Grace Aguilar, A Woman of Israel

Article excerpt

Jews had been depicted in English literature ever since Chaucer as villains, as objects of curiosity, as targets of evangelism, and on rare occasions even with a degree of benevolence, but it was not until early Victorian times that an immensely popular Anglo-Jewish writer, Grace Aguilar (1816-1847), in fictional accounts, realistically and sympathetically chronicled Jewish life both in contemporary England and in medieval Spain and Portugal. She also wrote Jewish religious tracts, promoting a feminine view of Judaism, that was directed to Jewish women as well as to liberal-minded Christian women, tracts that enjoyed a huge circulation through the remainder of the century both in England and the United States. In these and in numerous journal articles she was a leading voice for a more elevated, but not equal, religious role for Jewish women, and she was the first Jew to write a history of English Jewry.

Grace Aguilar was even better known, even famous, for her novels devoid of Jewish interest, which sold as well as those by Dickens, remaining in print and being read well into the 20th century. The publication 25 years after her death of an eight-volume collected works edition was received with enthusiastic reviews in mainstream periodicals. A branch of the New York Public Library has been named after her. All this in a tragically short life.

Yet this brilliant young woman, who was so greatly admired by her contemporaries, had become mainly a footnote in Jewish history until recently becoming the subject of a number of scholarly studies.

Women novelists were hardly rare during the early and mid-19th century, those years producing an astounding array of distinguished, even monumental, women novelists. The three Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot were all born within six years of Grace Aguilar, and Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth were only one generation older. Three Jewish women, Maria Polack and Celia and Marion Moss, each wrote some fiction, but none of them achieved a degree of lasting fame.

Except for Benjamin Disraeli, whose father arranged for his conversion to the Anglican church at the age of 13, Anglo-Jewish men did not write fiction. Their literary efforts were directed to theology, philosophy, Biblical commentary, as well as to midrashim, consisting of anecdotes and parables illustrating religious themes. Also, despite the legal, political, and economic disabilities with which they were burdened, Anglo-Jewish men produced very little polemical writing, leaving much of this to Christian champions in the Liberal party. And so in the last half of the 19th century, Grace Aguilar's writings, both religious and fictional, even though not scaling the literary heights, reached a huge reading public among both Jews and Christians and established her as a literary spokeswoman and an icon for Jews throughout the English-speaking world, especially for Jewish women.

Grace Aguilar was born in London of parents who traced their ancestry to Portuguese and Spanish secret Jews, Marranos. Her father, Emanuel, a merchant of no great wealth, was a scholar by inclination; her mother, Sarah, was a woman of considerable culture and intellect. There were two younger brothers. The family was deeply pious, her father having served as parnass (president) of London's Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue.

Like other descendants of Marranos, the Aguilars retained a vivid remembrance of the cruel expulsions from Spain and Portugal of those Jews who resisted conversion to Roman Catholicism, and of the Inquisition with its inhuman tortures and executions by burning of those converts, the Marranos, who were discovered to be secretly practicing Jewish rites. The central role of Marrano women, despite the threat of martyrdom, in nurturing Judaism in the home and in educating their children was crucial in molding Grace Aguilar's views on the role of Jewish women.

Both parents contributed to her education at home. …