GRACE AGUILAR: “THE MORAL GOVERNESS OF THE HEBREW FAMILY”
THE VEIL AND THE SPIRIT
The Mosses articulated an important response to conversionists and Jewish men in their historical romances. They were championed by luminaries in the Jewish community like the Mocattas and the Montefiores, and in the Christian world like Edward Bulwer Lytton. Their work sold well, going through several editions, and was discussed by contemporaries in the pages of Jewish and Christian periodicals. But when they died, it passed with them into obscurity. Obscurity was the fate of work by Charlotte Montefiore, Anna Maria Goldsmid, and Maria Polack as well, even though their texts were in some cases highly touted and highly controversial when first published. Of all the early Anglo-Jewish women writers, only Grace Aguilar’s work was reprinted after her death. In anthologies of Jewish women’s work even today, only her writings from this period continue to be excerpted.1 Why? How did her work uniquely exemplify the contradictions and dilemmas of the early Victorian Jewish subculture?
Aguilar was recognized by Christians and Jews alike as the writer who best defined the Anglo-Jewish response to the challenge to enter the modern world. Besides being reprinted widely, her works were advertised in the end pages of Dickens’s Bleak House, suggesting that she was fairly well integrated into the mainstream literary culture. She achieved such fame partly because she was able to construct an identity for Jews as English citizens based on different principles than those articulated by “tolerant” liberal Christians. She criticized “toleration’s” requirement that all the nation’s citizens be converted to a fundamental sameness—that is, to Christianity. But paradoxically, in setting out to convince Christian liberals to quit their tactics of toleration, their pity and projection, Aguilar agreed to a trade-off: Jews would in turn restrict their expressions of differentness to the domestic sphere. This trade-off accounted in good measure for her work’s appeal to a wide audience.
While Aguilar was negotiating the terms of Jews’ increasing participation in the Victorian world, she was also negotiating terms for women’s increasing participation in the Jewish world. For Aguilar, gender and ethnicity were intertwined categories of identity, sometimes supporting one another, at other times at odds. In regard to gender, too, Aguilar produced a trade-off: if Jewish men would provide women with education, women would in turn restrict their sphere of influence to the home. Because she balanced demands with concessions, both in relation to men and the dominant culture, she became the most lauded Jewish woman writing in Victorian England.
Aguilar undoubtedly gained a wealth of stories as well as a particular stance toward them from her Sephardic upbringing.2 The eldest of three children (with two younger brothers), she was born in 1816 in Hackney. Her ancestors had fled during the Inquisition from Lisbon to Amsterdam and from there to England. Her father, Emmanuel, came from a merchant family that lived in a town called Aguilar near Cordova; her mother, Sarah Dias Fernandez, came from Portugal via Jamaica. Her family had a history of literary activity and community service. Her maternal great-grandfather wrote religious polemics (eventually published by the same Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia who would later publish her Spirit of Judaism). For a time, until he became ill in 1828, her father was the Parnas, or lay leader, of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation in London. Perhaps because her family was so involved in Sephardic affairs, she received what Lask Abrahams calls “the oral traditions of Spain and Portugal”—the expulsion, the Inquisition, the traditions of crypto-Judaism. And like the Oral Law, which had its Judah HaNasi to redact it and pass it down, these traditions would need a teller.
Families like Aguilar’s who had fled the Inquisition often had a matriarchal structure: the oral traditions of the crypto-Jews were passed down from mother to daughter in the domestic space because the traditionally male Judaic public spaces (such as the synagogue and yeshiva) had been closed down.3 Sarah Aguilar seems to have fulfilled the matriarchal role of storyteller, giving her daughter a great deal of material for her popular novels about mothers and daughters, Home Influence; A Tale for Mothers and Daughters and A Mother’s Recompense. Rather than focusing on the conflict between father and daughter, as did the conversionists, Jewish men, and the Ashkenazic Mosses, the crypto-Jewish culture focused on the transmission of tradition by mothers to their children.4 Aguilar’s father seems to have accommodated the maternal role of storytelling, becoming in his illness Aguilar’s amanuensis until his death in 1844. In this, he was certainly different from the Ashkenazic Joseph Moss, who threatened to burn his daughters’ books. The crypto-Jewish tradition supported female storytellers.
Crypto-Judaism was a secret, domestic Judaism, hidden from the outside world as if by a veil. For example, in Aguilar’s Inquisition romance, the Vale of Cedars, the Jewish family is quite literally hidden from Christian view in a secret labyrinth behind a “vale”—or valley—of cedars. Aguilar defamiliarizes her descriptions of Jewish customs and ritual by describing them as if from an outsider’s perspective and not in great detail.5 In contrast to conversionists, who typically described Jewish rituals with an ethnographic “thick description,” Aguilar’s description is thin and hazy.6 Zatlin argues that Aguilar employs this distancing method so as to focus less on differences of form between Judaism and Christianity and more on similarities in spirit. While this emphasis on spirit over forms was a standard strategy of emancipationists, Aguilar reached it through an unusual path, through the traditions of secrecy from her crypto-Jewish heritage. To put it another way, Aguilar invokes the lessons her ancestors learned from hiding during the Inquisition in order to express the dilemmas of passing in a liberal state.
Aguilar received much of this mother-daughter teaching in provincial Devon, where her family moved for her father’s health in 1828. Here and in her subsequent provincial home in Brighton, she kept numerous diaries and notebooks. These manuscripts were collected by Rachel Beth Zion Lask Abrahams and bequeathed to the Jewish Museum in London early in this century. The Museum loaned them to the Manuscript Library of University College London in 1990, where for the first time they could be viewed by scholars. They include her first novels, written by hand for a Christian friend, “The Friends, a Domestic Tale” (1834), and “Adah, a Simple Story” (1838), as well as a series of books of poetry, tales, journals of excursions, such abstruse writings as her “Notes on Chonchology” (the science of conch shells), and sermons. In addition, the collection includes numerous tributes to her upon her death (collected by her mother), a physician’s account of her final illness, and seven of her published works.
It was in Devon that Aguilar first began to write poems, culminating in her first book, The Magic Wreath, published anonymously in 1835 when she was nineteen. This book met with praise in the non-Jewish press, which encouraged Aguilar to write poems for such non-Jewish publications as Keepsake, La Belle Assemblée, and Chambers’ Miscellany. She also began to publish poems in Jewish periodicals, such as the Hebrew Review and Magazine of Rabbinical Literature, Voice of Jacob, the Occident, and the Jewish Chronicle. In the twelve years between the publication of Magic Wreath and her death in 1847 Aguilar wrote twelve books, only six of which were published while she was alive. Israel Defended (Brighton 1838), her translation from French of a polemical work by Orobio de Castro, was her contribution to the emancipation debate. The Spirit of Judaism, her meditation on the humanistic spirit that underlay the formal rituals of Judaism, was written as an aid in her brothers’ education. Isaac Leeser agreed to publish it in 1840, but it was lost in transit to America and had to be rewritten. It appeared in print in 1842, with Leeser’s editorial comments and refutations, and nonetheless achieved an enormous success. It was reviewed in the Voice of Jacob (April 1, 1842), which praised its “many beauties” as “fervid, eloquent, and truthful,” while criticizing Aguilar for entering into “the province of schoolmen.” This faint praise did not, however, prevent the book from being reprinted well into the 1880s. The Spirit of Judaism was followed, in 1844, with Women of Israel, an account of the women of the Bible and the Talmud, which, more than any other of her works, achieved lasting popularity. It was given as a prize to Jewish students and to Christian Sunday school students up through the 1950s. Also in 1844, Aguilar published Records of Israel, a compilation of several tales that combined aspects of historical romance with domestic fiction. By this time she was known to her Christian public as an authentic spokesperson for Judaism. She followed Records with “The Perez Family,” the first modern-day tale of domestic Jewish life in Anglo-Jewish history, published in Charlotte Montefiore’s Cheap Jewish Library to a Jews-only audience. In 1846, she published The Jewish Faith, a series of letters from an older woman to a younger on resisting conversion. And in 1847, she published the first history of English Jews by a Jew in Chambers’ Miscellany.
In November, 1847, suffering from a combination of measles and consumption, Aguilar left on a trip to Frankfurt both for her health and to visit her ailing brother. Just before she left she received a tribute from approximately three hundred middle-class Anglo-Jewish women, reprinted in chapter 3, in honor of her efforts on behalf of Jewish emancipation and women’s education. While in Frankfurt, her illness worsened until she died on November 16, 1847. Her tombstone in the Frankfurt Jewish cemetery reads, “Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her from the gates.” These words, taken from the famous passage on the Ideal Woman (“Eshet Chayil”) in Proverbs 31, constantly quoted by reformers, were a fit epitaph to this prolific reformer’s life.
Her other six books were published posthumously by her mother, who also wrote a memoir of her daughter and collected Aguilar’s short stories into a single volume. These books included Home Influence; A Tale for Mothers and Daughters, written in 1836 but published by her mother just after her death in 1847. This novel about domestic Christian life, published by a non-Jewish press for a primarily Christian readership, went through twenty-four editions by 1869. Its sequel, A Mother’s Recompense, was published in 1851 and also went through many editions. Woman’s Friendship (1850) was another domestic novel about Christian characters that went through several editions. The Vale of Cedars; or, The Martyr, Aguilar’s popular Jewish historical romance, was written between 1831 and 1835 and published in 1850. According to Lask Abrahams, it achieved “a wide circulation, not only in England, but also in many countries abroad and was translated into Hebrew.” By 1916, when it was last printed, it had gone through twenty-nine printings. A Scottish historical romance written in imitation of Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, Days of Bruce (1852), was perhaps the most popular of all her books; like Vale of Cedars, it was written early in her career but only published after her death. Home Scenes and Heart Studies (1852) is a compilation of her short fiction, including “The Perez Family,” the tales from Records of Israel, and other miscellaneous stories and midrashim. Finally, Sabbath Thoughts and Sacred Communings, the first collection of sermons to be published by a Jewish woman, appeared in 1853.
The subsequent publication history of her works shows that she was continuously in print until the middle of the twentieth century. Her Works were republished in 1871 to great acclaim in the Jewish Chronicle. In the 1930s, a children’s book based on her life called Young Champion appeared.7 And excerpts from Women of Israel and Spirit of Judaism continue to be anthologized in collections of Jewish women’s writing. Her fictional works, however, have suffered a different fate. Beginning with Cecil Roth’s review in “The Evolution of Anglo-Jewish Literature” in 1937, critics have systematically neglected, rejected, or trivialized Aguilar’s fiction, while taking seriously her theological and biographical efforts.
If one looks at the path of her writing career, not in order of publication, but in order of composition, one can see that the work that has been best remembered came from the middle period of her brief career. Her career begins with a sustained engagement with historical romance (“Adah,” Vale of Cedars, Days of Bruce)—the first period; moves through translation (Israel Defended), theology (Spirit of Judaism), and midrashic biography (Women of Israel)—the middle period; and ends with a sustained series of moral and domestic fictions (Records of Israel, Woman’s Friendship, Home Influence, Mother’s Recompense, “The Perez Family”)—the final period. It is intriguing that critics and historians have fastened on to the middle period, when from this chronological perspective domestic fiction appears to have been Aguilar’s final destination, the genre in which her version of domestic ideology found its most lasting home. Without undermining the importance of the contributions of her middle period, this chapter aims to analyze both the first and final periods of her career more carefully than has been done up to now, by reading both the historical romances and the domestic fictions against similar work by her Christian and Anglo-Jewish female peers. By recontextualizing her work so that the conditions of its composition become apparent—by denying the critical commonplace that Aguilar was a writer “sui generis”—the chapter is able to answer a number of questions that have eluded earlier critiques: Why did Aguilar’s writing career develop between the poles of historical romance and domestic fiction? How and why did her career path differ from those taken by her contemporaries? What was her relationship to the themes that so concerned her contemporaries—female education, reform, emancipation, and romance? And how did Aguilar’s choices position her to be remembered beyond all other early Anglo-Jewish women writers?
If as a Sephardic woman in the crypto-Jewish tradition Grace Aguilar received a mandate to pass down her oral traditions, as a Jewish woman in liberal England she discovered that her ability to carry out this task had been limited by the sparse educational opportunities afforded her. In Spirit of Judaism, she expanded on the power and importance of maternal storytelling for the continuation of Judaism. Describing the barriers to public education for Jewish children, she moves to a call for mothers to be instructors: “Debarred from the public exercise of devotion on his Sabbath; never hearing public prayers in a language he can understand;—having no public minister on whom he can call for that instruction [there was a dearth of teachers in the community] he may not have received at home; never hearing the law expounded, or the Bible in any way explained: to his mother alone the Hebrew child must look, on his mother alone depend for the spirit of religion.”8 She also admits, however, that “It may be, that doubts of her own capability of executing [this] task … may naturally exist” (123). As mothers, women were expected to transmit the cultural traditions, but as women, they were expected to have little or no voice, subjectivity, and knowledge.9 Aguilar herself, though an avid reader, felt that she lacked crucial knowledge of Hebrew, of the Talmud, and of rabbinic tradition.
To mediate this conflict, Aguilar goes on to provide a detailed instruction manual for mother-instructors—as if she herself were the mother to the “daughters of Israel,” providing the crypto-Jewish mother/daughter teaching. She encourages women to teach both girls and boys Hebrew and the prophets, and, most importantly, to relate Jewish history in the form of “interesting tales” during “those many leisure hours that the child looks up so clingingly and fondly to his mother for amusement. Vividly and interestingly might these narratives be opened to the young and eager mind, till almost insensibly he feels it a privilege to belong to a nation so peculiarly blessed” (130). In this moment, women’s storytelling—especially if it includes “simple, domestic, highly moral tales”—becomes a defense against conversion, and a primary means of infusing Jewish identity.10 Aguilar goes on to defend in advance this pedagogical procedure from critics who felt “tales” were a trivial waste of time, by focusing on the relation between the telling of tales and the training of the heart: “Tales read for recreation and enjoyment might be made of service in the promotion of piety. There are many who deem the perusal of such works but mere waste of time and intellect, creating evils even worse, in filling the mind with romance and folly. Nay, so far is this mistaken prejudice extended, that all books but those of instruction either in history, geography, arts, or sciences are excluded from the child’s library. The infant mind is crammed, its intellect exhausted, while the moral training and the guidance of the feelings are left to their own discretion” (154). While Ashkenazic reformers such as Anna Maria Goldsmid and David Woolf Marks commonly called for maternal instruction in the community, the emphasis here on “tales” as the mode of instruction was particular to the matrilineal Sephardic oral tradition. Isaac Leeser’s editorial objection that “in permitting such works to be placed in the hands of children, especially in our novel, romance, and story-writing age, great care must absolutely be exercised in the selection” (154) illustrates the “mistaken prejudice” that existed outside the Sephardic oral tradition from which Aguilar drew.
As Leeser suggests, tales can take many forms, and the question was in what form these traditions would be passed down. Both the English and American Sephardim had been settled in their liberal countries since the seventeenth century, whereas most of the Ashkenazim had arrived much more recently, starting in the 1750s. Although these Sephardim recalled the Inquisition, their distance from it enabled them also to recall the Golden Age of Spain, which produced such Jewish worthies as Maimonides and Jehudah HaLevi. They could be proud of their history, which they told often in heroic terms, as if they were the unharrassed nobility of the Jews. They could identify with their romantic history rather than with what many of them increasingly saw as a severe religious practice,11 and could look back with pride as well to their ancestors who, stopping off in Amsterdam on their way to both England and America, had developed the earliest philosophy of liberalism in Europe.12 Thus it seems to have been generally the case in liberalizing English-speaking countries like England and America in the 1830s and 1840s that Sephardic women were more prone to support the historical romance genre than any other genre. Through their publications, and through Rabbi Isaac Leeser’s Philadelphia periodical the Occident, English and American Jewish women knew about and influenced each other.13 By contrast, the Ashkenazim, at least those with memories of persecution fresh in their minds, were less likely to romanticize their past, and more likely to have a recent memory of traditional religious observance.14 In this way, it could be said that English and American Sephardim tended toward a philosophically liberal, reformist, and romantic stance.15 In the Sephardic community, indeed, liberalism, religious reform, and romance seemed internally connected by virtue of the fact that each of them gave priority to individual freedom and desire over communal dictates.
