of Sterne, a slender volume of sentimental imitations of the novelist Laurence Sterne, in September 1797. Likely intended for London’s upscale print marketplace but minimally advertised, Fragments was sold by John Murray and Samuel Highley in Fleet Street and by John Debrett in Piccadilly. Shortly after its publication, Brandon’s volume was highly praised in several reviews; one of Sterne’s most celebrated critics, the now elderly Ralph Griffiths, claimed that Brandon drew “nearer to his prototype than any of that admired writer’s former copyists.” Brandon’s achievement was all the more remarkable because he emphatically censures war, slavery, and colonialism in Fragments, giving prominence to oppositional Whig politics. In May 1798, Brandon’s volume received its second edition, which was cheaper and advertised with choice snippets from the reviews. Two years later, it was translated into French and German. Such critical and commercial success must have been a great source of pride for Brandon. On 27 April 1825, he eagerly wrote to Murray, asking for a copy of Fragments to give to his “very interesting” friend, “a grand daughter of Sternes ‘Eliza’”—possibly Augusta Attersoll (Nevill).

Several years after Fragments, Brandon penned an effusive poem dedicated to the famous physician Edward Jenner, which he recited at the inaugural Festival of the Royal Jennerian Society, established to promote smallpox vaccination, on 17 May 1803. Although turgid and unabashedly Whiggish with its narrative of human progress, the paean was appropriate for the occasion; after Brandon’s recital, “the enthusiasm of the company again burst forth, with acclamations of every voice in the room.” Address to Jenner, on the Anniversary of his Birth was probably printed in the ensuing weeks and was sold by Murray, who may have reissued the poem in 1807. Brandon praised the famous abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, Joseph Lancaster, Quaker reformer and educator, and Jenner (for the second time) in Instruction: A Poem. Brandon’s poem was published sometime after 17 May 1811, when it was recited at the anniversary dinner for the friends and subscribers of the Royal British System of Education, an initiative led by Lancaster. Dedicated to Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, who was in attendance at the dinner, Instruction effuses on the “generous Britons” who “spread instruction’s light” and “civilize the world!”

On 11 February 1808, Brandon’s opera, Kais: or, Love in the Deserts, adapted from D’Israeli’s translated romance, “Mejnoun and Leila” (1799), was performed for the first time at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. John Braham, an incredibly popular Jewish tenor, “whose uncommon powers and refined taste were never more feelingly displayed than in support of Kais,” performed in the leading role and set Brandon’s libretto, one of the earliest written by an English Jew. According to the reviewer for The Monthly Mirror, Brandon’s opera was “received with great applause both by the Jew and Gentile, but particularly by the former, whose elegant taste was defended by numbers.” Such remarks were mild compared to those printed by George Manners’s scurrilous Satirist. The Satirist’s reviewer viciously attacked Brandon, claiming he had “hired the whole tribe of Israel to support [Kais], [and] those who ventured to express their disapprobation, were instantly assailed and insulted by the sons of Abraham.” Brandon made a rejoinder to these pointed claims in the preface to Kais, which was published by Murray: “I write not for Profit;—these labors are my enjoyment!” For all his bravado, Brandon was prescient when he presumed “the opposition to [him] was so very systematic,” as several more anti-Semitic pieces were printed in response. Brandon’s preface even provoked an epigram, penned by “Judæus,” which ends with a scathing couplet: “While in the prose of Billingsgate you chuse, / To praise the doggrel of your Grub-street muse.” Although Kais was issued two more times, courtesy of Murray, and ran for three nights at the playhouse (for which the tally sheet survives), Brandon’s hopes for his “first Dramatic effort” surely were disappointed. He probably had been working on Kais for several years, as D’Israeli, in a letter dated 9 January 1804, refers to his friend’s well-being and writings: “Pray do not apply yourself with any seriousness to literary pursuits, til you are perfectly recovered; & I always have advised you to toy with your pen, rather than labour with it, considering the delicate state of your health, which of late has always been improving; & only requires Care & Moderation.” Had D’Israeli anticipated the hostile reviews that Kais was to receive, he may have advised Brandon to abandon the adaptation; in an undated later to Brandon, he provides similar literary advice, urging his friend to “be as concise as possible.”

For all his troubles, professional, personal, and literary, Brandon seems to have preserved his affable manner and positive outlook. On 27 April 1824, after he and Harriet moved to Boulogne-sur-Mer for their health and economy, he wrote to Murray, frankly reflecting on his situation: “I am living here with something like philosophy, which I must do till some certain occurrences take place (which I expected before this) that will better my fortunes, & will make me comfortable, though never with my former more easy situation in life.—I have learned to live on very little, and will not murmur at any of the misfortunes I have had, for without them some very agreeable Circumstances in my life would not have taken place.” Not much else is known about Brandon’s life. He eventually returned to London with Harriet, making good on a pledge he shared with Murray: “I promise myself to return to my own loved land again with more happiness, than the last few years I spent in it.” Sometime after, he wrote to D’Israeli (who, by this time, had withdrawn his membership from the Synagogue), hoping to “press the hand again of one with whom [he had] passed so many happy days.” In August 1831, he published Poland: A Patriotic Ode, signing the title page as the author of the “Shandean Fragments,” “Address to Jenner,” and the “Opera of Kais,” possibly gesturing to the works he was most proud of. Brandon died on 11 January 1847 in Paddington, at the age of seventy-seven; The Gentleman’s Magazine incorrectly gave his age as seventy-three. His parents, as well as Moses, were buried in the Novo Cemetery in Mile End (the Congregation’s cemetery since 1733), but he was buried at the cemetery in Kensal Green. Harriet survived her husband by seventeen years.

Little has been written about Brandon’s works; even less has been written about Brandon himself. Kais and Brandon are mentioned only in passing in David Conway’s Jewry in Music: Entry to the Profession from the Enlightenment to Richard Wagner (2011) and Michael Ragussis’s Theatrical Nation: Jews and Other Outlandish Englishmen in Georgian Britain (2010). On Fragments and Brandon’s literary career, see Philip Trotter, “‘Wearing Presumption’s Garb’: Isaac Brandon’s Fragments: In the Manner of Sterne,” The Shandean 32 (2021). An earlier account of Fragments may be found in René Bosch’s Labyrinth of Digressions: Tristram Shandy as Perceived and Influenced by Sterne’s Early Imitators (2007).