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Grace Aguilar, A Woman of Israel.

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. She was an intense student with a broad knowledge of literature, history, Jewish religious texts, and languages. Precocious, she wrote and published poetry at an early age and yet did not neglect the arts deemed appropriate for young women: music, painting, and needlework. She was described as "tall and graceful, her eye of rich blue, beaming with intelligence, shaded by long dark silken eyelashes ... her hair of a brown cast ... hanging in checkered ringlets around her fair throat." She never married and seemed most comfortable in the presence of other women.

In 1828, the family loved to Devonshire where there were few Jews, so that she was thrown into contact with Protestant friends of a liberal persuasion whom she could not blame for the sufferings of her ancestors. She even attended church services with them, entering into those prayers she felt were doctrinally acceptable, and she had intimate discussions of religion. Yet she remained steadfast in her own religious beliefs.

The family moved back to London about 1842, when her father's health failed, and she and her mother operated a boarding school for Jewish boys. Her frail health did not inhibit her from continuing to write until her final illness. Accompanied by her mother, she sought a cure at a German spa, where she died at the age of 31 and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Frankfurt-am-Main.

Grace Aguilar was very sensitive to the pressures on Jews to convert. The wave of evangelical enthusiasm that swept England at the turn of the 19th century dispersed missionaries to the four corners of the globe; at home, efforts to convert the English Jews had become a major industry. Organizations such as the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity Amongst the Jews were active, with large budgets and numerous workers, and these boasted of major successes. They especially targeted Jewish women, under the perception that these were more "spiritual" and chafed under the shackles of a rigid, male-dominated creed. Much of Aguilar's didactical writings were directed toward Jewish women in order to stiffen their resolve against the blandishments of the evangelists.

Moreover, the literary tradition promulgated in The Merchant of Venice, wherein a beautiful, oppressed Jewess rebels against her tyrannical father by converting and marrying her Christian lover, had made its way in varying scenarios into the romantic novels of quite a number of early 19th-century writers. Although Sir Walter Scott deviated somewhat from this formula by having Rebecca demur in her attraction to Ivanhoe and stand by her Shylock-like father and her religion, Scott later apologized that he had not met the dynamics of his story by "assign[ing] the hand of Wilfred to Rebecca, rather than to the less interesting Rowena [because] the prejudices of the age has made such a union impossible." Despite Scott's great influence, the Shakespearean tradition of rebellion and apostasy by a beauteous Jewess was retained in novels by Edgeworth, Bulwer-Lytton, and others, as well as in a number of "sequels" to Ivanhoe by various writers, including Thackeray. In Thackeray's Ivanhoe and Rowena, after Rowena's death, Ivanhoe returns to the Eastern wars where he finds Rebecca imprisoned by Isaac for declaring herself a Christian. Ivanhoe rescues her so that this more passionate and apt couple may now enjoy conjugal bliss.

And so, in some of her fictional works, Grace Aguilar countered this myth of impassioned rebellion by a passionate Jewess against her father and her father's religion by creating heroines, particularly in medieval Spain and Portugal, who remained steadfast to their religious patrimony in the face of horrendous physical onslaughts.

Grace Aguilar's major religious work, The Spirit of Judaism, was published under the editorship of Rabbi Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, the foremost spokesman of traditional Judaism in America and perhaps in the English-speaking world. It was widely read by Christians, as well as by Jews, and it was commonly awarded as a Sunday School prize.

Her emphasis on spirituality and the primacy of the Bible, with a lesser emphasis on rabbinic lore, has been described as a kind of Jewish Protestantism and a forerunner of Reform Judaism, which had not yet made significant inroads into England. Yet she adhered to the practice of Jewish ritual and prayer, to the use of the Hebrew language, and to the inevitability of the return of the Hebrew nation to the land of Israel.

Grace Aguilar deflated the view of the evangelists that Judaism was a religion for men only. She noted the rights of women promulgated in the Hebrew Bible and the central role of women in Biblical history. Although far removed from today's feminist movement, she promoted an appropriate Victorian role for women centered in the home with responsibility for the religious and ethical education of her children. Women were expected to be well versed in religious practice, in the Hebrew language, and the Hebrew Bible. They were not only perceived to be equal to men in the eyes of God, but, because of their spiritual nature, they were even more deserving of God's love.