If from her Sephardic heritage Aguilar received a matriarchal oral tradition, a tendency to wrap a “veil” around the particulars of Jewish life, a liberal and romantic stance, and habits of literary endeavor and community service, she received quite a different influence from the surrounding Christian culture. When she was twelve, the family moved to Devonshire for Emmanuel’s health, and it was there she had her first major contact with Protestants, making friends among them, and attending church on occasion. Having no access to Hebrew, she read Protestant sermons and the King James Bible. Her earliest attempts at fiction—the first attempts by a Jewish woman in modern history to place a Jewish woman at the center of the narrative—were two manuscript novels entitled “The Friends, a Domestic Tale” (1834), and “Adah, A Simple Story” (1838). Both are dedicated to female Christian friends. Indeed, “The Friends” concerns two young girls, Ellen, a Jew, and Constance, a Christian. It was in these tales that she first articulated the desire to portray Jewish women in contact with the Christian world but not overcome by it. From the beginning of her writing career, she already rejected conversion as the answer to the dilemmas posed for Jews by modernity. As she puts it in the earlier tale, written when she was eighteen: “One … feature … has never yet appeared in any other story it is the introduction of a young Jewess in the familiar way in which I have brought her forward—when one of that race has been introduced in any book it has been merely to give an exagerated [sic] feature of their habits customs and observances living entirely among themselves and never mixing among Christians in any familiar intercourse. … The minds of their readers must remain with the impression that they are a bigotted illiberal race.”16 But Jews are neither “unfamiliar” nor “illiberal,” according to Aguilar. In fact, by all the standard indicators, they are the epitome of liberal virtue. “As members of a community,” she says, “[Jews] are industrious, orderly, temperate, and contented; as citizens, they are faithful, earnest, and active.”17 It is just that being liberal does not entail desiring to be Christian. Christians who do not perceive Jews’ liberalness are the ones who are bigotted and illiberal. They are the ones who cannot imagine that Jews can “mingl[e] … in [Christian] society” and “yet retain [their] own faith.” Aguilar complains of the conversionist tales in which “a Jewess is introduced and by a series of misfortunes is thrown upon the mercy of Christians [she] at last either dies in their faith or is converted to it by marriage.”18 As she says in the preface to her second tale, “Adah,” “The modern tales in which [Jews are] introduced, are written by Christians, who know nothing of, and are consequently prejudiced against them.”19 According to Aguilar, Christian bigotry and illiberalness are based on ignorance of Jews and breed a lack of imaginative sympathy for Jews, which impedes true toleration.
Her own tale is set up to counteract the assumption that Jewish contact with Christians must end in persecution or conversion.
I have endeavoured to show in the character of Ellen, [she writes], that tho [sic] she lived from the time she could think in the midst of Christians mingling alone in their society she would yet retain her own faith … with the pure and holy conviction of the truth of her religion and she with the consent of her Parents even staying with Christians living under their roof yet keeping her own faith in all its primitive beliefs and adhering to its forms. We see the young girls of opposite faiths clinging to and loving each other in all the primitive warmth of Friendship which nothing could shake nothing could dispel—then we see them in the action of prayer and tho the form is different the prayers of both … at the same moment ascend together on high and are listened to with equal complacency by the merciful God to whom they are addressed.20
Jewish women can share intimacy with Christians and even with Christian theology without losing their Jewishness because they retain their difference in form. Aguilar’s emphasis here that the difference in form masks a sameness of spirit would become the basis for all her later theological efforts to identify and inculcate the “spirit of Judaism.” Her focus on this spirit instead of on peculiar forms would bring accusations from many Jewish quarters that she was a “Jewish Protestant,”21 and that this period in her life rendered her an unauthentic Jew. This was particularly the case when she published a sermon in Sabbath Thoughts and Sacred Communings advocating prayer with Christians. Veiling the difference in forms was interpreted by some Jews as abandoning Judaism altogether.
But if the accusations that Aguilar’s views were outside the bounds of Judaism were arguable, it was certainly the case that Aguilar’s positive early provincial Christian contacts prepared her for later efforts on behalf of Jewish emancipation. If many Jews from the London community were wary of publishing in the non-Jewish press, Aguilar sought opportunities of adding her name to mainstream and even explicitly Christian Victorian periodicals. Besides those already mentioned, she published the occasional poem in conversionist periodicals, and when the Voice of Jacob rejected a piece, in the evangelical Ladies’ Magazine. In these periodicals, and in such polemical works as her translation of Orobio’s Israel Defended, she spread her message of toleration—soothing her audience’s fears that the “Christian state” (in Carlyle’s phrase) would be defiled with assurances that Jews were after all not different in spirit from Christians. In addition, she was friends with such prominent Christian literati as Felicia Hemans (to whose work hers was compared), Mrs. Samuel Carter Hall, Mary Howitt, and Southey’s second wife Caroline Bowles.
This emphasis on spirit, which was the major legacy from her Christian contacts, would combine with the crypto-Jewish emphasis on veiling ritual forms from public view to produce a domesticated Judaism. Aguilar proposed a bargain: if “tolerant” Christians would agree to quit their philo-Semitic persuasion, Jews would in turn restrict their expressions of differentness to the domestic sphere. Not accidentally, her “spiritual” home-based Judaism looked a great deal like the Judaism of the religious reformers. If there was a difference between Aguilar’s version of reform and Jewish men’s, it was that hers was motivated by an acute awareness that she had been excluded from many of the primary texts of her own tradition because of her gender. When Aguilar attended Christian sermons in Brighton and read Christian biblical exegesis, it was not only because she loved her Christian friends or was drawn to Christianity’s “spirituality”; it was because she had no access to the Hebrew language in which Jewish exegesis and sermons were made available. She laments in Women of Israel that many Jewish women would make the Bible their daily guide in life but “they know not how, from the sad scarcity of religious books amongst us, in modern tongues.”22 Indeed, she regrets that her attempt in that book to provide a comprehensive history of Jewish women must be incomplete because she has been “debarred” as a woman from knowledge. When giving her review of women in the Talmud, she cites several sources of knowledge: a male friend conversant in Bible and Talmud, The Hebrew Review and Magazine of Rabbinical Literature, and “one or two other casual notices in divine history.”23 These “have … enabled us to form an opinion: but the Talmud itself should be its foundation; and from that we, as a female, are unhappily debarred” (2:290). In her view, this debarment has left the Jewish woman seeking knowledge little recourse other than to read Christian texts. Her awareness of her exclusion from Jewish tradition is what motivates both her departure from it, and her attempts to provide increased female education in the community. “The religious as well as the moral duties of the law are … equally incumbent on women as well as men” (1:180), she argues in Women of Israel. Women must have enough education to participate in the religious life of the community. Contact with the Christian community taught Aguilar what Jewish women were missing.
But by attempting to supplement her education with texts written by and for Christians, Aguilar inevitably opened her authenticity as a Jew, and that of the Jewish women she spoke for, to question. She hoped to avert this problem with overt declarations of her loyalty, with explicit refutations of conversionist claims that Judaism oppressed women, and with increased Jewish female education. When a reviewer of Spirit of Judaism from the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity Amongst the Jews criticized her for not having read Christian works she replied by publishing a letter in the Voice of Jacob. She says, on the contrary, she has read them, and that “the conclusion at which she has arrived in favor of Judaism, does not arise from ignorance of other creeds, but from a conviction of the truth of the Mosaic dispensation.”24 Furthermore, the Women of Israel was written, she says, to protest the conversionists’ charge “that the law of Moses sank the Hebrew female to the lowest state of degradation, placed her on a level with slaves or heathens, and denied her all mental and spiritual enjoyment” (1:9). By writing biographies of the women of biblical, Talmudic, and modern times, Aguilar could refute the idea “that Jewish women can have no comfort in adversity, but that as Christians they will find all they need; that in the one Faith they must feel themselves degraded, as in the other exalted and secure” (1:177–78). By refuting conversionist claims of Judaism’s oppression of women with specific, knowledgeable instances to the contrary, she could subtly prove that she was an “authentic” Jew.
Aguilar hoped to help future generations of women avert the authenticity issue by writing the Women of Israel, in which she undertook to rectify Jewish women’s exclusion from Jewish history, literature, theology, and culture. In this groundbreaking book, she sought to provide the very education whose absence the conversionists pointed to as evidence of Judaism’s neglect, and whose absence Jewish men pointed to as evidence that women were “the weakness in our camp.” Essentially, she expanded her interpretation of the requirements of the crypto-Jewish maternal storytelling tradition to include, not just the “oral traditions of Spain and Portugal,” but the written and oral traditions relating to all women in Jewish history. By reinterpreting biblical tales using the conventions of the Jewish male literary genre of midrash, she hoped to instruct Jewish women in the principles of her domestic ideology, which she identified as the ideology of the Torah itself. She interprets biblical heroines as positive or negative exemplars of Victorian respectability, grace, sympathy, and domesticity, and thus provides role models for her Victorian Jewish women readers. For instance, Moses’ mother Jochebed provides an example of a “mother-instructor”:
We would here conjure the [mothers of Israel] to follow the example of the mother of Moses, and make their sons the receivers, and in turn the promulgators, of that holy law which is their glorious inheritance. Their faith, in England, may not be tried as that of Jochebed—they may not be called upon to expose their innocent babes to the dangers of the river, to save them from the cruelties of man—but they are called upon to provide a suit of defence for riper years. They must so instruct, so guide, the first ten or twelve years of boyhood, that even then they may leave their maternal homes as Israelites rejoicing in their faith.25
Advertisement for Grace Aguilar’s Women of Israel, reproduced from the end pages of Home Scenes and Heart Studies (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1894). Photo: Michael Dunn.
Exodus tells of Jochebed’s providing no training to Moses, only of her nursing Moses for the daughter of Pharaoh.26 Yet Aguilar expands on Jochebed’s story so that she will exemplify a mother-instructor, training her children in the secret home space away from Pharaoh’s eyes to be the future leaders of the Jewish people. Other biographies in the series attempt to show that God cared for women as much as men in the legal, civil, religious, and social systems of the Bible without treating them exactly the same as men; that women can inquire directly from God through prayer just as men can; that women, once having been prophets and judges, ought to have their opinions respected while at the same time recognizing their subordination to men; that women ought not to gossip; that they are “weaker in frame” and “less mighty in mental powers” (1:152) than men; and so on.27
Except to argue that God is gender-deaf when listening to prayers, Aguilar is not attempting to argue that Judaism has provided for exactly the same roles and responsibilities for women and men. Rather, God has provided for separate men’s and women’s spheres, and therefore women’s struggle for “equal rights” is futile. If Marion and Celia Moss, with their transgressive heroines, seek to expand women’s roles into the public life of the community, Aguilar is interested in maintaining a strict separation between the public and the domestic. Abram and Sarai share “equality,” she says, and yet Sarai “knew perfectly her own station, and never attempted to push herself forward in unseemly counsel” (1:49). Women “in the sight of God, in their spiritual privileges, in their peculiar gifts and endowments, in the power of performing their duties in their own sphere, in their responsibility,” are “on a perfect equality with man,” she insists. “But I would conjure them to seek humility, simply from its magic power of keeping woman in her own beautiful sphere, without one wish, one ambitious whisper, to exchange it for another” (1:43).
Although Aguilar clearly supports Victorian domestic ideology, the version she advocates is not precisely that of the dominant culture. Her crypto-Jewish tradition inflects her version in a marked manner. That is, Victorian domestic ideology can be reached through a number of different paths, and it is not as monolithic a cultural formation as is sometimes supposed. Typical Victorian domestic ideology is founded on the separation of the public sphere from a sphere conceived of as private. As Nancy Armstrong, Michel Foucault, D. A. Miller, and others have shown, Victorian privacy means precisely that one is not free from being watched by others, but is constantly being policed, if only by the authoritative “eyes” of a culture one has internalized. In this scenario, “technologies of power” such as conduct manuals and novels set the patterns by which individuals and families are to regulate their “private” behavior—which has, at least potentially, to be perpetually open to view. The home is the place in which the family performs its essential similarity to every other family, its bourgeois respectability and decency.28
Aguilar certainly advocates respectability and decency. But by contrast, she imagines the home as a place in which the Jewish family can, in safety, perform its difference from surrounding families—its Jewish ritual, its subcultural particularity. The “oral traditions of Spain and Portugal” passed down to her by her mother first suggested the necessity of transferring the responsibility for religious practice and cultural transmission from synagogue to home, from father-space to mother-space, from public to secret. They suggested the necessity of creating a matriarchal extended family space shut off from the prying eyes of outsiders. Hiding Jewish ritual in the home would help ensure that outsiders would not comprehend the full extent of Jews’ differentness: if Christians were allowed to view the secret rituals, they might lose sight of the similarities in spirit for the strangeness of the forms. English Jews might not be able to pass as English and as a result might suffer social or political ostracism.
But if this departure from dominant Victorian domestic ideology starts out as a necessary strategy for surviving persecution, it is eventually transvalued into a positive cultural opportunity. The English Jews’ secret space is not only where they escape from the dominant “technologies of power”; it is also a positive place in which the Jewish subculture can flourish. Because the home hides Jews’ practice of their formal differences, it enables them to broadcast the elements of their essential sameness to Christians. It enables them to appear like Christian liberals in public—assimilating Christian literature, dress, music, and other social forms. The secret space thus enables their successful integration through assimilation. At the same time, it enables them to continue to perform their cultural particularity behind their “veil,” ensuring generational continuity and the maintenance of tradition, if only in a shrunken sphere.
This Sephardic domestic ideology produces a number of paradoxes that frustrate attempts to evaluate it either as feminist or antifeminist. Aguilar’s support for women’s full communal participation and education seems to contradict her support for women’s domesticity and subordination. In Women of Israel, an enormously ambitious text, she makes an extremely intelligent argument that women need to seal off their ambition and intellect from the view of men. The ardent support for a separation of spheres evidenced here and throughout Aguilar’s domestic fiction seems to limit her utility as a feminist foremother; on the other hand, compared to the absence of Jewish women’s self-representation that preceded The Women of Israel, this attempt to narrate a Jewish history that is centrally focused on the experience of women constitutes a major break with the androcentric Jewish past.
Whether Aguilar was a feminist or an antifeminist is but one of the conundrums her writing poses. Was she a Jewish Protestant on the verge of conversion, a reformer, or, as later critics have sometimes claimed, a traditionalist? Was she the spokeswoman for her people, or an ignorant fraud? Did she fill her station as a crypto-Jewish woman passing down the Sephardic oral tradition, or did she defile that station by writing the traditions down and placing them in the public sphere? Did she speak to Jews, or to Christians? Reviewers, critics, and historians have long disagreed on these questions. Christians and Jews, women and men, traditionalists and reformers—all had a stake in defining her. Perhaps because her works can be interpreted in all of these lights, her texts went through as many as thirty editions. While Jewish women thought her early death was a “national calamity,”29 while some Jewish men questioned the value of her labors on behalf of orthodox Judaism, some Christians, such as Camilla Toulmine of La Belle Assemblée, felt that Aguilar’s works “teach professing Christians Christian charity.”30 From the moment she began to publish until today, the only opinion almost every reader of Aguilar has been able to agree upon is that she was a writer sui generis.
The first critic to give Grace Aguilar this label was Jacob Franklin, editor of the orthodox periodical the Voice of Jacob, who in “looking around in order to assign Miss Aguilar a rank among Israel’s women,” found himself “at a loss to discover a suitable position. We must place her by herself. She is single among Israel’s women—she was a person sui generis.”31 Ever since, this label has cropped up repeatedly in Aguilar criticism, from the tributes Aguilar received after her death to the children’s story written about her in the early twentieth century, even up to Philip M. Weinberger’s 1970 dissertation.32 In some ways, of course, this characterization makes sense. For sheer variety of production, fictional and nonfictional, for sheer popularity and widespread influence, no Anglo-Jewish writer could compare to Aguilar. Her readership was largely Christian, even for her writings of explicitly Jewish content—another point of uniqueness, shared perhaps only by novelist Benjamin Farjeon later in the century. Whatever Jews themselves may have thought, Christians understood her to be the legitimate spokeswoman for her people. And certainly no Anglo-Jewish writer was written about, praised, and eulogized as much as Aguilar. On her death she received tributes from most major literary periodicals in England, and also from Germany, France, Philadelphia, New York, North Carolina, and Jamaica. Few Jewish writers of any period have inspired such an outpouring. In some ways, the label sui generis seems perfectly appropriate to her.
