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People of the Book 101: Grace Aguilar and Amy Levy

January 30, 2013

by Cecil Bloom

Women’s role in the 19th century was seen by most people, women as well as men, as mainly a domestic one, but it is an interesting phenomenon that while there were few females in public life – certainly in political life – a number achieved fame in the literary field, including a number of Jewish women. Carole Balin (in To Reveal Our Hearts, 2000) has identified sixty-seven Jewish women writers in pre-revolutionary Russia — although, surprisingly, only a handful wrote in Yiddish. There were also a number of Jewish women following literary pursuits in Victorian England and, of these, two – Grace Aguilar (1816-1847) and Amy Levy (1861–1889) – produced important work that is still read today. Both were unmarried, and both had short lives.

Grace Aguilar’s persistence in struggling to launch herself on a literary career despite the ill-health that plagued her throughout her life was similar to that of the Bronte sisters. In a life of only thirty-one years, most of her output, non-fiction and well as fiction, dealt with Jewish subjects, and she won much sympathy from a non-Jewish readership for her writing about Jewish suffering. Aguilar was born in Hackney in London in 1816 to a Sephardi family that originally came from near Cordova in Spain, although her father may have been of Portuguese converso stock. Before she was 12, she had written about the 16th-century King Gustavus I of Sweden.

The family moved to the West of England when she was 12, where she spent her formative years amongst Christians. They returned to London, and she was forced to earn a living when her father died — which she did partly by writing and partly by helping her mother in a preparatory school for young Jewish boys. A busy young woman, she nevertheless managed to write a number of excellent books. At 19, she published anonymously a poetry collection entitled The Magic Wreath. It was her next effort, however, that was key in her literary development: she had the khutspe to write to a Rabbi Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, who had known her mother’s grandfather, to ask him to edit a book she had written. Her manuscript was lost in transmission but straight-away she rewrote it. The rabbi was impressed with the fresh, confident, and enthusiastic book, and it was published as The Spirit of Judaism in 1842, four years after she had written it.

In it, Aguilar argued that the ethics of the Hebrew Bible were more important than the rituals that dominated Jewish life, and that a moral life was therefore more important than one that concentrated on the ritual. She explained the differences between Judaism and Christianity, and, while favoring a dialogue between both faiths, Aguilar was emphatic that Jews must not be ashamed of what they stood for. She showed vision in her attitude towards the Hebrew language, urging Jewish children to familiarize themselves with the it: “It cannot be considered a dead language," she wrote, "for the nation to which it originally belonged continues to exist and will continue to exist.” She added that it should be the link for uniting the Children of Israel throughout the world. The book, which had a mixed reception from Jews, was a remarkable one to have been written in those days by a young woman.

The Women of Israel, a series of sketches of Biblical characters ranging from Eve and the wives of the patriarchs right through to Berenice, Herod’s second wife, came three years later. (Aguilar's views would certainly not appeal to modern readers because she accepted the idea that women, thanks to Eve’s sin, were the inferior sex, both mentally and physically.) The Jewish Faith was her next work, a collection of autobiographical letters written to a young girl living amongst Christians. Aguilar then turned to fiction with Home Influence, a best-seller with a non-Jewish theme about a mother’s responsibilities in the home.

The Vale of Cedars, one of seven books published after her death, is a major work, popular in its day, set in Spain in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, who were responsible, of course, for the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. The book's principal characters are a woman, initially unaware of her Jewish roots, and her English Catholic husband. All Spanish Catholics, the good as well as the bad, are depicted as Jew-haters. The novel provides an excellent portrait of Jewish life in the Spain of the Inquisition. The distinguished critic Meyer Waxman wrote that a spirit of genuine sentiment prevailed throughout the novel, although he did question the depth of its characters. He added, however, that "many a Jewish girl shed copious tears over the hero and heroine’s sad fate." The book is not, however, a trivial novel in the "penny-dreadful" category.

Home Scenes and Heart Stories are tales of Jewish life. Some are concerned with Jewish life among non-Jews, and Aguilar showed how it was possible to stay devoted to one’s faith despite living amongst strangers. One story deals with a Sephardi Jew from Holland who settles in London. His troubled son travels to the Land of Israel and thereby clears his soul, which allows him to return to face his English neighbours without fear. Stories of Jews in Spain are also included in this book.

Another of Aguilar's books is Woman’s Friendship, which covers the way friendships among women can be made irrespective of the class of society to which they belong. She also wrote a slim volume, History of the Jews in England, which was the first of its type written by a Jew. It describes the Ashkenazi way of life as well as that of Sephardim. Another historical work, The Days of Bruce, is a romance set in 14th-century Scotland.