To promote this view, she wrote the two-volume Women of Israel, in which, in addition to the Hebrew Bible and Josephus, she borrowed heavily from oral tradition sources. Virtually every Biblical and historical figure from Eve to Herod's wife, Berenice, is covered. In each instance, she argued a providential role for women, which was not only equal to that of men but was uniquely feminine.

Thus, Moses's mother, Joachabed, not only heroically saved him from death as a condemned infant, but Grace Aguilar presumed that she tended Moses well into childhood, and that" it was in those years he had passed with his own mother [that] his character had been formed, his principles fixed, his religion obtained ... we must infer ... that her influence ... endowed him with that feeling of patriotism which bade him rise up against the Egyptian who was smiting an Israelite ... [and] ultimately create a religion and a nation."

In The Jewish Faith, she composes a series of letters to a fictional young Jewess living "in a small country town, almost entirely surrounded by Christians, and where our Jewish brethren, I fear, are little likely to elevate our holy faith in your mind." Aguilar attempts to fortify the young person against the temptation to abandon her faith by establishing its spiritual superiority, an aspect of Judaism she feels may have been neglected by "our Jewish brethren."

In a number of essays, she notes how mistranslations of the Hebrew Bible by Christians have suggested predictions and prophesies that support Christian dogma. Her proposal that there be a more accurate English translation inspired Rabbi Leeser to translate the Pentateuch, and Abraham Benisch, the longstanding editor of The Jewish Chronicle, to do the same for the entire Hebrew Bible.

Her History of the Jews in England, written for the widely distributed Chambers' Miscellany, was the first such history by a Jew; it laid the groundwork for Anglo-Jewish histories to follow. It traced the vicissitudes of the Jews in England from earliest times to the present, where "the Jews are still considered aliens and foreigners.... Yet, they are in fact, Jews only in religion ... Englishmen in everything else."

In only one of Grace Aguilar's full-scale novels, The Vale of Cedars, does she pursue a Jewish theme. Unabashedly melodramatic and didactic, this novel endeavors to convey to her Christian readers the horrors visited upon the Jews of Spain and Portugal during the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as to counter the Shylockian literary tradition of apostasy by Jewish women.

The novel is set in Spain just prior to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492; the heroine, a Marrano and a lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabella, resists the advances of a Christian suitor to marry her cousin, also a Marrano, who occupies an eminent position in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. In the course of events, he is murdered, and she is discovered to be a practicing Jewess. She refuses to abjure her Judaism, even under the most horrendous torture in the Inquisitional dungeons, but is spared a fiery execution through the intercession of Isabella. She dies of her wounds, still professing her Jewish faith. Grace Aguilar pursues variations of this theme in a number of short stories set in Spain and Portugal.

In her novella, The Perez Family, the travails of a Jewish working-class family in Liverpool provide the vehicle for a genre that blossomed at the turn of the century--Zangwill's sagas of London's poor Jews--and later in America, in such novels as Michael Gold's Jews Without Money, and Henry Roth's masterpiece and only novel, Call It Sleep.

Rachel Perez, poverty-stricken, faces a series of adversities that fail to shake her steadfast faith. That faith sustains her until she is finally rewarded with tranquility and happiness.

Outwardly, the poor Jews do not differ from their neighbors. Their homes are neat and clean, their gardens well-tended. But inside the homes are Jewish, where Jewish rites and family values are practiced. The men attend Sabbath services in the synagogue, but the focus is on the home with its candle-lighting, the Sabbath meal, the sing-ing of religious songs, and the mother reading from the Bible. Grace Aguilar makes certain that, just as among the crypto-Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, it is the mother who is the leading figure in holding the family together and in transmitting the faith.

The Days of Bruce is a swashbuckling historical novel in the genre of Sir Walter Scott. Robert Bruce (1274-1329) was the heroic Scottish king who united the clans in rebellion against the English vassal state to which Scotland had been reduced by the English king, Edward I. Bruce alternated between desperate guerrilla actions and massive pitched battles, culminating in a great victory in 1314, which placed the whole of Scotland in his hands.