And yet, to invoke that title is to discourage comparison between Aguilar and other Jewish women writers who shared her context. Philip Weinberger’s dissertation is a good example of what can happen when this context is eliminated. He compares Aguilar to the medieval philosopher Maimonides rather than to her contemporaries, using Maimonides’ thirteen articles of faith to “prove” that she was an orthodox Jewish writer. But though Aguilar fulfills Maimonides’ articles, she is by no means orthodox (when asked to take sides between the traditionalists and the reformers, she officially struck a neutral position).33 In context, Weinberger would have seen that Aguilar’s attitude toward the Oral Law and the rabbis as fallible human beings rather than as vessels of the unbroken chain of tradition from Sinai marks her as a reformer, as do many of her claims for expansion of women’s roles, and her emphasis on the Bible’s reasonableness. Had he compared her attitudes on these issues with those of, say, Judith Montefiore or Maria Polack, both traditionalists, he would no doubt have changed his position.34
Weinberger attempts to prove Aguilar’s Jewish authenticity in response to a tradition that looked upon Aguilar’s work as Christianized. Jewish women were particularly vulnerable to the charge of unauthenticity, since they were denied access to the language of their sacred texts, and were prohibited from education. Denied education, they were then faulted for not knowing enough. Isaac Leeser perhaps started this particular discussion when he edited Spirit of Judaism and publicly disagreed with Aguilar’s conclusions in the edition. He contributed to the discussion further in his obituary of Aguilar, where he remarked that “some differences of opinion prevail in respect to the value of her labours in behalf of orthodox Judaism.” At the same time, he agrees with the sui generis designation, declaring that “there has not arisen a single Jewish female in modern times who has done so much for the illustration and adornment of her faith as Grace Aguilar,” and that “the blank occasioned by the removal of this gifted Jewish Authoress, is not likely to be supplied for some time to come by any of our Jewish sisters.”35 This double movement—of calling the value of Aguilar’s work into question while elevating it to a level of uniqueness—continues throughout her reception history. When Aguilar’s Works were reissued in 1871, the Jewish Chronicle’s reviewer repeated the movement subtly. “Miss Aguilar,” he begins, “though a Jewess—a Jewess who dearly prized and loved her faith—did not write for Jews only. Her views were of a more catholic character. She was essentially an English authoress.… It is needless to remark that highly as she was appreciated among the community of which she was so distinguished a member, she was quite as highly prized—perhaps more so—by the general public.” This Jewess with a “catholic character” is nevertheless highly lauded for her “purity of thought and feeling,” her “chaste … cultured and elegant” prose, her “graceful” and “sympathetic” mind and her “heart.” She is praised for seeking to “accomplish the aim of using, in the best possible manner, the genius with which [she] had been endowed; but always in a womanly way.”36 She is unique as a woman, unauthentic as a Jew. She is not compared to any of the Anglo-Jewish women writers; rather, her “school of writing was that of the celebrated women who adorned literature in the early part of this century—Maria Edgeworth and Jane Porter.” This comparison, with a later one to Charlotte Brontë, is rather a backhanded compliment, however. It applies to “her romances, but not to her historical sketches [i.e., the Women of Israel]. In these [sketches] she touched her subject with a dignity worthy of it. She rose to the height of its importance, and appropriately accomplished the task she had set herself.” The reviewer leaves the impression that her romances had less dignity and were on a lower height. When she is compared to women, it is to Christian women, the value of whose work in romances is then minimized. The tokenizing of Aguilar as sui generis enables the almost immediate erasure of the burgeoning Anglo-Jewish women’s intellectual community from historical memory. Women of the succeeding generation, such as Amy Levy, the Jewish feminist poet and novelist of the 1880s and 1890s, and Lily Montagu, Aguilar’s obvious successor as a theologian of liberal Judaism, show no trace of knowledge of Aguilar or any other early Anglo-Jewish woman writer.37
Once this erasure is accomplished, and Aguilar is singled out, the influence of Aguilar’s work is further diminished in two ways. First, critics have almost all contended that Aguilar’s work is “promising, but unfinished.” Her youth is blamed for many faults which make her, finally, a second-rate writer, a historical curiosity, not someone to be canonized. Franklin, of the Voice of Jacob, wrote that “full as the deceased was of performance, she was still fuller of promise.” The Athenaeum’s obituary echoed this assessment almost word for word when it said: “Graceful as were her works, they were yet more full of promise than of performance.”38 Seventy years later, Rachel Beth Zion Lask Abrahams, in her “centenary tribute” to Aguilar, repeated the truism: “To say that she was by no means a major writer is not to decry her contribution to the development of Anglo-Jewish life. Gifted with great facility in the art of expressing herself, she was yet without that equipment and solid learning which could have measured up to her indomitable spirit, her phenomenal industry, and her unquestioning loyalty to her people.”39 It might be just as true to say that she was aware of her deficiencies in traditional knowledge, understood the source of them—the prohibition of Jewish female education—and did her best to supply herself. The content of much of her prose consists precisely of her calls for this situation to be rectified. To blame her for lacking equipment is to blame her for being a product of the very situation her work seeks to alleviate.
The second means of diminishing the influence of her work is a bit more subtle. Almost immediately upon her death at thirty-one, critics created a myth about her life: Aguilar’s writing, the myth said, was an attempt to be a “mother” or a “governess” to the entire Jewish “family.” It went on to acknowledge that she was very accomplished and powerful at her self-imposed task, but that the great strain of her selfless efforts weakened her body and ultimately led to her death. This myth served several purposes. It helped explain, in terms acceptable to the prevailing domestic ideology, the central paradox of Aguilar’s life—that this champion of the domestic, of motherhood, and of wifehood, herself chose not to marry or bear children; it helped heighten the sense of her uniqueness (and thus diminish the possibility of comparing her to others); and it helped to undermine her use as a role model to other women. How was such a myth created, and how did it come to be almost universally accepted?
Jacob Franklin of the Voice of Jacob writes in his “Memoir of the Late Grace Aguilar” that “Depth and delicacy of feeling, nicety of observation, charitableness and gentleness of sentiment, form the principle characteristics of her writings. Hers was not the vigor of the oak.” Franklin confuses the delicate characteristics of her writing with the vulnerability of her body. “Naturally of a delicate frame, her body was little calculated to resist the powerfully injurious influences, with which an over-sensitive and inquisitive mind worked upon it.”40 The suggestion is that measles and consumption did not kill Aguilar; her mind did. In their representative tribute, the Ladies of the Society for the Religious Instruction of Jewish Youth of Charleston, South Carolina, recognized Aguilar’s “power”—comparing her to young David slinging stones at Goliath—while echoing Franklin’s assertion of the cost of that power to her body:
At the announcement of her departure, the whole house of Israel rises up to honor the memory of our spiritual kinswoman; whose soul seemed divinely commissioned to execute Truth’s righteous embassy.—The sling of the son of Jesse was not wielded with more power and effect against the scorner of his people, than was the pen of this champion of our faith against that giant Prejudice whose shadow blackens the earth.… Her devotional offering was more costly than the oblation of the temple builder—a life consecrated to sacred culture; until ceaseless labour laid its fragile framework in ruins! The sinews of her mind shrank not even while she wrestled with the angel of death.
Having thus propounded the myth that her writing killed her, the tribute goes on to reassert her uniqueness as a consolation, doing so in terms that will already seem familiar: “Where shall that other be found who can properly fill the station of this moral governess of the Hebrew family?”41 The expected reply is that no other shall be found who is willing to sacrifice her life for the moral improvement of the “children” in her care. Aguilar presented a problem to memorializers, who wanted to idealize her ideologically sound writing but needed to find a way of discouraging others from imitating her ideologically unsound life.42 By suggesting that her literary efforts quite literally led to her death, the tribute warns other women of the dire consequences of following in her path. By invoking the image of the governess (one cannot help but call to mind Amy Levy’s later assertion that governessing is “drudgery”),43 the tribute places Aguilar’s efforts more properly into their gendered domestic sphere than it had by invoking the image of young David with his sling. It contains Aguilar in a familiar space, not the space of the single ambitious literary intellectual, but the space of the other-directed caregiver. Aguilar’s childlessness and marriagelessness are explained as results of her devotion to community service, rather than by some other reason, such as that she simply preferred the company of women to that of men, or that she preferred her independence to a conventional wife’s domestic obedience to her husband.44 The myth helps fend off the notion—which most likely would have attached itself to Aguilar’s career otherwise—that she was an independent minded “old maiden aunt,” as Amy Levy would jokingly refer to herself in the 1880s.45 Instead, she is looking after her communal children’s morals rather than her own advancement. The myth surrounding her death thus acknowledged her power, more or less contained that power in an ideologically defensible form, and warned other women against attempting to appropriate it for themselves.
And yet—these two images remain in tension—the image of the upright self-effacing caregiver does not quite rub out the image of the female emancipationist cross-dressing as a fearless boy so as to gain the power of the sling against oppression. If in the one case the image is of a servant to the community, in the other, the image is of the young founder of the Messianic line, unique in that he is the highest servant of God.46
In places, Aguilar’s writings seem to anticipate and validate the myth of the author as selfless governess or “mother instructor.” In so doing, she reveals the dangers for women writers of being perceived as self-promoting. Aguilar was acutely aware that if women’s attempts at educating the public were perceived to be at all personally fulfilling, and not simply exercises in caregiving, these efforts were likely to be criticized as selfish or unwomanly. For, under the terms of her own domestic ideology, to be a proper woman meant that one did not act on behalf of oneself, but rather acted on behalf of others without regard for oneself. In Woman’s Friendship, for example, the heroine’s mother is a writer who dies from overexertion in the act of creating art that will benefit others. What is at stake in this other-directed writing appears most clearly, perhaps, in her story entitled “The Authoress” from Home Scenes and Heart Studies. Aguilar depicts a woman who gains fame by writing, and who nevertheless attends to her domestic duties without losing a sense of her place in the gendered separation of spheres. In the story, Clara Stanley, a writer of genius, has fallen in love with one Sir Dudley Granville, who returns the feeling but leaves her for fear that she will not be able to unite her intellectual pursuits with her domestic duties. His own mother had been a bluestocking—in the narrator’s words, “one of those shallow pretenders of literature which throw such odium upon all its female professors. From his earliest childhood Dudley had been accustomed to regard literature and authorship as synonymous with domestic discord, conjugal disputes, and a complete neglect of all duties, social or domestic.”47 But if his mother, whose intellectual ambition obstructed her domestic service, was a pretender with “superficial knowledge and overbearing conceit,” Clara Stanley is a “real genius” with “true literary aspirings” (229). Dudley cannot differentiate between Clara’s genius and his mother’s fraudulence, leaves Clara, and marries another woman unhappily. Women’s literary work will leave them alone indeed.48
But this is not the end of the story. What are Clara’s “true literary aspirings”? It is difficult to know, for it is almost as if Clara has nothing to do with her own success. Aguilar does not reveal the content of Clara’s writing, nor anything about her writing process, only the results. As soon as Clara publishes, she becomes an enormous success. She does not take much pleasure in her success, however. As in the myth that would follow Aguilar after her death, Clara is not interested in the “notoriety which the constant success of her literary efforts had flung around her.” She is, rather, “desirous for retirement and domestic ties. … She did not disdain or undervalue fame; but all of expressed admiration, all public homage, was so very much more pain than pleasure that she shrunk from it; longing yet more for some kindly heart on which to rest her own. … It was not for love, in the world’s adaptation of the word, she needed; it was … one friend to love her for herself, for the qualities of heart, not for the labours and capabilities of mind” (237). The domestic space to which she desires to retire is the space of the heart, and the heart, rather than the mind, is here defined as Clara’s “self.” Aguilar’s definition of the domestic as the space of woman’s “self” makes sense when one considers her statement, in Women of Israel, that “women’s sphere in the law of God, without doubt, is HOME” (1:165). Her belief in a separation of spheres in which the domestic is assigned to women renders difficult the prospect of a woman’s going public. By placing her writing in public view, which is to say, by focusing attention on her mind, literary fame takes Clara away from herself and causes her pain, just as one would expect from the myth of Aguilar’s life. But this report of pain in her notoriety only raises a more basic question: for what reason, then, does Clara write?
Perhaps what is painful is not so much the gaining fame as the having to admit that she desires such fame on behalf of her mental efforts. For years later, when Dudley returns, Clara is no longer shy about the pleasure she takes in her literary successes—for she now claims these successes are direct results of efforts, not of her mind, but of her heart. “Will you tell me, Miss Stanley,” Dudley asks, “how you can possibly contrive to unite so perfectly the literary with the domestic characters? I have watched, but cannot find you fail in either—how is this?” Clara replies, “Simply, Sir Dudley, because, in my opinion, it is impossible to divide them. … [I]t is not possible to be more than usually gifted without being domestic. The appeal to the heart [in domestic fiction] must come from the heart; and the quick sensibility of the imaginative woman must make her feel for others, and act for them, more particularly for the loved of home” (242).49 If ten years earlier, Clara felt that writing had overexposed her mind to public view, now she has learned to defend her writing as an exposition of the domestic heart to the sympathetic reader perusing the volume in her own domestic chamber. Clara’s writing is as domestic as a mother’s care for her young. She draws a parallel between the selfless sympathy required to create fictional characters and the selfless sympathy required to be the Victorian domestic ideology’s ideal of Mother. In other words, Clara’s care for the characters she creates stands in for her care for the husband and children she never had. Aguilar is able to defend her writing as other-directed domestic labor, and therefore short-circuits in advance any attempt to identify her efforts with a public-minded desire for fame, or her unmarried state with a desire for independence. Proponents of the myth that Aguilar was the “moral governess of the Hebrew family” may find their prooftext here.
Upon hearing her defense, Granville repents of the seven years he has spent away from her, assures her that her “resources of mind as well as of heart” can make him happy, and proposes to her. She consents to the marriage, but only on the condition that he allow her to remain a writer, for, at thirty-one years of age, she says she is set in her ways, and besides, she says, she feels her writing “accomplishes good.” Thus the end of this story seems both to validate and criticize the myth created for her upon her death. A literary woman’s life does not have to end in her being alone, in overexertion, and in death, as long as she “accomplishes good” for and administers “sympathy” to other people rather than simply ministering to her own ambition. She does not have to sacrifice everything; she merely has to sacrifice the desire to receive any acknowledgment of her intellectual (as opposed to emotional) gifts.
Still, beyond a doubt, Aguilar was ambitious for self-advancement and notoriety. Although she tends to suppress these ambitions in print, she does not suppress them in her manuscript novels and in her journals, in the process revealing what is so dangerous for a Victorian Jewish woman about self-promotion. She tells her friend in the preface to “Adah,” “You have smiled, when I said I was ambitious.” When solicited to write a tale for the Cheap Jewish Library, she wrote to Charlotte Montefiore: “I still indulge the hope, however fallacious, of one day seeing my writings more known than they are now.”50 And she is even more forthright about her ambition for literary fame in a journal presumably written for her eyes alone, when she goes on an excursion to a friend’s estate. There she meets a Mrs. F. S. who “completely fascinated” her. She goes on to speculate on the motive for her fascination: “Perhaps … this feeling was greatly heightened by having previously learned … that she already knew and was attracted towards me as the author of the Spirit of Judaism—and that as such she was quite convinced she should like me—To be known and loved thro’ my writings has been the yearning and the prayer of my secret heart from the earliest period in which I could wish or hope.”51 That she only expresses this literary ambition in her “secret heart” suggests that women’s intellectual ambition was a taboo she felt she was breaking. Indeed, if in “The Authoress” and Woman’s Friendship she helped to create her own myth, it was to ensure that her writings would be lauded by the community as a righteous woman’s attempts to “accomplish good” rather than spurned as an ambitious woman’s attempts at gaining fame. To a large degree, this myth succeeded in keeping questions of her ambition at bay. For the ambition to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others was a kind of female ambition encouraged by Victorian Jewish domestic ideology. Examples across the women’s work abound: Marion Hartog’s Jewish Sabbath Journal was shut down in large part because she manifested her literary ambition too publicly; Charlotte Montefiore published anonymously throughout her life to avoid the accusation; and Judith Montefiore presented her writings as adjuncts to her husband’s good deeds.
