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Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia
with permission of the author and the
Jewish Women’s Archive
When she died in 1847 at the age of thirty-one, Grace Aguilar enjoyed a reputation as a poet, historical romance writer, domestic novelist, Jewish emancipator, religious reformer, educator, social historian, theologian, and liturgist. A Jewish woman in Victorian England, Aguilar produced a body of work that appealed to both Jews and Christians, women and men, religious traditionalists and reformers.
Distributed throughout the British Empire, Europe, and the United States, her books–which record the ambivalent encounter of a British minority with the majority culture–were translated into French, German, and Hebrew. She developed new and hybrid literary genres, helped to build the Anglo-Jewish subculture, advocated Jews’ emancipation in the Victorian world, and insisted on women’s emancipation in the Jewish world.
Grace Aguilar was born June 2, 1816, to Emanuel (1787-1845) and Sarah (1787-1854) Aguilar. Portuguese Jews who had fled to England to escape the Inquisition, her parents settled in the northeast London suburb of Hackney, where Aguilar was born. Emanuel served as the Parnas, or lay leader, of London’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, and the family were active participants in the Sephardic community. Aguilar’s two brothers were Emanuel (1824-1904) and Henry (1827-1902).
As a child, Aguilar contracted an undiagnosed illness that permanently weakened her and left her vulnerable to the other ailments from which she suffered throughout her life. The most serious of these included the measles (at age nineteen in 1835) and her final illness, a spinal ailment that paralyzed her muscles and lungs. These illnesses did not prevent her from keeping a multi-volume journal beginning at age seven, from dancing, from local travel, or from playing the piano and the harp, like other girls of the English middle class.
When Aguilar was twelve, her father contracted tuberculosis and the family moved to the coast in Devon for his health. There she wrote her first completed manuscript, a play called “Gustavus Vasa” about a Swedish king (now lost). For years her mother had provided her with a religious education; now, her father used his enforced rest to educate his daughter in Jewish history. He related the “oral history” of the crypto-Jews, those Sephardim who, to escape the Inquisition, had pretended to convert to Catholicism but continued to practice Judaism in secret. When she later drew on these tales to create her historical romances, her father served as her secretary.
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