Lindsay Katzir, Langston University
Grace Aguilar (1816-1847) was perhaps the most prominent Anglo-Jewish author of the nineteenth century. She wrote and published numerous novels, stories, and essays, as well as works of poetry, theology, and liturgy. Aguilar was beloved in her lifetime, perhaps because her works highlighted the shared religious values of Jews and Christians and thus appealed to multiple audiences. Her universalist approach to the Bible ensured her popularity with Protestant readers. At the same time, she staunchly defended Judaism against its Christian detractors and proudly extolled the virtues of Jewish women. Unwavering in her commitment to traditional Judaism, Aguilar rebuffed those Jews who wanted women to remain subordinate to men, as well as those Christians who begged women to leave Judaism altogether. While following the basic precepts of orthodox Judaism, Aguilar proposed reforms within orthodoxy that would expand women’s religious roles by embracing aspects of Evangelicalism, which imagined women to be exceptionally spiritual. Overall, her beliefs about piety and domesticity aligned with those of her Victorian readership, causing her publications to become commercially successful among Jewish and Christian readers, both in Britain and around the world.
Grace Aguilar was born on June 2, 1816, to Emanuel and Sarah (Dias Fernandes) Aguilar. Her father’s family were Spanish Jews who left Spain for Jamaica, and some of this family of merchants had immigrated to England by the late eighteenth century. Likewise, some of her mother’s family left Portugal for Jamaica, making their fortune and settling in England by the turn of the century, as well. Her brothers Emanuel and Henry were born on August 23, 1824, and August 26, 1827, respectively. All three children were born in Hackney, London, and the family attended Bevis Marks, London’s oldest Sephardi synagogue. Emanuel briefly served as parnas [lay leader] there, but in 1828 he contracted tuberculosis, so they moved to Devon for his health. Aguilar was often sick herself, having survived a mysterious childhood illness and then going on to catch the measles at nineteen. In 1835, her brothers were sent away to school, and the family moved to Brighton. Because Aguilar spent much of her youth removed from Jewish community, she satisfied her personal need for communal worship by attending local church services with Christian friends. Nevertheless, Aguilar was a passionate and lifelong lover of Judaism.
Aguilar was a sickly child, but like most Victorian girls, she enjoyed reading, singing, painting, and sewing. Unlike most Victorian girls, she received religious and secular instruction. Typically, girls and young women learned either accomplishments (like music or needlework) or household skills at home–depending on their class–with the expectation that these skills would enable them to make good marriages. They received scant education, either from tutors or governesses, or else from sporadic attendance at school. Since Jewish boarding schools excluded girls, Jewish families either sent their daughters to private schools or they educated them at home. Their religious education usually included the reading of meditations, devotionals, prayer books, and, above all, the Bible, rather than the study of the Talmud or rabbinical literature, which was reserved for boys. Some also learned scripture, history, literature, philosophy, and reading and writing English and European languages. Most girls could not read Hebrew, but Aguilar’s father taught her so they could study Jewish histories and religious commentaries together. She also studied Hebrew with David Aaron de Sola, senior minister and cantor of Bevis Marks. Together, Aguilar’s parents facilitated her religious education and regaled her with stories of their ancestors, serving as major influences on their daughter’s life and career.
In 1840, Aguilar and her family moved back to London, settling at 5, The Triangle, Hackney. By then she had already completed several manuscripts, so she began corresponding with esteemed intellectuals like Isaac D’Israeli and Rabbi Isaac Leeser in order to secure British and American publishers for those projects. Since both of her parents had contracted illnesses that kept them mostly homebound, Aguilar assumed responsibility for their finances, supporting her family with money made from her publications. By 1842 she was earning a respectable income as a writer of domestic and religious works, as well as running a boarding school for young Jewish boys with her mother, where they taught English, Hebrew, religion, writing, arithmetic, geometry, and history. The school was located in Hackney and named Mrs. and Miss Aguilar’s Preparatory Establishment for Young Gentlemen.
Now a popular and successful writer, Aguilar could afford to relocate her family to 1, Clarence Place, Clapton Square. Her father died in 1846, and her own spinal ailment had worsened, but she still managed to maintain a robust publishing career. However, by 1847 Aguilar had become too unwell to continue writing. On June 14, a group of Anglo-Jewish women calling themselves the “Women of Israel,” taken from the title of one of Aguilar’s most popular books, publicly attested to her importance and influence. Then she traveled to Frankfurt, where her brother Emanuel was studying music, in a final attempt to recover her health. Taking the waters at Schwalbach failed, so she returned to Frankfurt. Aguilar did not recover. She died on September 16 and was buried in the Frankfurt Jewish cemetery. Fittingly, the epitaph on her tombstone, taken from Proverbs 31 on “The Woman of Valor,” reads, “Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her from the gates.”