Aguilar’s genuine commitment to assigning women to the sphere of the domestic was in conflict with her genuine desire to have her ideas on the separation of spheres known and acknowledged by the public. When she eschewed public notoriety, then, she probably did so at least as much out of policy as passion. Someone as thoroughly familiar with the intricacies of domestic ideology as she was must have feared that her reputation would be tainted, her work would lay unread or forgotten, if the slightest hint of self-interest accrued to it. Aguilar was able to fend off obscurity better than other writers in part because she was able to hide her “secret heart” from public view. Because she publicly denied her desire for publicity, because she advertised her writing as mother/daughter teaching, she was able to publish in her own name without attributing her ideas to her father or her husband. In this regard, she did resemble Victorian Christian domestic ideologists such as Felicia Hemans or Sarah Stickney Ellis.52 But this dynamic suggests there are other reasons for Aguilar’s being sui generis than critics have previously suspected. She was not singular because she was the only Anglo-Jewish woman writer, or the only good one, but because she was the only Anglo-Jewish woman writer who explicitly embraced the restrictions on women’s public notoriety, and simultaneously took full credit for her work.
Ironically, however, although this strategy has enabled her work to remain in print longer than any of her contemporaries’ and to be seen as the early Anglo-Jewish woman’s literary outpouring, the strategy has done her work’s breadth, ingenuity, originality, and historical significance a disservice. Over time the idea that Aguilar was sui generis has sealed her writings off from the context in which they resonate most—the context of other early Anglo-Jewish women writers. By scaring women away from literature and ensuring that her work would have no successors, the myth that Aguilar was a governess who sacrificed her life in her selfless exertions on behalf of her Hebrew family has rendered her work nearly illegible. The question of her authenticity as a Jew, the value of her labors on behalf of reform Judaism, the extent to which she was a champion of women—without comparisons, none of these questions can be investigated in any sophisticated way.
REWARDS AND PUNISHMENTS
Like Marion Hartog (née Moss), Aguilar was brought up middle-class in the provinces, started publishing at a young age, was a strong advocate of reform, or Liberal Judaism, and ran a boarding school in London. With all of these similarities, one might have expected their literary careers to take a similar path. But Aguilar’s flourished while Hartog’s came to an early end. Two major differences stand out when comparing these writers. The first is that Aguilar’s Sephardic heritage left her with a maternal “oral tradition” to which Marion Hartog as an Ashkenazic Jew could not lay claim. This heritage was the basis for Aguilar’s idealization of the maternal and the domestic. The second difference is directly grounded in the first: Aguilar learned to speak the language of domestic ideology so well that she never expressed her ambition in public, while both Hartog’s public statements and her fictions suggested that women ought to transgress the limits of the domestic space. These differences had enormous consequences for the kind of fiction the writers produced as well as for how it was received. Even when the two writers were working in the same genre, the historical romance, the differences were marked. Hartog taps into an English female novelistic tradition that uses romance to imagine a more feminist world.53 Aguilar ultimately takes a stance against romance because it leads to such dangerous feminist imagining.
Indeed, even within her own romances, Aguilar does all she can to diminish the genre’s liberatory impulse. In Hartog’s version of the historical romance (chap. 3), the father/daughter conflict is resolved when the daughter leaves the father for a reformist Jew, rather than, as in conversionist romances, for a Christian suitor. In Aguilar’s Jewish historical romances—principally, The Vale of Cedars; or, the Martyr and the short story entitled “The Escape”—Aguilar’s Jewish daughters do not come into conflict with their fathers, even when they fall in love with Christian suitors, because they sacrifice their desires at their fathers’ first word for the sake of the community’s safety and integrity. The absence of father/daughter struggle in Aguilar means that the daughters do not gain the same degree of independence from their fathers. And because they marry men of their fathers’ choosing, they do not gain parity with their husbands as they do in Hartog’s tales, either.
Like Hartog, Aguilar was aware of the conversionist romances targeting Jewish women. She also complained about the conversionist tendencies of Christian liberal fiction attempting to depict contemporary Jewish women. In her dedication to her third novel-length tale, “Adah, a Simple Story,” written in manuscript in Brighton in April 1838 when she was twenty-two, Aguilar makes explicit her desire to write a tale that would compete with non-Jews’ perceptions of Jewish women as seen in most tales of modern Jewish life following the publication of Ivanhoe.54 Addressing her “dear Friend,” apparently a Christian woman named Miss F., she introduces
a Tale, whose Heroine is one of that race, by some Christians so despised and scorned.
“I know but one Author,” you once said, “whose portrait of a Jewess pleased me, and that was Sir Walter Scott. The modern tales in which that race is introduced, are written by Christians, who know nothing of, and are consequently prejudiced against them.”
From the hour that observation was made Adah has been present to my imagination. … My wish in the following very simple story, was to pourtray a Jewess, with thoughts, and feelings peculiar to her faith and sex, the which are not in general granted that race, in Tales of the present day.
Like the Mosses, Aguilar sees the historical romance of Scott as the most significant text about Jews to be produced in the dominant culture. But Aguilar believes that Ivanhoe invokes sympathy only on behalf of historical Jews. On the other hand, in this short manifesto for Anglo-Jewish women’s writing, Aguilar argues just as the Mosses did that the tales set in the modern day that have followed Ivanhoe, tales that rewrote Ivanhoe so as to convert Rebecca in the end, misrepresent Jews: “If the Jewess be a Heroine of olden times—she is permitted to retain her religion—for the [ ] of history on her misfortunes, which form the interest of such narratives, but if she be introduced in modern and domestic life, and the virtues of a Christian religious person are lavished on her she invariably becomes a Christian as if the charges of the illiberal were just, and … virtues, and good principles could not exist with Judaism.”55 According to Aguilar, this misrepresentation of Jewish women as vulnerable to conversionist persuasion undermines these philo-Semites’ efforts on behalf of toleration. She asks: “While such is the general tenour of tales, in which the Jewish nation is introduced, how can prejudice be removed? how can the Christians, who never have an opportunity of associating with Israel, obtain more liberal notions [?].” For Aguilar, liberalness is synonymous with toleration, and according to her, toleration ought not to require Jewish women’s conversion. On these grounds, she doubts whether the type of “toleration” depicted in Christian romance—whether historical or present-day—is useful to Jewish emancipation efforts.
But what kind of romance will a Jew produce? What assumptions will ground a Jewish romance that will produce “liberal notions” among Christians? She identifies these by calling attention to their absence: “Why will they [i.e., Christians] not sometimes permit them [i.e., Jews] to have the same feelings, virtues, sentiments, as other people: why should their very domestic affections and domestic lives, be exposed to the Christian world in distorted coulours [?].” If liberalness leads to toleration, it does not lead to toleration of Jewish difference, for Jews must be seen to have “the same feelings, virtues, sentiments” as other people. In other words, by writing in the genres of historical or contemporary romance, Jews need to assert that they can be, as she had written just above, “Christian religious” in the modern world. Her strikeout of the word “Christian” and its replacement with the word “religious” throws light on Aguilar’s early conception of “goodness.” Her description of the modern Jewish ethos as a crossed-out “Christian” ethos—a secularized Christian morality—lends some justification to the claims of those conversionists and traditionalist Jews alike who saw Aguilar as a “Jewish Protestant.” The major assumption of Aguilar’s Jewish romance would be that Jews and Christians were “the same.”
But her commitment to arguing that Jewish spiritual principles are the same as those of Christians does not have to be understood in conversionist terms. Aguilar goes on to say that she has “not touched on the forms, and ceremonies, it is only the Spirit of Judaism I wished to vindicate; to prove, that even as [with] Christians it can … support us under every briar, by bidding us look up for thoughts and comfort where alone they can be found.” By splitting Judaism into two parts, a spiritual and a formal part, Aguilar is able to isolate the spirit so as to argue humanistically that Jews and Christians share the same virtues. This splitting was to be her strategy in all her later theological and polemical works as well, although in those works she would attempt to reconcile ritualism with spirituality, stipulating that ritual not be just a “strict but lifeless adherence to mere ceremonial things and neglect of the spirit.”56 But as the attempt to reconcile form and spirit suggests, this splitting does not have to be understood in “Protestant” terms, for the formal part does not drop away; it is only reformed to be more intelligible to present-day Jews by the standards of “reason.” This was the standard strategy of Jewish reformers, or supporters of Liberal Judaism, who by invoking such a split were able to transform Judaism from a total ideology to a domestic and religious ideology resembling that of their Christian neighbors. Several years after “Adah,” a novel about the “spirit of Judaism,” Aguilar published her important apologetic work The Spirit of Judaism, which is an argument for Jewish reform and a defense of the ethical teachings of Judaism against the philo-Semites’ portrait of Jews’ empty, materialistic, rigid formalism. She often and clearly responded to charges that she was near to conversion with a stout refusal, and many of her books are explicitly about Jewish characters refusing conversion. If she believes that Jews and Christians share the same principles, she nevertheless believes that Jews deserve their own reformed set of rituals and cultural life. And she sets out to suggest this duality of spirit and reformed ritual, both here and in her own romances.
Thus, just like Marion and Celia Moss in The Romance of Jewish History, Aguilar begins her career by attempting to refute Ivanhoe and the conversionists, and by attempting to argue for reform. Although she criticizes the historical romance form for distancing readers from the plight of actual Jews, she nevertheless begins her career, like the Mosses, by writing historical romances. The Vale of Cedars actually predates Romance of Jewish History in composition, although it was not published until after Aguilar’s death. Written between 1831 and 1835, when Aguilar was between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, the novel is filled with secret passageways, combines historical figures such as Isabella and Ferdinand with fictional characters, and brings a Sephardic woman into a doomed romantic liaison with a Christian Englishman. It can only be classified as a Jewish historical romance.57 But despite its similarity in motive, genre, and theme to the Mosses’ tales, it reads quite differently. Unlike the typical Moss heroine, Aguilar’s Jewish female heroine, Marie, does fall in love with a Protestant man, one Arthur Stanley, a Protestant Englishman who happens to be passing through Catholic Spain, and who is deeply in love with her. In this, Aguilar’s text is much closer to M. G. Lewis’s “tolerant” philo-Semitic text than to the Mosses’ tales. By having the Englishman meet the Jewess in Spain, however, Aguilar places the Protestant in an endangered minority position and thus elicits sympathy for the Jews’ own minority position from her Protestant audience. Having the Englishman fall in love with Marie reflects Aguilar’s desire that Jews should be acceptable to Christians. Having Marie fall in love with an Englishman reflects Aguilar’s desire that English Christians should know that Jews are patriots. Marie’s and Arthur’s love reveals that, in spite of superficial differences of form, each recognizes in the other a kindred spirit.
But Marie’s falling in love with a Christian suitor does not make her identical to the heroines of conversionist romances. Unlike Miriam Schreiber of M. G. Lewis’s conversionist text The Jewish Maiden or Rebecca of Thackeray’s Rebecca and Rowena, Marie does not leave her father’s house, convert, and marry her Christian suitor. Rather, she resists a temptation that would take her away from her community and, she feels, the will of God, and marries a Jewish suitor chosen by her father, telling Stanley she can never see him again. Jewish communal integrity carries greater weight for her than individual romantic fulfillment. By having Marie resist the pull of conversion, Aguilar undermines the “tolerant” premise that Jewish women are malleable and amenable to persuasion. They are, rather, well educated and steadfast. She assimilates the structure of the conversionist romance plot, only to alter its vision of Jewish women and its “illiberal” conclusion. Her transformation of the genre is an emblem for what Victorian Jews were trying to do in general: to adopt, as far as possible, the habits and customs of their Christian neighbors while maintaining a thriving subculture with a distinct collective identity.
When her husband is murdered by Torquemada’s men, and Stanley is charged with the crime, Marie is forced to make some difficult choices. To save her beloved Englishman from death, she must reveal her own Jewishness, which will mean confinement, torture, forced conversion, and quite possibly her own death. The secret Jews have hitherto hidden themselves behind a “Vale of Cedars,” a valley that “veils” them from public discovery while they perform their daily rituals. For Marie, coming out from behind the “Vale of Cedars,” coming out as a Jew, could be dangerous not only to herself but to the entire community. Nevertheless, Marie is so loyal to the Englishman that she is willing to undergo the risk for the sake of his security. This willingness to martyr herself (and potentially her community) for the sake of the Englishman is Aguilar’s clear response to those antiemancipationists like Thomas Carlyle who argued that Jews’ loyalty to Zion would detract from their loyalty to England.
Because of Catholic tactics of coercion, on which Aguilar trades heavily to gain sympathy from her largely Protestant audience, Marie’s revelation of her identity leads the inquisitor to demand her imprisonment as a relapsed Jew. But by appealing to Isabella just at the moment when the queen’s daughter is hugging her, at the moment when she is most maternal, Marie is able to find common ground with her as a woman rather than difference as a Jew appealing to a Christian monarch.58 Isabella allows Marie to escape the palace, escape forced conversion and torture, and return to her vale. But the strain of her revelation has taken its toll on her health, and having asked Stanley to care for the queen’s daughter, she repairs back behind the Vale of Cedars. She dies in the secret space of her crypto-Jewish home, having practiced the sacred death rites within the enfolded arms of her community. The lesson seems to be that, in Spain, Jewishness can only be exhibited safely when concealed in the domestic sphere. For when Jewishness is revealed publicly, brutality ensues.
But if this domestication of Judaism is the lesson for Jews living under the brutal conditions of the Spanish Inquisition, surely there is a different lesson for Jews living under the tolerant conditions of English liberalism—or is there? To some extent Aguilar does point out a difference between brutality and persuasion, coercion and toleration, practiced by the two countries. When depicting Marie’s retreat behind the “Vale of Cedars” in full view of her largely English Protestant audience, she relies on liberals’ pity for Jewish suffering. She produces a similar paradox here as in “The Authoress”: there, the domestic ideologist attempts to call for women to remain domestic in a public medium. Here, the paradox takes place not only in the realm of gender, but in the realm of ethnicity: in a mainstream literary medium, the reformer attempts to call for Jews to perform their peculiar cultural practices behind a veil of secrecy. To publicize one’s intention to hide would have been foolhardy in a less liberal atmosphere than that of England.
And yet it is not so clear that Aguilar drew such a solid distinction between brutality and persuasion. Aguilar subtly equated living under liberalism with living under the Inquisition, for in both cases, a form of punishment resulted if Judaism were not restricted to the home.59 True, in Spain, torture, expropriation of property, and even death inevitably followed the revelation of Jewishness; while in England, the punishments were only misunderstanding, bigotry, and social ostracism. Yet these punishments were painful enough to convince Aguilar that Jews should maintain a version of their “vale” once in England, as the discussion of her tale “The Perez Family” below will demonstrate. Ultimately, Aguilar depicts the choice between crypto-Judaism and assimilation as one of degree.