Grace Aguilar paints an accurate historical canvas, even though the personal vicissitudes of Bruce, the countess of Buchan, and each of their families, which provide the plot, deviate from the historical record, a lapse not unforgivable in such a romance. Depiction of the horror and gore of the battle scenes, of the desperate privations of the guerrilla warriors, and of the derring-do and gallantry of the knightly tournaments is not what one might expect from a demure maiden. Perhaps she had been hardened by familiarity with the blood-letting of the Inquisition. On the other hand, her sensitive delineations of the female characters and her delicate treatment of medieval romantic love are in keeping with her Victorian femininity.

The most popular of her books, Days of Bruce, enjoyed an immediate and sustained success. The numerous reviews in leading journals were enthusiastic, producing such blurbs as: "Sir Walter Scott's name as an author would not have been disgraced by it had it appeared on the title page"; "a composition of great eloquence, written with practical polish and enthusiastic energy"; "combines the best qualities of historical fiction." What a marvelous film scenario it could provide, rivaling even the most successful of such current historical romances.

Unlike Ivanhoe, there are no Jews in Days of Bruce. In 1290, just prior to the action in the novel, Robert Bruce's vicious and evil nemesis, Edward I, had cruelly banished England's approximately 6,000 Jews and had proscribed Jews from ever returning to England, an edict never officially rescinded. It waited for Oliver Cromwell, without the concurrence of his council, to unofficially invite their return. It is not surprising, then, that this Jewish champion, the author of the first published history of the Jews in England by a Jew, should take up the theme of the Scottish struggle against the detested Edward I, who was also the bete noire of English Jewry.

Except for her poetry and shorter works appearing in periodicals, Grace Aguilar was known during her lifetime as a writer on Jewish subjects. Only her novel, Home Influence, appeared during her life. Home Influence is a so-called domestic novel, a saccharine tale of two related families, one in which maternal neglect results in unhappy outcomes for the two children; in the other family the children prosper as a result of the mother's love and care. In her foreword, Grace Aguilar assures the reader that, although known for her Jewish writings, she has included no Jewish themes, and that the book's overt religiosity is nonsectarian. Her two other such sentimental novels and her historical novels were issued posthumously by her mother.

Even though it was mainly her Jewish writings that were known during her lifetime, and these only in her later years, their impact among her contemporaries, both Jewish and Christian, was sufficient to accord her wide recognition, even veneration. On the occasion of her departure for Germany during her final illness, several hundred London ladies gathered to pay her tribute. The plaudits accorded her might be summarized in one succinct statement: "Until you arose, it has in modern times never been the case that a woman in Israel should stand forth as the public advocate of the faith of Israel."

Her death was greeted with paeans of praise in editorials and by Jewish leaders, both men and women, in England, America, and elsewhere. Rabbi Leeser wrote: "There has not arisen a single Jewish female in modern times who has done so much for the illustration and adornment of our faith as Grace Aguilar."

The years that followed saw her reputation soar with the phenomenal sale of her books, both religious and fictional, until it eventually waned around the turn of the 20th century. But she should not be forgotten: in her short life Grace Aguilar managed to join that pantheon of Jewish heroines whose valorous deeds she chronicled so ably in her Women of Israel.

References:

[1.] Cecil Roth, The Evolution of Anglo-Jewish Literature. London: Edward Gollancz, 1937.

[2.] Michael Galchinsky, The Origin of the Modern Jewish Woman Writer. Detroit: Wayne State University, 1996; Philip Weinberger, The Social and Religious Thought of Grace Aguilar, Ph.D. Thesis, New York University, 1970; Cynthia Scheinberg, Miriam's Daughter, Ph.D. Thesis, Rutgers University, 1992; Montagu F. Modder, The Jew in the Literature of England. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1944.

[3.] Beth-Zion Lask Abrahams, "Grace Aguilar: A Centenary Tribute," Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, 16, 1952, pp. 137-148.

MILTON KERKER is professor of chemistry emeritus at Clarkson University, Potsdam, New York.
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Title Annotation:historical fiction writer
Author:Kerker, Milton
Publication:Midstream
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Feb 1, 2001
Words:3019
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