The most prolific Anglo-Jewish author of her era, Aguilar published twelve books, including novels, theological tracts, and collections of stories, sermons, essays, and poems. At the age of seven she started a diary, and by nine she had written several poems, but she began writing in earnest at age twelve, when her family moved to Devon. There, she completed her first manuscript: a play about Gustav I of Sweden called “Gustavus Vasa.” By the age of fifteen, Aguilar was caring for her whole family, including her younger brothers, so she decided to pursue a career in professional—potentially profitable—writing. At this time, Aguilar began a historical romance set during the Spanish Inquisition, the first of many tales inspired by her Sephardi ancestry. She completed a response to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820), The Vale of Cedars; or, the Martyr by 1835 but the work was to be published posthumously in 1850. It tells the story of the Henriquez family—forcibly converted Jews who outwardly observed Catholic rites but covertly practiced Judaism. Marie Henriquez, the novel’s pious heroine, bravely bears the Inquisitors’ tortures, renouncing her Christian lover but not her Jewish heritage. The most popular of her Jewish tales, The Vale of Cedars was twice translated into German and twice into Hebrew.
Following the completion of The Vale of Cedars, Aguilar secured a publisher for her first book of poems while living in Brighton. The Magic Wreath of Hidden Flowers (1835) is written in the style of women’s magazine poetry, and the poems resemble the riddles of Jane Austen’s Emma(1816), with each one containing clues to the names of flowers. Stylistically, she imitated commercially successful poets like Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and Felicia Hemans. In 1836 Aguilar drafted what would become her two most popular domestic novels, Home Influence (1847) and The Mother’s Recompense (1851), both published posthumously. They present ideal wives and mothers as loving caretakers of homes and devoted teachers of children. These themes reappeared throughout Aguilar’s work and cemented her reputation as a writer of domestic fiction. Home Influence and The Mother’s Recompense were extremely popular. In fact, the former ran through almost thirty editions. In 1838 Aguilar’s father asked her to translate Isaac Orobio de Castro’s Israel Defended (1770) from the French and had it printed for private circulation. She also composed meditations, prayers, and sermons while living in Brighton, which her mother published as a collection called Sabbath Thoughts and Sacred Communings in 1853.
After returning to London, Aguilar started seeking more prominent publishing opportunities. In 1840 she contacted Isaac Leeser about publishing her theological disquisition on the Shema. Leeser was well known as the hazzan [cantor] of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia and the founder of the first American Jewish Publication Society. He agreed to publish her work, and The Spirit of Judaism appeared in 1842, though not without first being lost at sea, completely rewritten by Aguilar, and appended with Leeser’s editorial preface and footnotes. The work takes up many subjects, including Jewish education, Hebrew language, religious ritualism, and Christian conversionism. Leeser’s preface and footnotes detail his differences with Aguilar on these pressing subjects, and she was not pleased to have discovered his additions. Still, she maintained a positive and fruitful relationship with Leeser. His journal, The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, featured over thirty of her poems, including “A Vision of Jerusalem, While Listening to a Beautiful Organ in One of the Gentile Shrines” (1844), an exploration of Aguilar’s feelings upon visiting a church, and “The Wanderers” (1845), a sympathetic retelling of Hagar and Ishmael’s tale. Aguilar was soon listed as Leeser’s highest paid contributor.
Beginning in 1841, the Jewish Chronicle, the Voice of Jacob, and the Hebrew Review and Magazine of Rabbinical Literature published various poems by Aguilar. Non-Jewish journals such as The Keepsake, Friendship’s Offering, Chambers’ Miscellany, and La Belle Assemblée also began printing her poems, which occasioned her acquaintance with noted writers such as Anna Maria Hall, one of her greatest admirers. In 1842 Aguilar’s The Perez Family, a sentimental novella about a hardworking, devout Anglo-Sephardi family, appeared as the first installment of Charlotte Montefiore’s Cheap Jewish Library, a series of books meant for the Jewish working classes. Montefiore commissioned didactic works of this kind because she believed the Jewish working classes needed moral education and improvement. Aguilar was also in contact with the well-known philosopher Isaac D’Israeli through his son, Benjamin Disraeli. Between July 1840 and July 1844, she wrote five letters to D’Israeli, requesting his assistance in securing a publisher. D’Israeli eventually introduced her to Edward Moxon, who may have himself introduced her to R. Groombridge and Sons, the firm that published her books for the English market. Aguilar continued writing historical romances, producing Records of Israel in 1844 and Days of Bruce, which was published posthumously in 1852. The latter, a romance set in medieval Scotland, made her famous among British readers.