Perhaps this refusal to dissociate completely English toleration from Spanish coercion explains her reluctance to take English Christians to task. Unlike the Mosses, Ashkenazim whose family had been in England for generations and who felt comfortable in criticizing England, Aguilar’s maternal oral tradition of the Inquisition suggested that it would be better to appease than to criticize. The Mosses explicitly longed for a return to Zion and criticized English anti-Semitism. Hartog’s Jewish Sabbath Journal often printed references to Christians as “the stranger” and castigated “the nations” for imagining Jews as “stricken with darkness, and our mental vision obscured by the veil of blindness, because we cannot discern truth in their errors.”60 For the Mosses, Judaism was a national cause; for Aguilar, a domestic practice. She believes that Anglo-Jewish men can gain office not, as in the Mosses’ tales, while forthrightly practicing their ritual and cultural life, but while emphasizing their spiritual similarity to the dominant culture and keeping their formal differences behind their vale, just as women must hide their ambitions behind the veil in their secret heart.61 For her, women and Jews must agree to similar bargains if they hope to be accepted: just as women must hide their criticisms of patriarchy, so Jews must hide their criticisms of the dominant culture.62
Although Aguilar’s heroine refuses to convert to consummate her love for the Englishman, she willingly undergoes martyrdom on his behalf. While in this and other instances Aguilar soothes her Christian audience with expressions of patriotism, she also soothes her Jewish male audience with expressions of support for domestic ideology. Just as her heroine does not gain the same degree of independence from her father as in the Mosses’ tales, neither does she gain the same degree of parity with her husband as the Mosses’ heroines. Recall the women in Romance of Jewish History who cross-dress as male minstrels to deliver important messages and then are rewarded for their courage by marriage to a Jewish reformist suitor. Hartog’s “unveiled” heroines never think of Christian men. Recall the sufferings of their suitor, who might be enslaved or have his arm cut off or be a hunchback before he can win the heroine’s hand. In the Mosses’ tales, the heroine gains power through her independence of her father, and the suitor loses power through his suffering, so that a kind of parity is reached. In Aguilar’s romances, however, the husband and wife do not share parity—they occupy separate, hierarchically arranged, spheres. Marie’s husband Julien occupies the public sphere as the king’s adviser, while Marie tends the home. What would happen if the woman were to transgress the boundaries of her sphere in an Aguilar tale? What if, as in a Moss tale, she were to claim a masculine identity to carry out some important mission?
As it happens, Aguilar directly answered this question in her short story “The Escape,” which first appeared in Records of Israel in 1844 (one year following the Mosses’ second collection of historical romances, perhaps written in direct response).63 This “Tale of 1755” is again set during the Inquisition, but this time in Portugal in the year in which a massive earthquake shook the city. Aguilar subtly acknowledges the crypto-Jewish matrilineal storytelling tradition by giving her heroine, Almah, her mother Sarah’s maiden name Diaz. The tale opens with a wedding ceremony. In this case, the wedding ceremony in a church at Montes gives way to another, secret ceremony between Almah Diaz and Alvar Rodriguez, the beneficent, seemingly Catholic, merchant. Almah’s entrance to the crypto-Jewish ceremony is marked by her putting on a “veil,” which was “thrown around her, so as to completely envelope her face and form” (164) and proceeding behind a secret door hidden behind a tapestry where the bridal canopy awaits her. The ceremony is described in defamiliarizing language, assuming a Christian audience.64 Appealing to the “God of the nameless and the homeless” (164), Alvar breaks the glass, and the couple is married.
Having explained to the assumed Christian reader that Almah and Alvar are Jews, and that they are “binding themselves to preserve and propagate a persecuted faith” (167), Aguilar proceeds to illustrate the dangers for them of being revealed as Jews. These include being betrayed by one of the entrusted circle of friends, having their property confiscated, being imprisoned, tortured, forced to convert, forced to inform, and burned at the stake. One Señor Leyva is particularly distrusted by Alvar’s “Moorish secretary, in other words, an Israelite of Barbary extraction,” Hassan Ben Ahmed. After several years have passed, and the couple has a son, the black Jewish secretary is proved right: Leyva turns out to be an Inquisition informer, and Alvar is accused of relapsed Judaism. He is taken to a secret prison, whose labyrinthine corridors are hidden beneath a church. His entire circle, indeed, the entire crypto-Jewish community, is in danger. It is in this extremity that Almah begins to take on roles to which readers of Romance of Jewish History might be more accustomed than Aguilar aficionados.
Almah’s first act is to renounce, possibly permanently, her maternal role, parting from her child, and sending him with Hassan to England, “where the veil of secrecy could be removed” (172). Almah’s renunciation of the maternal is almost unheard of in Aguilar’s universe, whose other heroines (such as Rachel Perez in “The Perez Family”—see fig., later in this chapter) would rather die than separate from their children. Then, unbeknownst to the reader, Almah cuts her hair short, dresses up to look like Hassan (the reader is led to think she is Hassan mysteriously returned from England), and bribes her way into the Inquisition secretary’s office to offer herself (as Hassan the Moor) as an informer against Alvar Rodriguez.65 The masked Hassan wins the secretary’s trust, and becomes a clerk of the Holy Office. This Hassan is filled with “activity and zeal,” and gains goodwill quickly, enough to be admitted to the trial of Alvar, watch him be tortured and hear his refusal to reveal his Judaism. Not long afterward, Almah/Hassan, who has become extremely active, making friends with a well-placed gardener, securing resources, and planning, helps Alvar escape out the window of his cell with a ladder, and attempts to take him to a secret subterranean passage leading to freedom.
To this point, “The Escape” seems similar to a Moss tale. Filled with an important communal and personal purpose, the heroine transgresses the domestic sphere, cross-dresses, and takes on the active role of a man. Almah’s husband suffers persecution like a Moss suitor. Perhaps, a Moss reader might suppose, this couple will also achieve parity. But the further course of the tale establishes the differences between Aguilar and the Mosses quite clearly. Whereas Moss heroines are usually rewarded for their courageous exploits with recognition and some power, Aguilar’s heroine meets a far different fate.66 For while Aguilar is intrigued by the extremity of Almah’s behavior, ultimately she does not support it. In the section of Women of Israel concerned with biblical laws relating to women, Aguilar has this to say of cross-dressing: “The express prohibition relating to woman’s adopting, on any pretence whatever, the garments of the male, is another beautiful ordinance marking her natural sphere, and proving that any departure from it was not acceptable to the Lord. It was not only the act itself which is so forcibly brought forward …, but the thoughts and feelings included in such an act, the temptation to depart from the retirement, the modesty, the purity of that home station which woman should so quietly fulfil” (1:198). By making the spheres more fluid than nature and God have ordained, Almah has violated a basic law of domestic ideology, which Aguilar identifies with the Torah itself. In this view, even the pretence that Almah is attempting to release her husband from bondage, attempting to restore the patriarch to his rightful sphere, does not justify her transgression. In fact, if Alvar was already feminized by being imprisoned, divested of property, and tortured, he is only further feminized by being the passive recipient of his wife’s action, especially if she acts while dressed as a man. The transgression of spheres feeds on itself.
The result: rather than being rewarded, Almah must pay. Alvar and Almah are caught before they can reach the secret passage to freedom. Shame and remorse for her adventure immediately overwhelm her, prompting her to cry, “O God, my husband—I have murdered him!” and to sink lifeless to the earth. She recovers consciousness long enough to talk back to the Inquisitors, who provide her with “proper feminine attire,” and to be sentenced to death. She spends her last day in self-recrimination: “One image was ever present, seeming to mock her very misery to madness. Her effort had failed; had she not so wildly sought her husband’s escape—had she but waited—they might have released him; and now, what was she but his murderess?” (178) No thoughts on her own impending doom are recorded—all her selfless thoughts are focused on her husband. On All Saint’s Day, the day chosen for the auto-da-fé, she and Alvar exchange words, and she begs him for forgiveness. He gains strength from her submissiveness, and with “impassioned tones of natural eloquence” (179) castigates his executioners in prophetic ire and proudly claims his and Almah’s Jewishness.
From the moment Alvar gains his voice to the end of the story, Almah never utters another word, except to echo, in “the sweet tones from woman’s lips,” his utterance of the Shema, the prayer conventionally uttered by Jews going to their deaths. When, just before their execution, a providential earthquake begins to shake Lisbon, and in the confusion Alvar escapes and carries Almah away, the narrator reports nothing of her feelings. By the time he has reached the outskirts of the city, she has become “his precious burden” (181); he is guided by “a merciful Providence,” and the experience of the apocalypse is only his. When the sea begins to heave and flood the city, she wakes and gazes with him, but does not speak. And when the city bursts into flames, it is Alvar who “traces the full extent of destruction” (184) and who feels the “conviction that the God of his fathers was present with him, and would save him and Almah” (184). Alvar has only suffered, not transgressed—his reward is to be restored to manhood, his limbs never tiring as he carries his “burden” over mile after mile of rubble. Almah, on the other hand, has transgressed as well as suffered. Her punishment is biblical: she must lose the very capacities that in her immodesty she had claimed for herself; she must suffer the complete loss of consciousness, speech, and agency. That is, she reverts to being a proper woman. In the same way, one might say that Lisbon’s punishment is also biblical: like Sodom and Gomorrah, it is destroyed for having created institutions that have forced Jewish women and men to transgress their “natural” roles.
When Almah and Alvar finally reach England, land of liberty, their property and family are reunited, Almah is restored to motherhood, and the “veil of secrecy” is removed. England’s liberal government is like God, “merciful,” and “grant[ing] to the exile and wanderer a home” (185). In this sacred land, the pair are now known as “Alvar and his Almah.” With his possession of her, the spheres have been fully restored. The tale ends with the narrator noting that the couple celebrates this return to “biblical” ways with a yearly gift of clothing to “a limited number of male and female poor” (185). Critics have puzzled over the oddness of this ending, but given the tale’s focus on clothing it seems perfectly appropriate. If one imagines that before Almah and Alvar distribute the garments, they separate them clearly by gender, their ritual comes to seem like an annual act of teshuvah—repentance—for Almah’s cross-dressing transgression. The lesson of the spheres is to remain with them year by year to the end of their days.
For Almah, as for Aguilar, the commitment to secure the future of the Jewish family and carry on the matrilineal crypto-Jewish tradition comes into conflict with the commitment not to mix spheres. But although this conflict permeated Aguilar’s work, its explicitness did not mar her work’s reception. Just the opposite. Marion Hartog’s career was ruined and her name forgotten precisely because she attempted to resist the demand that she be self-effacing in her public statements and that her heroines retire to their station. Grace Aguilar did not resist but spoke the contradictions of her culture, and for that reason she has been remembered.
THE RICH, THE MIDDLE CLASS, AND THE “CHEAP”
Had Aguilar remained within the confines of the romance, perhaps she would still have met with obscurity.67 But Aguilar’s prolific imagination, combined with her discomfort with the historical romance form, took her into a variety of genres. Branching out into sermons, philosophy, apologetics, midrashim, and histories, she discovered new genres, collaborated with many different kinds of women, and revealed the fault lines in the social and political structures of the Jewish community. She left behind a literary and historical legacy of immense worth. One particularly revealing avenue she explored after her departure from historical romance was domestic fiction. The move to domestic fiction revealed the pressure of writing for a Christian and a Jewish audience simultaneously; and by bringing her into contact with the Jewish upper class, it made more complex her representation of the class differences within the Jewish community.
By the middle 1840s when Aguilar wrote Records of Israel, she was already moving away from historical romance as a genre, because unlike the Mosses she began to think it antagonistic to reform. She was moving toward domestic “home scenes” and moral “heart studies.” It was not that she was against historical fiction, but that she distinguished between historical romance and “religious” or moral history. In her preface to Records, she writes:
The following tales have no pretensions whatever to what is termed historical romance. They are simply, what their name implies, “Records” of a people, of whose history so little is generally known, that the word Jew is associated only with biblical and ancient recollections, or as connected with characteristics, feelings, and spiritual incitements, wholly distinct from those which relate to man in general. … The author is aware … that, from the important incident on which the first tale is founded, a far superior romance might have been woven, but she preferred the simple illustration of religious feeling, to all the richer and more delusive glow of romantic incident and plot. She has only so used fiction, as to bring historical truth more clearly forward. … [T]he incidents, even as the actors, are fictitious, yet their original may be found many times repeated in the history of the Jews during their secret existence in Portugal and Spain.68
Although she insists that these are not romances, in fact, “The Escape” and the other “simple” historical tales in this collection are full of romantic adventures, even if they acknowledge the value of domesticity in the end. Aguilar’s very struggle against the historical romances of Scott and the Mosses reveals the genre’s cultural power. She recognized that it was the form with which Jewish women had to contend most powerfully in the dominant culture, because it was the form in which Jewish women most powerfully appeared. Still, she hoped to move away from it in order to write tales of modern domestic life that would more accurately reflect her own experience.
But the desire to write domestic fiction posed a difficult problem of audience for Aguilar. Since in her calls for reform, she was interpreting Judaism as a religion of the home, writing “home scenes” made it increasingly difficult for Aguilar to maintain the “veil” of secrecy about Jewish life. Writing domestic tales meant going, as it were, into the heart of Judaism itself, as Aguilar understood it—into the home’s particular and secret rituals. How could she reveal these practices to Christians if her aim was to distance Christians from Jewish differences? How could she refrain from revealing these secret practices if her aim was to portray Jewish domesticity? The disadvantage of historical romances was that they distanced the Christian reader from the lives of actual Jews in Aguilar’s own time. The disadvantage of domestic fictions was that they brought the Christian reader too close. The crypto-Jewish impulse to hide competed with the emancipationist impulse to reveal.
In response to this dilemma, Aguilar began to conceptualize her work as addressing two audiences. The splitting of audience occurs in two stages. The first stage is apparent in Records of Israel, where writing for a Christian and a Jewish audience strains both the genre and the voice of the speaker. On the one hand, she says in the preface to Records that her concern to reveal an accurate history and religion is to relieve Christians of misconceptions. These tales “are offered to the public generally, in the hope that some vulgar errors concerning Jewish feelings, faith, and character may, in some measure, be corrected.” She speaks to the general public as a confident demystifier and emancipationist. When addressing Jews in the same preface, however, she speaks in a different voice. To her “Jewish public,” she offers these tales, which she admits are “far less valuable in matter” than her earlier Spirit of Judaism, but which she hopes will “still humbly serve the cause … by raising from the dust of time and silence such records of our ancestors as cannot be wholly valueless to Israel.”69 This double address reveals a double consciousness and a double project. As an emancipationist, she speaks with authority and erudition, as a teacher to an admittedly ignorant but willing Christian audience. As a Jewish woman speaking to Jews, however, she speaks in a much humbler tone; rather than a teacher, she is a servant to the cause and she deprecates her own efforts as not “wholly valueless.”70 Because she is addressing two audiences, she must be two different personae as the circumstances require, sometimes at the same moment. The strain of this double address is apparent throughout the tales. When, in “The Escape,” she steps back from the chupah to explain that this man and woman are Jews undergoing a wedding ceremony, her Jewish audience is immediately distanced from the narrative, but her Christian audience might be distanced from it if she did not give the explanation. By giving the explanation, she prioritizes the attempt to gain toleration by Christians over the need to reflect Jewish experience back to Jews.
The difficulty of maintaining this double position resulted in an increasing tendency to separate her domestic stories into two groups: a group of “general” domestic tales that did not specifically address Jews or contain Jewish characters (e.g., Home Influence, Woman’s Friendship, Mother’s Recompense) and a group of “Jewish” writings that addressed a Jewish-only audience and centered on Jewish characters (primarily “The Perez Family,” but also “The Fugitive”). In the preface to Home Influence, she felt constrained to assure “Christian mothers” that “as a simple domestic story, the characters in which are all Christians, believing in and practicing that religion, all doctrinal points have been most carefully avoided, the author seeking only to illustrate the spirit of true piety, and the virtues always designated as the Christian virtues thence proceeding.”71 She assumes, as Camilla Toulmine was to assume in her tribute to Aguilar, that a Jewish woman can write of “Christian virtues.” She assumes that there is nothing intrinsic to her experience that has formed her to be a “Jewish writer.” Since the spirit is the same for Jews and Christians, one is a Jewish writer only when discussing the particular customs and forms of Jews or Judaism.72 “Doctrinal” differences do not enter into the everyday habits of domestic life, because in that world everyone, Jew or Christian, practices “Christian virtues,” which might just as easily be called “Jewish virtues.”
Still, if this were wholly true, there would be no need to write specifically Jewish domestic stories at all. Or, if one did write stories centered in the Jewish home, these could be read equally by Christian children as by Jewish children because the “Christian virtues” would still be recognizable and “doctrinal” differences would never have to come into play. That this was not totally the case was clear from Aguilar’s increasing tendency to write Jewish domestic tales for Jews-only audiences. Aguilar does maintain some sense of a Jewish particularity. Her novella “The Perez Family” was the first story ever by a Victorian Jew to focus on a contemporary Jewish family’s domestic life. Given Aguilar’s desire not to reveal Jewish domesticity to Christians—motivated by residual crypto-Jewish fear of the Inquisition as well as by a desire to maintain communal separateness and integrity—how did such a tale come to be written? How could Aguilar be sure her readership consisted only of Jews?
