Grace Aguilar, an early champion of Jewish women

You may not be familiar with her name but the prolific Victorian writer deserves to be remembered


It is a real tragedy that Grace Aguilar, a prolific Victorian Jewish writer, is not better known. I grew up surrounded by her volumes, as my father bought them for pennies in junk shops and at second-hand booksellers. Nobody read her and indeed few seemed to have heard of her. 

Her greatest legacy, these days, is that the East Harlem branch of the New York Public Library is named the Aguilar Library. Yet, in her day, and until the end of the 19th century, she was widely read by Jews and non-Jews alike, a staple of circulating libraries and often given out as Sunday school prizes in more progressive Christian circles.

She lived only to be 31, and part of that as an invalid, yet she used her time energetically and wrote at vast speed, at least in part to support her family. 

She was one of the early Jewish women writers, along with the less well-known sisters Celia and Marion Moss. All of them had one aim in common. They wanted to show the world, and particularly the increasingly popular middle- and upper-class Christian conversionist world, often led by women, that Judaism was a noble religion, that it had a spiritual centre (conversionists often argued it did not!), and that there were Jewish women, and men, of great courage and upright faith. 

This was the time of Sarah Lewis writing in Women’s Mission, in 1839, “Can women be anything but Christians when they hear the scornful thanksgiving of the Jew, that he was not born a woman?” And it was the height of the Christian Missions to the Jews, led by Joseph Frey (born Joseph Levi). Novelist Amelia Bristow, born Amelia Solomon,  published the hugely popular conversionist de Lissa novels at the same time, and Charlotte Anley, a Quaker prison reformer, added to that with her conversionist tale, Miriam. And there were many others.  

But it was not only conversionism Aguilar had to fight against. There was also an increasingly common view of the exotic, tender and beautiful Jewess who had to be rescued by the noble Christian. The widely read Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, featuring Rebecca of York, was one example of many, and other non-Jewish authors featured Jewish women too. And this has to be set against the contemporary drive to remove Jewish disabilities and create total equality for Jews politically and in every other way, a burning political issue of the day.

Enter Grace Aguilar, who attempted to give the cause her all. The eldest child of Sephardi parents, home-educated, and taught the history of Spanish and Portuguese Jews during her father’s bout of tuberculosis, she was a partial invalid after surviving the measles at the age of 19. 
Later better known as a novelist showing Jews in a positive light, she translated Isaac Orobio de Castro’s Israel Defended into English at her father’s request, and added a preface that explained that she had softened Orobio’s castigations of Christians as a result of the tolerance she felt Victorian England had shown to its Jewish population compared with Catholic Spain and Portugal.

She followed that with The Spirit of Judaism, which attracted huge interest both in Britain and the United States, after being published in Philadelphia by Isaac Leeser. She clashed with him many times, but he, the first translator of the Tanach into English and the instigator of sermons in English, was also her great defender. 

In the 1840s her novels began to attract regular readers, as did her poems. She wrote fiction and non-fiction, much of it published posthumously. Her masterpiece was probably Women of Israel, an account of the lives of Jewish women, which made the case for the contribution of women to Jewish history, hitherto so often written out of the story. 

In 1847 Aguilar came down with a spinal paralysis; in spite of the illness, she went ahead with a planned trip to Europe and died there. Before her departure, some Jewish women presented her with an address recounting her achievements on behalf of Judaism and Jewish women.

Though her most popular Jewish novel was The Vale of Cedars, or the Martyr: A Story of Spain in the Fifteenth Century, written before 1835, published in 1850, it is her collection of 19 stories, Home Scenes and Heart Studies, (published posthumously in 1852) that probably best illustrates her tone— high Victorian— and her love of Jews. It includes The Perez Family (1843), which became a famous tale in its time, showing Jews at their best, and their worst, in Liverpool, London, and elsewhere, but always tender, and always keen to show the world the Jews are real people, not caricatures. 

She was herself punctilious in her religious observance, yet fascinated by the stirrings of reform — women’s equality and of course sermons in English figuring large in her thinking. Her last work was a sketch of the History of the Jews in England, written for Chambers’ Miscellany. Had she lived, she would have matured and written far more. But that she is all but forgotten these days is a crying shame. 

She’s worth reading, even if only to sample high Victorian anti-conversionism. And to understand that Jewish women had to fight off the lady Christian conversionists — no mean task. 

Rabbi Neuberger’s series on Victorian women authors continues at West London Synagogue, July 11, 7pm with “The Misses Moss, Emily Harris, Mrs Alfred Sidgwick and others”

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