By: Henrietta Szold
English novelist and writer on Jewish history and religion; born at Hackney, London, June 2, 1816; died at Frankfort-on-the-Main, September 16, 1847, where her remains were buried in the Jewish cemetery. She was the oldest child of parents descended from Portuguese Maranos who sought asylum in England in the eighteenth century. To strengthen her constitution, which from infancy had been feeble, she was taken to the sea-shore and to various rural localities in England. Her love of nature was cultivated by these experiences; and at the age of twelve she devoted herself of her own accord to the study of natural science, augmenting a collection of shells begun by her at Hastings, when only four years old, and supplementing it by mineralogical and botanical collections.Early Training.
Grace Aguilar was educated mainly by her parents. Her mother, a cultivated woman of strong religious feeling, trained her to read the Scriptures systematically; and when she was fourteen her father read aloud to her regularly, chiefly history, while she was occupied with drawing and needlework. She was an assiduous musician till her health became impaired. Her reading, especially in history, was extensive; her knowledge of foreign literature was wide.Literary Works.
She evinced a literary tendency at the age of seven, when she began a diary, which she continued almost uninterruptedly until her death. Before she was twelve she had written a drama, "Gustavus Vasa." Her first verses were evoked two years later by the scenery about Tavistock in Devonshire. The first products of her pen to be published (anonymously in 1835) were her collected poems, which she issued under the title "The Magic Wreath." Her productions are chiefly stories and religious works dealing with Jewish subjects. The former embrace domestic tales, tales founded on Marano history, and a romance of Scottish history, "The Days of Bruce" (1852). The most popular of the Jewish tales is "The Vale of Cedars, or the Martyr: A Story of Spain in the Fifteenth Century," written before 1835, published in 1850, and twice translated into German and twice into Hebrew. Her other stories founded on Jewish episodes are included in a collection of nineteen tales, "Home Scenes and Heart Studies"; "The Perez Family" (1843) and "The Edict," together with "The Escape," had appeared as two separate volumes; the others were reprinted from magazines. Her domestic tales, of which new editions still appear, are "Home Influence" (1847) and its sequel, "The Mother's Recompense" (1850), both of them written early in 1836, and "Woman's Friendship" (1851).
The first of Miss Aguilar's religious works was a translation of the French version of "Israel Defended," by the Marano Orobio de Castro, printed for private circulation. It was closely followed by "The Spirit of Judaism," the publication of which was for a time prevented by the loss of the original manuscript. Sermons by Rabbi Isaac Leeser, of Philadelphia, had fallen into her hands and, like all other accessible Jewish works, had been eagerly read. She requested him to revise the manuscript of the "Spirit of Judaism," which was forwarded to him, but was lost. The authoress rewrote it; andin 1842 it was published in Philadelphia, with notes by Leeser. A second edition was issued in 1849 by the first American Jewish Publication Society; and a third (Cincinnati, 1864) has an appendix containing thirty-two poems (bearing date 1838-1847), all but two reprinted from "The Occident." The editor's notes serve mainly to mark dissent from Miss Aguilar's depreciation of Jewish tradition—due probably to her Marano ancestry and to her country life, cut off from association with Jews. In 1845 "The Women of Israel" appeared—a series of portraits delineated according to the Scriptures and Josephus. This was soon followed by "The Jewish Faith: Its Spiritual Consolation, Moral Guidance, and Immortal Hope," in thirty-one letters, the last dated September, 1846. Of this work—addressed to a Jewess under the spell of Christian influence, to demonstrate to her the spirituality of Judaism—the larger part is devoted to immortality in the Old Testament. Miss Aguilar's other religious writings —some of them written as early as 1836—were collected in a volume of "Essays and Miscellanies" (1851-52). The first part consists of "Sabbath Thoughts" on Scriptural passages and prophecies; the second, of "Communings" for the family circle.
In her religious writings Miss Aguilar's attitude was defensive. Despite her almost exclusive intercourse with Christians and her utter lack of prejudice, her purpose, apparently, was to equip English Jewesses with arguments against conversionists. She inveighed against formalism, and laid stress upon knowledge of Jewish history and the Hebrew language. In view of the neglect of the latter by women (to whom she modestly confined her expostulations), she constantly pleaded for the reading of the Scriptures in the English version. Her interest in the reform movement was deep; yet, despite her attitude toward tradition, she observed ritual ordinances punctiliously. Her last work was a sketch of the "History of the Jews in England," written for "Chambers's Miscellany." In point of style it is the most finished of her productions, free from the exuberances and redundancies that disfigure the tales—published, for the most part, posthumously by her mother. The defects of her style are mainly chargeable to youth. With her extraordinary industry—she rose early and employed the day systematically—and her growing ability of concentration she gave promise of noteworthy productions.
Miss Aguilar's later years were full of family trials. In 1835 she had an attack of illness, from the effect of which she never recovered. Finally her increasing weakness and suffering necessitated change of air, and in 1847 a Continental trip was arranged. Before her departure some Jewish ladies of London presented her with a gift and a touching address recounting her achievements in behalf of Judaism and Jewish women. She visited her elder brother at Frankfort, and at first seemed to benefit by the change; but after a few weeks she had to resort to the baths of Schwalbach. Alarming symptoms necessitated her return to Frankfort, and there she died. Her last words, spelled on her fingers, were, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him," and her epitaph is the verse Prov. xxxi. 31.
- Memoir prefixed to Home Influence, 1849;
- The Eclectic Review (new series), February, 1858, pp. 134, 135;
- The Art Union, November, 1847, p. 378;
- The Art Journal, May, 1851, p. 133;
- Collected Works, 8 vols., London, 1861;
- Morais, Eminent Israelites of the Nineteenth Century, s.v.;
- Dict. Nat. Biog., s.v.