To realize a desire to write for Jews only would not have been possible had there not already existed publications for a Jews-only readership. For that reason, the story of the publication of “The Perez Family” can tell us a great deal about the Jewish readership, about the institutions and people who served it, and about Aguilar’s relationship to the Jewish reading public. Aguilar produced this landmark tale for Charlotte Montefiore’s Cheap Jewish Library, a series of didactic tales written for working-class Jewish families and sold anonymously by Montefiore for pennies. Charlotte Montefiore was a member of the Cousinhood, that circle of aristocratic Jewish families who held sway over the community’s governance, and who were in contact with MPs on issues of emancipation. Unlike middle-class Sephardim, Sephardic aristocrats like Montefiore or her more famous aunt and uncle Judith and Moses Montefiore, did not generally engage in fiction writing. Having vast resources of money and influence at their disposal, they interpreted the oral tradition of Spain and Portugal to mean that they must secure social justice for persecuted Jews around the world rather than tell tales. Judith and Moses Montefiore were by far the most lionized members of the Anglo-Jewish community for their missions to Palestine, Syria, Rumania, and elsewhere on behalf of persecuted Jews.
Charlotte was similarly interested in helping Jews in need, but she focused on helping the increasing number of Jewish poor in England itself. Helping Christian and Jewish poor was an activity for which upper-class Jewish women were noted, and Montefiore was among the leading wealthy Jewish women active in this cause.73 Indeed, Montefiore’s efforts to organize the numerous Jewish charities predated the development of an official umbrella organization, the Jewish Board of Guardians (established 1859), by some fifteen years. In 1845, she published Caleb Asher (1845), a satire on the conversionists’ bad faith attempt to target the poor. The satire is historically interesting and passionate in its defense of poor Jews, but reveals a lack of interest on her part in the details of aesthetics. In fact, her subsequent work reveals her belief that, to be valuable, fiction must subordinate any aesthetic ends to the end of usefulness—in this case, the end of training poor Jews in resisting conversion efforts. Usefulness is the standard by which all written work must be measured. Her justification of the Cheap Jewish Library reveals such a standard at work. The Library consisted of “moral and religious tales or … useful information.” She wrote that “Amongst the many means that have been employed to inculcate religious truths and principles of morality, none have proved more efficient than the publication of tracts in the form of tales conveying instruction and entertainment.”74 Like Aguilar in Women of Israel, she hopes to use tales to a didactic purpose. Unlike Aguilar, who wrote mainly for her peers, middle-class women, Montefiore directs these tales to the working class and is concerned with the tales’ “efficiency.” When Aguilar came to work for her, she would have to confront their class difference and Montefiore’s emphasis on the social uses of fiction.
Indeed, had Aguilar developed her interest in writing Jewish domestic fiction several years later, she might not have found a willing supporter in Montefiore. Montefiore’s emphasis on efficiency only increased with her later work, and she found that tales were not the most efficient pedagogical sources after all. Her polemical work, A Few Words to the Jews. By One of Themselves (1851; second edition, 1855),75 was published anonymously, and grew out of her awareness of “such points of religion as can hardly be treated in tales. I purpose writing little essays or discourses.”76 A Few Words is in fact a remarkable series of essays (“unparalleled in Anglo-Jewish literature,”77 according to a contemporary reviewer) advocating religious reform, castigating Jewish materialism, derogating the split in the community between rich and poor, depicting the laborer’s Sabbath, the passover, the feast of weeks, defining the character and tasks of the ideal Jewish woman, and providing an allegorical homily on acquiring virtues. As Montefiore explained to Rabbi Abraham de Sola, the man who acted as her agent so that she could publish the Cheap Jewish Library anonymously, in these essays utility is her great aim: “All the information I may have, all the energy and perseverance that has been bestowed upon me, I have long wished to consecrate to the religious good of our poor brethren. … I am prepared to find it a losing concern, in one sense of the word; but if it should be of real utility to but even a very few, I shall be amply repaid.” As an aristocratic Jewish lady she is concerned to use her wealth and power for spiritual and charitable ends, and in fact the library did lose money. She goes on to encourage de Sola to found a Jewish literary periodical, saying that she “should be really delighted if in some little way I could promote the success of an undertaking likely to be productive of so extended an utility.”78
Because they are more extreme expressions of tendencies latent in her earlier work, the essays in A Few Words offer insight into the differences that existed between these two Anglo-Sephardic women reformers. The primary difference is how they view fiction. Aguilar celebrates her crypto-Jewish heritage as a source for fiction; Montefiore denigrates that heritage as a shameful source of fiction. Fiction, according to Montefiore, was the life led by crypto-Jews during persecution:
our best, or indeed our only chance of safety was to wear a mask. … We wore, so as not to attract attention, poor and faded garments in public, lived in mean-looking houses, and only when in the privacy of home could we assume the appearance and indulge in the luxury befitting our station. We adopted the ignoble callings that were thrown open to us, whilst we carried on beneath some disguise the vocation more suited to our tastes and talents. … We led, therefore, almost simultaneously, two lives, one false, one real; but they necessarily mingled, the impure sullying the pure, the fictitious degrading the true. (53)
Montefiore argues that fictionalizing was a crypto-Jewish necessity, but it certainly was not laudable. Compare this view of crypto-Jewish fictionality to Aguilar’s, in such tales as “The Escape” with its hidden marriage ceremony or The Vale of Cedars with its hidden home, which depend on the donning of various masks for their novelistic effects. Like Montefiore, Aguilar analogizes fiction writing to crypto-Judaism. Unlike Montefiore, Aguilar sees the mask making of crypto-Jewish experience as a fictionalizing inheritance to be celebrated for its proof of Jews’ loyalty and resourcefulness in the face of persecution. For Aguilar, the crypto-Jews’ self-fictionalization is related to the masking in which English Jews engage when they restrict their observances to home and synagogue while assimilating English Christian fashions, modes of speech, and occupations. Fictionalizing in this sense is the key to emancipation and is to be celebrated in the form of written fiction. But again, when Montefiore is criticizing the rich for showiness, she argues that “we were not intended to be actors but real and earnest beings” (60), and urges the rich to “rouse ourselves from this artificial state, to wake up from these illusions, shake off these fictions” (57). The ideal Jewish woman likewise must not be “a pleasing ornament, approved of and smiled at by the world”—meaning the non-Jewish world—but should be full of useful “energy, strength of purpose, and active zeal” (162) on behalf of poor Jews in need. For Montefiore fiction is false and allied with materialism and romance—that is, the pursuit of immoral and useless ends. Her didacticism and negative view of fiction would eventually force her out of tale writing altogether.
In fact she replaces fiction with a discourse of truth, for she hopes to be “a true disciple of Judaism” (18) who understands “the true God” (19) and who enlightens the community about its own materialism. She argues that Judaism has become a false religion, for “materialism, the great antagonist of Judaism, is still the crowned chief of our community, and we must dethrone the usurper” (29). Those who practice a “skin-deep sanctity” (29), a sanctity made of showy masks, have made Judaism “a creed composed of rites and ceremonies rather than a spiritual religion, an outward rather than an inner law” (27).79 Like Aguilar she wants to reform the community by spiritualizing it. Like Aguilar, she asserts that Talmud is a production of fallible humans, that sermons should quote directly from the Bible and not quote “Rabbis without end” (154). But unlike Aguilar she believes that the rites and ceremonies have become fictions, false shows of true spirituality. “All ceremonies, all forms and rites, are to be looked upon only as means, not ends, of no value in themselves, save as they are moral helps, and as they awaken in us a stronger virtue, a deeper religious feeling” (31). This deeper religious feeling, reached through the instrumentally viewed rites, seemed to her to have been forgotten among all the new decorous reforms instituted in Victorian synagogues. Fiction must never become an end in itself, for its masks destroy the possibility of “sincere and conscientious” (17–18) spirituality.
Notice that Charlotte Montefiore reaches the same conclusion as Aguilar—that Judaism needs reforming. But whereas for Aguilar telling tales represents the means by which Jews can reform themselves, for Montefiore fiction is what needs reforming. In the early part of her career, she embraces some forms of fiction, as her Caleb Asher and Cheap Jewish Library bear out. But she insists that to be acceptable fiction has to be didactic, polemical—useful. This explains why she writes homiletic tales rather than treading in what the Moss sisters call “the flowery paths of romance,”80 why she produces serious fables, sermons, satires, and exposés rather than crypto-Jewish escape fantasies.
As Aguilar began to define herself in opposition to historical romance, she was drawn to those aspects of Montefiore’s didactic project that emphasized women’s work on behalf of others, and that attempted to doff crypto-Jewish masks to reveal the “truth” of Judaism in domestic tales. Perhaps Montefiore’s explicit aim of directing her Library toward only Jews also appealed to Aguilar as a venue in which she could depict the Jewish domestic scene without fear of her work being seen or reviewed by Christians. Each tale in the library, of which between 250 and 500 copies were printed, was distributed by hand rather than through booksellers, so Aguilar could be assured of her readership. True, Aguilar was more accustomed to appeal to Christians than Jews. She wrote in response to de Sola’s solicitation of a story for the Library that “in a Christian country we should … enlarge on the tenets of our faith, not perhaps so much for own people as to do away with some of the mistaken notions regarding it adopted by other creeds.”81 Yet, given the strain she had felt in writing domestic fiction for Jews and Christians at once, perhaps she saw an opportunity at last to lift the veil on Jewish domestic life.
A more serious obstacle to her publication in the Library was the class make-up of the audience, for the Library was directed toward working-class and poor Jews, what Montefiore called “the humble classes of Israelites,” and Aguilar was accustomed to writing for the middle class.82 Indeed, accepting the task of producing such a tale would mean in some sense inhabiting the position of a wealthy woman, for it was wealthy women who were primarily involved in educating the poor. To be asked to write a tale for the Library was to be extended an invitation to impersonate the upper class. The class difference between Aguilar and Montefiore came to the fore when, in a response to Aguilar’s letter expressing her hope to see her writings “more known than they are now,” Montefiore “sincerely congratulate[d] her upon having the means of raising …, by her talent, the opinion that is entertained of Jewish intellectual abilities. It is quite a satisfaction to think a Jew may become celebrated for something else than their wealth and their talent on the stock exchange. For this alone, it would be worth Miss Aguilar’s while to devote her energy, time, and talents to the cultivation of her intellectual powers.”83 Montefiore recognized in Aguilar a fellow spirit, a woman cultivating her intellectual powers to produce essays for the public good, a critic of materialism, and an advocate of strength, morality, and energy among women. Yet, her reference to “raising … by her talent,” and her allusion to the fact that Aguilar was not wealthy were rather frank acknowledgments of a distance between them. For Montefiore, this distance could be overcome if the two of them, as representatives of the upper and middle classes, joined together to help Jews lower down on the economic and intellectual scales. But Montefiore’s invitation to this middle-class woman for a joint venture on behalf of the poor should not be understood as representative of the treatment Aguilar received from wealthy women. Many female members of the Jewish aristocracy did not praise perceived efforts of the middle class to raise themselves. Indeed, when Aguilar received her massive tribute from Anglo-Jewish women just before her death, there were no wealthy women in attendance: her major appeal was to the middle class.84
Produced in this context, “The Perez Family” was unlike any other fiction Aguilar had yet written. Not only was it the first Victorian Jewish domestic tale, but the circumstances of its publication—for a working-class Jews-only audience in a wealthy woman’s publication—were completely unfamiliar to her. Her desire to depict Jewish “home scenes” must have been great to convince her to cross class lines and turn inward to the Jewish community where the wide audience she so hoped to secure would be unavailable. When she turned her mind to this audience, her innovation was to leave behind the historical romance and speak directly to her audience in what she conceived of as its own language, its own environment, its own concerns. She was not interested, however, in merely telling mimetic tales reflecting back reality to her readers; rather, she was attracted by the Library’s pedagogical imperative. She must not paint her readers’ lives exactly, but must paint their lives in ideal form. Her characters must be drawn from actual types, but must serve as exemplary models of working-class Jewish faith.
To realize this aim, she tells the story of a working-class Jewish family in Liverpool whose materfamilias must undergo the trials of Job and withstand them. In this case, Job is a petit bourgeois woman named Rachel Perez, whose faith in God is tested when her house burns down, she loses the use of an arm in rescuing her daughter from the flames, her beloved husband dies and leaves them penniless, her profligate eldest son marries a Christian woman, and her devoted niece is forced to leave her to care for her dying father. Like Job, Rachel attempts to remain upright and pure in the face of adversity. She does this in a particularly Aguilarean way: as a mother-instructor, she gathers her family around her every Sabbath eve to give them a discourse on a particular verse in the Torah, the most relevant one being, “Commit thy ways to the Lord, and also trust in him, and he will bring it to pass.” Proving the truth of this verse, that mitzvot and faith will bring rewards, is the burden of the story, and indeed, Rachel’s mitzvot and faith are ultimately rewarded. Her daughter, blinded by the fire, regains her sight, her wayward eldest son returns to the fold and marries her returned loving niece, her youngest son chooses to become a hazan, and she herself is filled with joy.
Line drawing of Rachel Perez carrying Ruth from the flaming house, frontispiece to Grace Aguilar’s Home Scenes and Heart Studies (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1894). Photo: Michael Dunn.
Besides the example of Rachel’s steadfastness in adversity, each subplot in the story becomes an exemplary tale. Reuben’s struggle, as the eldest son, to balance his desire to consort with “the stranger” and his love for family and religion is the type of all such struggles for emancipating Jews. Simeon, Reuben’s brother, must struggle with his own “prejudice” against Christians. Sarah, Rachel’s niece, struggles with the command to “honor thy father,” for she must decide whether to continue serving her loving aunt or return to tend to her dying father, who has squandered all his resources, neglected her and her mother (until her mother’s death), and quite possibly committed a crime. Leah, Rachel’s eldest daughter, has to decide whether to go with friends to a circus, or sacrifice her immediate interests for the long-term goal of earning money for the family. Each character must sacrifice something for the sake of maintaining the family’s viability and integrity. And each character ultimately chooses to do right.
All of these exemplary struggles take place in the Perez home, which, although it undergoes many changes, is always kept tidy. Whereas, according to Aguilar, other poor and working-class Jews allow their homes to become dirty or dingy, the Perez family who are working toward a better (i.e., middle-class) existence keep their surroundings neat, no matter how much their circumstances are diminished. When their middle-class home burns down, and they must move to a smaller, dirtier house in a “low neighborhood” (11),85 they immediately set about transforming it into what they think of as a bourgeois home. But this product of domestic ideology is not precisely the same as a bourgeois Christian home. The Perez family’s first act is to close off the front entrance so that none of their prying neighbors will be able to look in and gossip about them. They decorate the interior neatly and keep it clean. Then they plant a garden in the backyard, for although “both local and national disadvantages often unite to debar the Jews from agriculture” (11), they want to reaffirm their connection to their plot of land, as was customary in middle-class Christian homes. Aguilar uses what will later become a Zionist trope—Jews returning to the land—to justify the Perez family’s rooting itself in its English Christian-like home. Again, this family appears to be the same as their Christian neighbors’—but the detailed practices that take place inside, hidden from view, are different. These descendants of crypto-Jews express their Judaism, not by Zionism, but by turning their home into a sealed-off vale of cedars, a middle-class paradise on the outside, a place of Jewish ritual and cultural life on the inside. Recreating “HOME,” that crypto-Jewish space of maternal domestic power, means for Aguilar training the poor to aim to become bourgeois and to hide their Jewishness from prying eyes. This is her pedagogical imperative.86
In this enclosed domestic space, for this enclosed Jewish audience, Aguilar does what in her other tales of Jews she avoids: she describes their ritual practices in detail, particularly their practice of celebrating the Sabbath. All the children (except Reuben) return from their various occupations to spend Friday through Sunday with Rachel. They dress all in white. They decorate their home with flowers. They sacrifice a great deal of labor to repurchase a pair of candlesticks, a family heirloom they were forced to sell after the fire, and they forgo meals during the week to purchase oil or wax candles for Friday night. They learn Torah together, and do not speak of frivolous things on the Sabbath day, unlike their neighbors. It makes sense that Aguilar would focus on this ideal working-class-cum-middle-class family’s Friday night observance since the Sabbath is the ritual most particularly associated with the home and with maternal activity. The halachic mother, after all, is positively commanded to light the candles, one of the few positive commandments halacha bestows on women. True, the entire ritual does not take place in the home: Rachel’s sons do attend synagogue on Friday night, but while Aguilar records this fact, she never shows them praying there. By focusing on the home rather than the synagogue as the place of ritual activity, Aguilar attempts to transfer the center of religiosity and instruction from public to secret space.
