During my research in London, my attempts to recover materials relating to women’s experience of Jewish modernity were frequently fruitless. As it turned out, I was sometimes luckiest when I was not trying. One afternoon I walked into the Jewish Museum of London with no other intention than to see the famous paintings of Moses and Judith Montefiore. Since the curator seemed amenable to talk, I happened to mention that I was interested in the writings of the Victorian Jew, Grace Aguilar, not expecting him to have heard of her. But on the contrary his eyes lit up, and he told me that the museum had been in possession of all of Aguilar’s tributes, diaries, and unpublished poetry and fiction manuscripts since the early part of this century. The papers had been donated by a historian, Rachel Lask Abrahams, who had gathered the material from the personal papers of Aguilar’s mother Sara. Nothing I had read had even suggested that this material existed. Unfortunately, the curator continued, from the time the documents had come to be housed in the museum, they had been inaccessible to scholars, because the institution did not have facilities for scholarly research. Just three months before I arrived, however, the museum had arranged to transfer the documents to the Manuscript Library of University College London, where if I was so inclined I might go directly that afternoon. The curator said he would be happy to write me a note of recommendation, if I cared for one.
A month later, I put in a request for the sole surviving copy of Marion Hartog’s Jewish Sabbath Journal, the first Jewish women’s periodical anywhere in the world in modern history. The Jewish Studies librarian at University College London returned an hour later to tell me that after an extensive search, he had concluded that the copy had been irretrievably lost. This was a blow, for I suspected that the Journal would illuminate many of the most difficult questions raised by the study of the Anglo-Jewish women’s literary community. For example, how had the community come into being? and what purposes had it served for the women involved? I put an advertisement in the following week’s Jewish Chronicle, looking for Hartog’s ancestors. No one responded. Two weeks later I had almost given up when, as I was sitting in the library, the telephone rang. It was the librarian. He had been in a basement in another part of the library searching for something else when, of all things, he had come upon the Journal, sitting in a stack of unrelated seventeenth-century documents. Did I still want to see it? I rushed over to the Manuscript Library to find a frail, brittle, and water-damaged sheaf coming apart in tiny bits in my hand. By the end of the day, the bits had covered my shirt. So this was what was meant by “recovering” history.
Like the archaeologist, the archival researcher knows that history is comprised of the material objects extant from the past. In the case of Jewish women’s literary history, archival resources are more limited and exhaustible than in other areas, because women were exempted from participating in the intellectual life of Jewish communities for most of Jewish history. Yet many more documents relating to women’s experience of Jewish modernity remain extant than scholars have generally recognized. Because earlier historiographical models neglected or underestimated the differential effect of Jewish modernity on men and women, the substantial wealth of nineteenth-century fiction and periodical literature dealing directly with that subject has remained largely unexplored. This lack of attention to basic sources in turn has meant that larger synthetic studies purporting to tell the story of Jews’ modernization repeated the absence of gender as an analytical category. Over the last ten years or so—in studies of French, German, American, and English Jews—there has been a recognized need among feminists and other scholars interested in gender to return to the archives and recover what has been neglected.
This book focuses on a critical but forgotten moment in the development of Jewish women’s writing, the moment in which modern Jewish women transgressed their traditional “exemption” from literary endeavor and began to publish books. Between 1830 and 1880, Jewish women in England became the first Jewish women anywhere to publish novels, histories, periodicals, theological tracts, and conduct manuals. In their own time, Grace Aguilar, Marion Hartog, Judith and Charlotte Montefiore, and Anna Maria Goldsmid were acknowledged by Christians and Jews alike as the most significant theorists of English Jews’ entrance into the modern world. Their romances, some of which sold as well as novels by Dickens, argued for Jews’ emancipation in the Victorian world and women’s emancipation in the Jewish world. These texts served as emblems of Jews’ desire to become acculturated to modern English life while simultaneously maintaining a distinct collective identity.
This study analyzes Anglo-Jewish women’s momentous entrance into print in relation to Victorian literary history, women’s cultural history, and Jewish cultural history. In the context of Victorian literature, it offers revisions of the development of the English novel as well as a reevaluation of such well-known novelists as Scott, Edgeworth, Disraeli, Dickens, Thackeray, and Eliot. In addition, its analysis of Christian responses to Jewish women’s romances provides new perspectives on Victorian liberalism, orientalism, and conversionism. In the context of feminist approaches to women’s cultural history, this study offers new interpretations of Victorian domestic ideology, the feminization of religion, and the advent of feminist political and literary institutions. Finally, this study attempts to show that, when approached through a gendered lens, modern Jewish cultural history looks remarkably different than it does in traditional histories of the period. English Jews’ approach to gender roles, as well as their campaigns for emancipation and religious reform, were profoundly shaped by women’s writing in ways that until now have not been fully understood or appreciated.
Drawing for the first time from the Jewish Sabbath Journal and from overlooked articles, tales, and midrashim published in standard Victorian Jewish periodicals such as the Jewish Chronicle, drawing for the first time in nearly a century on the Grace Aguilar MS, this book’s aim is to reconstruct the lost subculture of the Victorian Jews.