In 1845 Aguilar published the work that is widely considered to be her masterpiece. The Women of Israel, a series of biographical accounts of biblical, Talmudic, and modern Jewish women, counters Christian claims that Judaism is unspiritual and thus unsuitable for women. Aguilar appealed to a varied readership by emulating popular Evangelical scripture biographers. By then Aguilar had moved to Clapton Square, where she wrote The Jewish Faith, a series of letters between two Jewish women on issues such as conversion, assimilation, spirituality, and immortality. It was published by Leeser in 1846, the year that Anna Maria Hall introduced Aguilar to Robert Chambers, the publisher of Chambers’ Miscellany. Chambers commissioned one of Aguilar’s essays for his magazine, and “The History of the Jews in England” appeared in 1847. The first such history, Aguilar’s essay advocates for the Jews’ emancipation but opposes their conversion and assimilation. Aguilar died later that year. Her mother, Sarah, continued to edit and publish her daughter’s manuscripts posthumously, including Home Scenes and Heart Studies (1852) and Essays and Miscellanies (1853), collections of stories and essays. Aguilar’s collected works, in eight volumes, appeared in 1861.
Immensely popular during the Victorian era, Aguilar was beloved as the “Moral Governess of the Hebrew Family,” and she left a lasting legacy.1 Some of her works sold as well as those of Dickens, and some were used in Jewish Sunday school classes until about 1950. The Aguilar Free Library Society of New York City was established in 1886, and one of the oldest branches of New York Public Library is named after her. Aguilar was unique in Victorian Britain as a female scholar and in Jewish history as a female theologian. She refused to compromise her principles to appease Christians who would have preferred that Jews assimilate, and her allegiance to Judaism manifested as a literary career. She was a writer, scholar, and activist, and an orthodox woman. Aguilar struggled with the Jews’ alienation from modern Europe, and so she turned to her people’s history, culture, and future as a response to the crisis of modernity. She encouraged British Jews to embrace British social mores, but never at the expense of Judaism. Just as the worldview of Torah Umadda puts Torah before secularism, so Aguilar prioritized Jewishness over Britishness. She never suggested that it would be painless to balance the two, only that, by valuing and supporting Jewish women as the purveyors of Jewish traditions, the Jewish nation would thrive for centuries to come.2
1 From a tribute by the Ladies of the Society for the Religious Instruction of Charleston, South Carolina, published in the Occident and American Jewish Advocate in November 1847.
2 This article was originally published in The Literary Encyclopedia in 2022 and appears here with permission.
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Aguilar, Grace. A Mother’s Recompense; a Sequel to Home Influence. R. Groombridge and Sons, 1851.
---. “A Poet’s Dying Hymn.” Voice of Jacob, 1842.
---. “A Vision of Jerusalem, While Listening to a Beautiful Organ in One of the Gentile Shrines.” Occident and American Jewish Advocate, 1844.
---. “An Hour of Peace.” Occident and American Jewish Advocate, 1843.
---. “Communings with Nature. No. VII. Address to Ocean.” Occident and American Jewish Advocate, 1847.
---. History of the Jews in England. Chambers’ Miscellany, 1847.
---. Home Influence: A Tale for Mothers and Daughters. R. Groombridge and Sons, 1847.
---. Home Scenes and Heart Studies. R. Groombridge and Sons, 1852.
---. Israel Defended. 1838.
---. Sabbath Thoughts and Sacred Communings. Edited by Sarah Aguilar, R. Groombridge and Sons, 1853.
---. “Sabbath Thoughts III.” Occident and American Jewish Advocate, 1844.
---. “Song of the Spanish Jews, During Their Golden Age.” Occident and American Jewish Advocate, 1843.
---. The Days of Bruce: A Story of Scottish History. R. Groombridge and Sons, 1852.
---. “The Hebrew’s Appeal, on Occasion of the Late Fearful Ukase Promulgated by the Emperor of Russia.” Occident and American Jewish Advocate, 1844.
---. The Magic Wreath of Hidden Flowers. W.B. Mason, 1839.
---. The Vale of Cedars; or, the Martyr. R. Groombridge and Sons, 1850.
---. “The Wanderers.” Occident and American Jewish Advocate, 1845.
---. Works. Groombridge and Sons, 1869.