There are several reasons for this focus on the domestic as the center of Jewishness. First, since women could not participate equally in the synagogue, and Aguilar was particularly concerned with female education, women’s roles, and home instruction, she focused on the home as a source of women’s power. Her crypto-Jewish heritage particularly prepared her to emphasize the maternal space as the space of transmission of Judaism from one generation to another. Her support for religious reform prepared her to emphasize the dignity of the individual’s commitment to Jewish learning in the home rather than the shame of bowing down before the wisdom of rabbis at the synagogue. When, after the dishes have been cleared on Friday night, Rachel is giving her sermon on the chosen biblical text at the dinner table, the narrator assures the reader that she is no rabbi:
the widow opened the large Bible, and after fervently blessing God for His mercy in permitting them all to see the close of another week in health and peace, read aloud a chapter and psalm. … Rachel was no great scholar. Let it not be imagined amongst those who read this little tale, that she was unusually gifted. She was indeed so far gifted that she had a trusting spirit and a most humble and child-like mind, and of worldly ways was entirely ignorant; and it was these feelings which kept her so persevering in the path of duty, and, leading her to the footstool of her God, gave her the strength of wisdom that she needed; and to every mother in Israel these powers are given. (29, italics Aguilar’s)
Unlike Clara Stanley, who is gifted, Rachel Perez is an idealized vision of an ordinary mother. She has no direct access to Hebrew (although her youngest son Joseph’s employer has offered to teach him), but is able nonetheless to do a sophisticated philological study of the text simply by being open to the varied meanings of the English in different contexts. Whether this Bible is a Jewish translation or not is impossible to determine, but in either case, she is able to read it directly, without any mediating rabbinical commentary to interpret it for her. Her religious power as an individual reader is supposed to give solace to those reformist working-class women who cannot read Hebrew and will not attend synagogues.
The other reason for transferring the focus of Jewish life from synagogue to home has to do with the Perez family’s class status, and the class status of Aguilar’s supposed audience. Since, in Aguilar’s day, many of the synagogues required payment for the honor of participating in the service or for the best seating, many working-class families could not afford or did not want to attend. Indeed, some groups of working-class Jews eventually opened their own visiting societies for the sick and prayer meeting places, called “friendly societies of Jewish working men,” to avoid having to contend with class antagonism in the Sephardic synagogue in Bevis Marks or the Ashkenazic Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place.87 Until these were in place, the home—particularly on Friday night—was the center of their Jewish life. Thus, by focusing her attention on domestic ritual, Aguilar attempts to draw a picture to which a Sephardic woman-centered working-class family could relate and on which it could model itself.
It seems, then, that with its manifold exempla, its didactic tone, its modern setting and multiple incidents, and its focus on working-class women’s domestic religious observance, that “The Perez Family” is well-suited to fulfill the self-imposed mandate to educate and entertain of Montefiore’s Cheap Jewish Library. Without locating some testimonials from working-class Jewish readers, it is impossible to determine whether the story actually achieved the aims of educating and entertaining working-class Jews in faith and domesticity. Ironically, however, although Aguilar’s addition to the Library was intended for these voiceless members of the community, the story brought her most notice from the middle classes. After its publication in the Library, Montefiore’s agent Abraham de Sola handed on the story to Isaac Leeser of the Occident in Philadelphia. Leeser then published it, to much praise, and it made its way back to the Jewish Chronicle in England, where it was received with great acclaim. What began as an unusual excursion for a middle-class woman into the realm of an upper-class undertaking—the education of the poor—became Aguilar’s ticket to fame among Jews of her own class. None of her other efforts, except Women of Israel, brought her such unalloyed praise from middle-class Jews. If Isaac Leeser solicited and published her Spirit of Judaism, he also criticized its outreach to the Christian community. The Voice of Jacob published her poems, but wondered about her orthodoxy. The Chronicle reviewer liked Home Influence, but was disturbed that his point of reference for this “Tale for Mothers and Daughters” was a non-Jew, Maria Edgeworth. Only when, with Charlotte Montefiore’s encouragement, Aguilar took a chance and wrote a domestic tale focusing on particular Jewish rituals, did men of her own class fully accept her as a Jewish writer.
By balancing a critique of Christian toleration with an appeal to Jews to maintain a veiled double life, Aguilar redefined the goals of liberalism and of Judaism at the same moment. At the same time, by balancing a critique of patriarchal condescension with an appeal to women to remain subordinate and domestic, Aguilar redefined the roles of men and women. For doing so, she was hailed by Christians and Jewish women and men alike as a cultural ambassador of good will.
First and foremost, her work as a writer and as an educator was celebrated by other Jewish women, and influenced their establishment of a set of women’s institutions and a literary community in support of the expansion of women’s roles. She was successful in getting “women moving,” as bell hooks phrases it, even if she did not aim to establish a “women’s movement.” Her emphasis on women’s domesticity would certainly have been an obstacle for women desiring to set up formal institutions of women’s education and advocacy. She needs to be understood as a transitional figure. Yet she did nonetheless influence the self-perception of nineteenth-century Jewish women readers, many of whom were also writers. She provided a history and a literature centrally focused on women’s lives.88
Her influence on Jewish women can only be evaluated fully when set inside this milieu of readers and writers. For Aguilar was not sui generis. She was not the only early Victorian Jewish woman writer, or the only good or interesting one, as one might have imagined by reading earlier histories of Anglo-Jewish literature.89 Other women—who were more orthodox or more religiously radical than Aguilar was, who were more feminist or more traditionalist, who were richer or poorer, who were Ashkenazic rather than Sephardic—other women also produced work that is invaluable for a complex understanding of the gendered experience of Jewish modernity, particularly in England. To recover Aguilar’s legacy requires more than simply excavating her work alone: it requires reconstituting a dynamic Anglo-Jewish literary subculture just in the act of coming to life.
To accomplish this reconstitution, it is not enough to explore Aguilar’s complex interaction with Jewish women. Her polemical writings, especially Women of Israel and the Spirit of Judaism, were instrumental in influencing the direction that prominent Jewish male writers took. While Isaac Leeser disputed Aguilar’s Jewish authenticity in his critique of The Spirit of Judaism, he nevertheless took up her suggestion of the necessity of an English translation of the Hebrew Bible for women’s use, and produced the first such translation in the history of the English-speaking world. This feat was soon repeated by Jewish Chronicle editor Abraham Benisch, also in response to Aguilar’s polemic.
Still, while Aguilar influenced and was influenced by Jewish women and men, it is important to keep in view that Jews represented the minority of her readership. All told, her books sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The republication of her Works some twenty-five years after her death was greeted with enthusiastic reviews in mainstream periodicals such as the Athenaeum. Her Women of Israel was given as a Sunday School prize in churches in England up through the 1950s. A branch of the New York Public Library was named after her. How her writings influenced Christian perceptions of Jews is difficult to determine, but her continuous popularity suggests that her vision of a type of “toleration” that emphasized coexistence rather than conversionism struck some sympathetic ears.
Whether she was writing to other Jewish women, to Jewish men, or to a sympathetic Christian audience, one can infer that her work was perceived to provide a model of toleration and education that challenged prevailing notions of conversionism and sexism without completely undermining liberalism or patriarchy. Her trade-offs enabled her work to appeal to groups on every side. Conversionists could see her as a “Jewish Protestant,” while Jews could laud her as a moderate reformer with strong traditional leanings. In the 1860s, when women’s rights debates grew strong, Aguilar’s work could appeal both to feminists and to antifeminists. Feminists could support her work as a Jewish woman’s groundbreaking act of self-representation and advocacy, a stage on the way to liberation, while antifeminists could support it as a model of modesty and domesticity.90 Perhaps because she was willing to bargain, Aguilar was able to maintain a place in the memories of both English Jews and Christians that other Jewish women writers were not able to sustain after their deaths.
Once Aguilar’s work is viewed in context, those aspects of it that truly defy comparison become visible. To begin with, the sheer volume and diversity of her efforts on behalf of Jews and Jewish women have no rival. Her revisionist strategy of rewriting the gender politics of Talmudic midrashim like “The Sun and the Moon,” had to wait a century and a half before Jewish feminists claimed it as one of their most basic tools. Her history of English Jews laid the groundwork for Piccioto, Roth, Lipman, and all the Anglo-Jewish historians who followed her. Her “Perez Family” pulled back the veil on Anglo-Jewish domesticity and set the scene for subsequent writers (such as Amy Levy in Reuben Sachs) to depict English Jews’ intricate life within and without the tribal limits according to the conventions of realism. Her Women of Israel, truly a landmark in the history of Jewish women’s biography and midrash, did more to legitimize thinking about and celebrating Jewish women than any other single writing of the time. Her sermons and theological writings were the first stirrings of a Liberal Jewish women’s theological tradition that would culminate in Lily Montagu’s theology later in the century.
Moreover, because she covered the entire range of Jewish women’s writing—from historical romance to domestic fiction, from translation to sermons, from philosophy to apologetics, from lyrics to epic poems—her work functions as an encyclopedia with which to identify Anglo-Jewish women writers’ major issues and genres. It indicates the forms and fault lines to which scholars must attend in any reconstruction of the Victorian Jewish subculture. If Aguilar’s work is bounded by its middle-class positioning, its crypto-Jewish heritage, and its reformism, this does not mean her work is “lacking equipment”; rather, these boundary conditions are what enable its peculiar and abiding power. Calling attention to the existence of a diverse women’s literary community ought not to diminish Aguilar’s specific contribution. On the contrary, her specific contribution is to expand the frame of reference, to populate the Victorian discursive field with “Women of Israel,” by comparison with whose work hers can resonate all the more. Placing her texts in a comparative framework enables scholars more vividly to reconstruct the complex subculture of the period of Anglo-Jewish emancipation and reform from which her life and writings emerged and to which they spoke.
Yet for all of these achievements, her most significant still remains the effect she had on Jewish women’s self-perception. As evidenced by the numerous tributes to Aguilar by Jewish women on her death, by the poems written in memory of her, and by the numerous letters to Jewish periodicals signed “A Woman of Israel,” her work provided Anglo- and American Jewish women with a proud identity at a time when they were being severely criticized and pressured by Christians and by Jewish men. Moreover, unlike any of her contemporaries, her work continued to inspire investigations into the content and quality of Jewish women’s lives. In 1869, Mrs. Isaac Cohen established a prize for the student at the Jews’ Free School who could write the best essay on “an applied biblical subject.” The topic chosen for 1872, the year following the republication of Aguilar’s Works, was “the Women of Israel according to the Bible, broken down into four parts: the education of Hebrew Women; their relation to their parents, their husbands, and their children; their social position; and instances of remarkable Hebrew Women, with descriptions of their work and age.”91 Mrs. Isaac Cohen’s essay topic reproduced Aguilar’s concerns precisely. There could hardly be a better testimony to Grace Aguilar’s legacy.
. See Ellen Umansky and Dianne Ashton, eds., Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992). Also see Sondra Henry and Emily Taitz, Written Out of History: Our Jewish Foremothers (Sunnyside, New York: Biblio Press, 1990), 229–35.
. Unless otherwise noted, all biographical details come from Rachel Beth Zion Lask Abrahams, “Grace Aguilar: A Centenary Tribute,” Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England 16 (1952): 137–45.
. Traditional Judaism always focused women’s roles in the home as Marion A. Kaplan points out in “Tradition and Transition: Jewish Women in Imperial Germany,” in Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, ed. Judith Baskin (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), 205–6. But the hegemonically valued space was the public space of the synagogue and yeshiva. The mother-centered nature of the crypto-Jewish tradition is well documented. See Renée Levine Melammed, “Sephardi Women in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods,” Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, ed. Judith Baskin (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), 115–34. Lynn Gottlieb, “The Secret Jew: An Oral Tradition of Women,” in On Being a Jewish Feminist, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Schocken Books, 1983) writes: “The women of the Marrano communities thought of themselves as Queen Esther, living a secret existence very different from the reality perceived by the outside world. … [W]omen did assume major leadership roles in the community. They led communal prayers, performed marriage ceremonies, and developed rituals around the Fast of Esther, which became a major conversos holiday” (274). Also see Cecil Roth, A History of the Marranos (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1947); and the recent film The Last Marranos, which made a rare appearance at the Jewish Film Festival in Berkeley, Aug. 1992, and vividly depicts the continuance of the matriarchal tradition in the late twentieth century among Portuguese crypto-Jews.
. In the United States as well as in England, the cultural designation of “Mother in Israel” resonated with the particularly Jewish functions of True Womanhood. For a discussion of the American meaning of this phrase, see Diane Lichtenstein, Writing Their Nations: The Tradition of Nineteenth-Century American Jewish Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 23–35. Also see Rachel Adler, “A Mother in Israel: Aspects of the Mother Role in Jewish Myth,” in Beyond Androcentrism: New Essays on Women and Religion, ed. Rita M. Gross (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press for the American Academy of Religion, 1977), 237–55.
. An example of a conversionist’s thick description can be found in Madam Brendlah, Tales of a Jewess; Illustrating the Domestic Customs and Manners of the Jews: Interspersed with Original Anecdotes of Napoleon (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1838).
. Christian women had in the figure of Mary a prime example of a woman who literally transmitted “the Word” of cultural tradition without displaying subjectivity. See Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 156.
.The Education of Fanny Lewald: An Autobiography, trans. and ed. Hanna Ballin Lewis, SUNY Series, Women Writers in Translation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), makes for interesting comparison. Both Aguilar and Lewald were home-educated and from the middle class. To use domesticity to defend against conversion was a specifically Jewish take on the idea that the home was to be “a way of drawing a line around culture in order to preserve it in the face of a competitive marketplace,” as Nancy Armstrong comments in Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 163.
.Ascamot, or regulations of the Sephardic synagogue, produced such resistance as the famous rebellion of Isaac D’Israeli. For the nobility myth, see “The Origin and Progress of Literature Amongst the Jews of Spain,” HRR 2 (1835): 158: “we find the Spanish Jews of the middle ages perfectly similar to their brethren in Germany, France, or England of that period, as far as their religious doctrines and observances are concerned: But they are animated by another spirit: Freedom, and the feeling of their own dignity, assign to them a station in the scale of society which their brethren could not attain.” The writer contrasts them with “French usurers torn from their money-bags” (158). Also see Grace Aguilar’s critical assessment of this Sephardic “pride of birth” in the excerpt from her history of the English Jews in “Social Arrangements of the English Jews,” JC, Jan. 2, 1852: Sephardic “pride … not only prevents their advancing themselves, either socially or mentally, but renders powerless every effort made for their improvement. The Germans, more willing to work and push forward their own fortunes, and less scrupulous as to the means they employ, are more successful as citizens, and, as a class, are less difficult to guide. Both parties would be improved by the interchange of qualities.”
.Caleb Asher. Beyond these few texts, however, the exchange would have been paltry had it not been for Isaac Leeser, the rabbi of Mikve Israel Congregation in Philadelphia and editor of the Occident, which served as a conduit for reciprocal influence throughout the period. It was Leeser who encouraged Rebecca Gratz to found the Jewish Sunday school movement in America in 1838 and published her achievements; Leeser who published many of Grace Aguilar’s and Marion and Celia Moss’s tales in the Occident; Leeser who edited Aguilar’s Spirit of Judaism and distributed it on both sides of the Atlantic; and Leeser who revealed Charlotte Montefiore’s editorship of the Cheap Jewish Library after her death (JC, Sept. 23, 1864). The Occident must be seen as a conduit (male-mediated, to be sure) for Jewish women’s interaction in the absence of their own publications. Until 1855, when Marion Hartog’s periodical Jewish Sabbath Journal briefly appeared, only to be put out of business by the very man who helped promote it, and then until 1895, when Rosa Sonneschein’s American Jewess appeared, there were no Jewish woman’s publications in existence.
.Reminiscences, ed. David Philipson (Cincinnati: Leo Wise and Company, 1901): “Ancestral pride of birth has been beaten out of the German and the Polish Jews with whip and knout; but it has persisted in these American Portuguese.” Wise’s assessment of Ashkenazic Jews does not hold for those Ashkenazim whose ancestors had lived in England for several generations. These tended to display a similar penchant for romance as their Sephardic coreligionists, the prime example being the Mosses, whose family arrived in the middle of the eighteenth century.
.Reminiscences, argued that Sephardic women were interested both in historical romances and in liberal reform in the Jewish community. In his Reminiscences, Wise records a meeting with a group composed of “Portuguese Jewesses,” among whom were a Mrs. F., who according to Wise had earlier convinced him to edit the Reform journal the Asmonean; and Rebecca Gratz. The women’s purpose—to convince Wise to write a volume of Jewish history: “These ladies, all of whom were Portuguese Jewesses, importuned me to write a history of the Jews instead of a history of the Middle Ages. I had communicated my purpose to Mrs. F. some time before, and she had requested me to devote myself rather to writing Jewish history. Upon my refusal, she sent her well-instructed agents to convince me. When I persisted in the pursuance of my original plan, she came with this bevy of Portuguese Jewesses to persuade me.
.The debate over her authenticity has extended to the critics. Abrahams, “Grace Aguilar,” writes: “a great deal of her Jewish knowledge was derived largely from Christian Studies of Jewish learning, rarely from the original sources, and certainly never from a direct study of the Talmud or the Codes. … Her frequent decrying of traditional usages represents a form of Jewish Protestantism” (142). Philip M. Weinberger, “The Social and Religious Thought of Grace Aguilar (1816–1847)” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1970), has attempted to counter such an attack on her Jewish authenticity by comparing her work to Maimonides’ thirteen tenets. Because he finds her to agree with almost all of them, he calls her “orthodox.” In fact, she was acutely aware of her lack of traditional Jewish knowledge. This was one of the reasons she called for the translation of the Bible and for Jewish female education. In these calls, she was a reformer, not a traditionalist.
.HRR. In “Spirit of Night,” a homily “founded on a Hebrew Apologue,” published in Home Scenes and Heart Studies (London: G. Routledge and Sons, 1894), Aguilar rewrote the midrash on the “Sun and the Moon,” which first appeared in the HRR. For analysis of the midrash as an allegory of women’s secondary status in creation, see chapter 2. Aguilar revises the gender politics of the tale, so that the argument over status takes place between two male angels, and rather than “the spirit of night” being humiliated, he is cleansed by the angel of Love and restored before God’s eyes. The moon herself remains throughout an orb of “pale but lovely lustre” (373). Aguilar displaces the argument over hierarchy from male sun and female moon to two male angels, removes any humiliation or loss of dignity from the moon, and invokes what must have looked like a Christian solution to the dispute—Love. “The Spirit of Night” is thus a perfect emblem of all that made Aguilar seem important and contradictory to her readers: her willingness to revise tradition on behalf of women, her introduction of heretofore unknown Christian elements, her search for Jewish knowledge in whatever form she could find it.
.Domestic Fiction, 201, comments: “The Victorian novel [transforms] household space into an instrument that can be used to classify any social group and keep it under observation. … The prominence of domestic fiction [in the 1840s] suggests the degree to which such power did not in fact rely on overtly juridical or economic means so much as on cultural hegemony, that is, on the notion of the family, norms of sexual behavior, the use of language, the regulation of leisure time, and all those microtechniques that constitute the modern subject.” D. A. Miller discusses the “disciplinary power” and “social surveillance” practiced in the novel in The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 17–18. Both critics owe much to Michel Foucault’s discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon in Discipline and Punish (New York: Pantheon, 1977).
.sui generis. There have been Jewish women writers in all areas of competence. … But none compares in either scope or character with Grace Aguilar whose major concern was to educate the Jewess and to define and heighten her status and station” (258). Only Zatlin, Anglo-Jewish Novel, eschews this label, placing Aguilar in context with her contemporaries.
.VoJ, Sept. 2, 1842, she “disclaims any intention either of interfering in the spiritual questions at issue between the different parties of Jews, or of attempting to throw any discredit on rabbinical or traditional law.” Nonetheless, in both Spirit of Judaism and Women of Israel, she strikes explicit positions against the divinity of the rabbis and halacha and for religious reforms.
.Fiction Without Romance; or, the Locket-Watch, 2 vols. (London, 1830), describes Sabbath and kashrut forms in detail rather than arguing for the “spirit” of the law, and denigrates the romance form as un-Jewish. Judith Montefiore, The Jewish Manual or Practical Information in Jewish and Modern Cookery, intro. Chaim Raphael (New York: NightinGale Books, 1983), takes up issues of kashrut, and argues against female education, except in culinary and domestic arts.
.From Vision to Vocation: Lily H. Montagu and the Advancement of Liberal Judaism (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1983), 61; and Amy Levy, The Complete Novels and Selected Writings of Amy Levy, 1861–1889, ed. Melvyn New (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993). A notable exception to this pattern of tokenizing Aguilar is the recent study of the Anglo-Jewish novel by Linda Gertner Zatlin. In Zatlin’s study, Aguilar receives nearly the same treatment as the Mosses, and they are compared to each other and to other novelists, male as well as female. The problem here is that, although Zatlin recognizes some differences in presentation style, her comparison basically equates all the early novelists as “propaganda” writers who idealize their Jews for a cause, and she does not differentiate their productions by gender. Within an analytic framework that seeks to understand these novels as positioned participants in ongoing exo- and endo-cultural dialogues, the designation “propaganda,” with its negative connotation and lack of differentiation, is not useful.
.Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love—The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans, and Jane Welsh Carlyle (New York: Routledge, 1990), 37. That she did serve as a role model to some young women is indisputable, as in the case of the most famous early American Jewish “spinster,” Rebecca Gratz, and even Marion Hartog. For her influence on Gratz, see Kuzmack, Woman’s Cause. Her influence on Marion Hartog is evident in Hartog’s addresses to Aguilar in her poems and in the Jewish Sabbath Journal. For biographies of American Jewish “spinsters,” including Rebekah Kohut, Emma Lazarus, Ernestine Rose, and Henrietta Szold, see Charlotte Baum, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel, The Jewish Woman in America (New York: Dial Press, 1976), 34–46.
.Ambitious Heights, 45. As did Christian writers Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna and Charlotte M. Yonge, for as Dorothy Mermin suggests in Godiva’s Ride: Women of Letters in England, 1830–1880 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 109, “An avowedly religious purpose justified literary self-display” in a woman, especially if allied with social protest. Yet, in Aguilar’s case, the other possibility (that she did not like the company of men) may hold true. Many of Aguilar’s books, especially Woman’s Friendship, focus on the beauties of relationships between women. When, in a curious epilogue to that book that reads as if it were tacked on, Florence does marry, her wedding appears to be quite a disappointment to her rather than the fulfillment of her lifetime dream. Also see Marion A. Kaplan, The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, and Identity in Imperial Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 126, who speaks of a “female world of sociability” in which Jewish women moved. Such a world was consonant with Victorian Christian women’s experience as well. See Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1985); and Valerie Sanders, The Private Lives of Victorian Women: Autobiography in Nineteenth-Century England (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989).
.Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 127, argues that the figure of the governess is inherently ambivalent, similar to both “the figure who epitomized the domestic ideal, and the figure who threatened to destroy it”—that is, similar to the middle-class mother and the working-class woman who commits the sin of receiving wages for productive, rather than reproductive, labor. In Aguilar’s selfless (yet nevertheless public) caregiving, she also bears resemblance to the figure of Florence Nightingale as constructed by Victorian domestic ideologists. See Poovey, Uneven Developments, chap. 6.
.Jewish High Society, 163–65, describes writers of the 1790s such as Helene Unger and Caroline de la Motte Fouqué who published prolifically while opposing salonières as too public an example for women. German-Jewish women of the same era, such as Dorothea Veit, were so cautious about gaining notoriety that they issued their publications anonymously, as Hertz shows (172).
.The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen (London: Basil Blackwell, 1986), the writer “could express the fears and anger that could not be openly acknowledged; and equally, romance allowed for the expression of women’s hopes and desires. The novelist creating an ideal romantic world might run the risk of escapism but also had the chance to create visions of a better future, and these are an essential part of feminist thought” (210).
.JC, Jan. 2, 1852), Aguilar writes “The characteristics so often assigned to [Jews] in tales professing to introduce a Jew or a Jewish family, are almost all incorrect, being drawn either from the impressions of the past, or from some special case. … These great errors in delineation arise from the supposition that, because they are Hebrews, they must be different from any other race. They are distinct in feature and religion, but in nothing else.” In each case, she is explicitly concerned with presenting a liberal view of Jews as ethical monotheists. She goes on to describe their good qualities, in accordance with her domestic ideology: “The virtues of the Jews are essentially of a domestic and social kind. … From the highest classes to the most indigent, affection, reverence, and tenderness mark their domestic intercourse.” Taken together, all these prefaces and essays constitute a fairly complete theoretical model with which to read Aguilar’s early works.
.Spirit of Judaism, 179. This passage comes from chap. 7, “The Spirit and the Forms of Judaism Considered Separately and Together”: “The Bible and reason are the only guides to which the child of Israel can look in security. The laws for which we can find no foundation in the one, and which will not stand the test of the other, need no farther proof; they are not the dictates of the law, they are wanderings from the true and only law, the inventions of man, and not the words of God. The Bible gives us a cause, a reason for every statute it enjoins.” Also see Women of Israel, 1:165: “The law, in form, like the human frame, may die for a time, but the spirit of the ordinances, like the soul of the body, is immortal, and will revive again the shell from which awhile it may have flown.”
.Critical Inquiry (spring 1994): 477–508. For a theory of the historical romance novel, see Avrom Fleishman, introduction to The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971).
.The Vale of Cedars and Other Stories (London: J. M. Dent, 1902). Critics have puzzled over Aguilar’s depiction of Isabella, who signed the Expulsion Edict, as a sympathetic mother who is only tricked into expelling the Jews by Torquemada the evil Inquisitor (223). The difficulty is explained by seeing Isabella as a substitute for Victoria. There is evidence that Aguilar idealized Queen Victoria as a great mother. See her “Notes on Excursion,” where she describes two pictures of the queen and concludes “both are sweet touching pictures of our gentle Queen—whom I never felt so much inclined to love as when listening to anecdotes of her happy domestic life from the lips of her own retainors.” (Here she was only replicating the idealization of the queen as mother common in the culture: see Susan Rubinow Gorsky, Femininity to Feminism: Women and Literature in the Nineteenth Century [New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992], 26.) Ragussis, “Birth of a Nation,” 487, points out that Isabella is more philo-Semitic than sympathetic, attempting to use “gentle” means to convert Marie.
.Spirit of Judaism, 74. Ragussis rightly emphasizes Aguilar’s attention to the “secret race” and to “woman’s heart” in Vale of Cedars, but underemphasizes how much the secrecy of gender and subculture resembled one another structurally.
.While Aguilar’s belief that Jews and women each ought to hide a piece of themselves seems to suggest that she understands the categories of ethnicity and gender as congruent, in at least one sense she understands these two categories as divergent. For Jews have to hide in order to convince Christians of their essential similarity and therefore of their right to equality; women have to hide in order to convince men of their essential inferiority and therefore of their need for subordination. To pass as members of the dominant group, Jews have to convince Christians of their intelligence as measured by their ability to ape dominant cultural conventions. But intelligent, ambitious women have to “dumb down” to pass as fully feminine members of the “second sex.”
.Anglo-Jewish Novel: “To minimize doctrinal differences [between Jews and Christians], the narrator skims over actual practices, while highlighting similarities to Christian customs. … Each description employs adjectives such as ‘peculiar’ and ‘mysterious,’ which distance rather than reveal anything about the spiritual significance of Jewish practices” (36).
.It would be interesting to speculate on why, when Almah cross-dresses, she dons the garb of another persecuted minority in Spain, a Moor, rather than a Christian. Perhaps Aguilar could not bring her character to sympathize with her persecutors enough to impersonate one of them, while she could allow Almah to sympathize with a member of a persecuted race.
.Alroy and Coningsby, and Grace Aguilar’s romantical Vale of Cedars, etc., the earliest attempt [of Jews to give a more faithful picture of themselves] was perhaps that of Matthias Levy” (8). Although Roth gives a reason for neglecting Disraeli, he gives none for neglecting Aguilar—as if the adjective “romantical” were reason enough.
.Records of Israel (London, 1844), Grace Aguilar MSS. Interestingly, this is almost word for word the justification used by the director of the Holy Office, the 1970s Mexican film depicting Jews during the Inquisition, which was shown at the Jewish Film Festival in Berkeley, California, Aug. 2, 1992.
.Spirit of Judaism and Women of Israel, her tone is not at all self-deprecating even though she addresses only Jews in those works. But in the first case, she suffered for her boldness by having Leeser administer harsh editorial correctives to the body of her text, which Philip M. Weinberger argues were decisive in the later, milder tone of her work. In the case of Women of Israel, she was directing her text primarily to Jewish women only, and did not have to fear that she was ignorant relative to them.
.HJ 1 (May 1, 1847): 251, shows that at least some of her Christian audience agrees. “The works of Grace Aguilar prove of how little vital consequence are the differences of creed, where the heart is influenced by the spirit of true religion. In this spirit, the Jew and the Christian are one.”
.JSJ, Apr. 19, 1855: “Mrs. Emanuel was in name, and as far as mere outward observance went, a Jewess; that is to say, she never rode in her carriage on the feast days, never touched fire on the Sabbath, kept the two principal fasts, and had her house cleansed from leaven for the Passover; but beyond this she never thought of religion at all. Her children had been brought up by Christian nurses, educated by a Christian governess; of their own faith they knew nothing. What marvel, then, if their minds were open to any impression which their instructress thought fit to make on them?” (131) This worry over the conversionist tendencies of Christian domestics was quite different than the worry expressed by middle-class German Jews about their domestics: German Jews, who suffered more intense anti-Semitism, worried instead that Christian domestics would refuse to work for them. This is the difference between a philo-Semitic and an anti-Semitic milieu. See Kaplan, Making of the Jewish Middle Class, 38.
.JC, Oct. 8, 1847, regrets that the Montefiores, Rothschilds, Goldsmids, Cohens, and Mocattas—all members of the Cousinhood—were not among the ladies who presented the testimonial, because Aguilar “was not rich.”
.Jewish Middle Class, 25, suggests that German-Jewish domestic ideology is by contrast concerned with increasing “permeability”—that is, increasing the Germanness of the Jewish home in the form of paintings and books, artifacts visible to the German eye. Theoretically, high permeability would convince gentile Germans that Jews had achieved Bildung and were worthy of social integration.
.Jewish Chronicle used it as an example of the days when “the rights of women were not talked of, and the strong-minded women of our day were unknown. At least,” the reviewer continued, “in that era, a strong-minded woman was one whose mind was strong; and its strength seemed all the brighter for the relief afforded to it by the tender womanly heart and the gentle womanly manner. … Not so, now. Now, the model strong-minded woman tries to do her deeds in a manly way, and the best charm of womanhood is lost in a graceless mimicry of manhood” (JC, Sept. 1, 1871). Simply put, it was Grace’s “grace”—with that word’s feminine and Christian resonance intact—that helped her work survive the partisan debates between feminists and antifeminists, between Jewish men and conversionists. In her capacity to appeal to competing constituencies, she resembles Florence Nightingale again. See Poovey, Uneven Developments, 198: while Nightingale was widely read as a selfless comforter, she could also “be appropriated by feminists who sought proof of women’s capabilities. For Harriet Martineau and others, Florence Nightingale planted a flag upon a new territory, a ‘woman’s battle-field’ that others could now defend. … She … proved beyond a doubt that women could work in the public sphere. Because her image displaced her own antifeminist sentiments, the name of Florence Nightingale could be enlisted in the feminist cause the woman herself refused to support.”