When she was 19, Aguilar had been seriously ill with the measles, which affected her health for the rest of her life. She died in Frankfurt in 1847 and was buried there. Her tombstone contains the inscription, "Give her the fruit of her hands and let her own words praise her in the gates." A non-Jewish friend wrote that had Aguilar had lived in a time of persecution, she would have "willingly mounted the stake for her faith," and that she would be praying for her murderers "with her last breath."

Ignored for a long time by Jewish critics, Amy Levy is now established as a significant 19th-century Jewish writer. She was born in South London in 1861, and was the first Jewish student at Newnham College, Cambridge University’s first women's college. She published her first poem when she was 14, and at 15 wrote a feminist poem about Xantippe, the bickering wife of Socrates. In 1881, a collection of verses appeared with this poem as title. A Minor Poet and other Verses came three years later, when she was 23, but this impressive collection exhibited much sadness and a depression that stayed with her throughout her short life. Another set of poems, A London Plane Tree, appeared after her death. These had lyrical qualities, but like their predecessors were also full of remorse. Nevertheless, all three collections were well-received by the leading contemporary writers.

Levy wrote many essays, and some appeared in the London Jewish Chronicle. She was bitter about a society in which women were expected only to be wives, which forced those with other ambitions to resort to marry non-Jews. "Jewish Children" was an essay in which she expressed her pride in the way in which Jews looked after their children, although a comment about these children being "killed with kindness" suggests that little has changed over the passing years. Another essay, "The Jew in Fiction," was probably the first serious effort to study the manner in which Jews were described in English-language fiction. Levy pointed out that Jews had not been portrayed in a meaningful manner because the complexities of Jewish life and character were not taken into account. She criticized Dickens and Thackeray for their portrayals of unpleasant Jews, and both Scott’s Rebecca of York in Ivanhoe and Shakespeare's Shylock were said to be the "typical Hebrews of fiction." On the other hand, Levy admired George Eliot for her Daniel Deronda, even though she did not accept Eliot’s portrait of the Jew as a successful one. Strangely, she ignored Grace Aguilar’s literary efforts on behalf of Jews.

Traveling in Italy in 1886, Levy met Violet Paget, a British lesbian writer (pseudonym: Vernon Lee) on supernatural subjects, and fell in love with her. Their relationship inspired Levy's poem "To Vernon Lee."

Levy's first real novel was The Romance of a Shop, the story of four sisters who open a photographer's shop. Published in 1888, the book was favorably received but has no special qualities. Today Levy is renowned for one Reuben Sachs, a powerful work which caused a sensation when it first appeared in the same year, 1888. This was the first book by a Jew to open up British middle-class Jewish life to a wide public, and is a bitter commentary of Jewish society as Levy then saw it. It tells the story of Judith Quixano, a poor girl who goes to live with wealthy relatives on the other side of town. She falls in love with Reuben Sachs, a relative from the other side of this wealthy family, and while he returns her affection, Sachs has ambition and knows he must marry into wealth. Levy depicted the lifestyles of well-to-do Jews as vulgar, and Jewish life as almost solely concerned with material wealth, as Judith fails to win Sachs and marries an aristocrat, who converts to Judaism. Sachs himself dies soon afterwards from heart failure.

The novel was pilloried in the British Jewish community. One reviewer wrote that Reuben Sachs was "written in vitriol," and one Jewish newspaper opined that she should have had the decency to use a "Gentile pseudonym," adding that she apparently delighted in the task of persuading the general public that Jews were the most hideous and vulgar types. Israel Zangwill, who would soon be writing that masterpiece of Anglo-Jewish fiction Children of the Ghetto, stepped into the fray when he wrote a long poem, "Dr. Reuben Green," which belittled Reuben Sachs. On Levy's death, however, one journal that had criticised her had the good grace to call Reuben Sachs "an acute diagnosis of the spiritual blight that has come over well-fed Judaism."

Soon after finishing Reuben Sachs, Levy wrote Miss Meredith, a beautiful and sensitive novel about a woman tutor of an Italian girl. The son of the house falls in love with his sister’s tutor and is allowed to press his suit after initial family objections. The family is not Jewish.

Amy Levy took her own life in 1889 by inhaling charcoal gas. She had dealt with suicide in a number of her short stories, as well as in her last story, "Cohen of Trinity," about a gifted, ambitious Jew who is dismissed from the University of Cambridge (the Trinity of the title represents Trinity College) for not working hard enough. He chooses a literary career, in which he is successful with a book of essays and poems — but then he takes his own life. In one scene, Cohen tries to explain to the narrator the meaning of success, and implies that he will never get proper recognition — and then blows his brains out. Amy Levy was bitterly wounded by the reception she received from her own people for her masterpiece, and it is clear that she was writing her own obituary in this short story.

These two Jewish women were clearly different in their outlook on life. Grace Aguilar's pride in her heritage came out consistently in her writings, whereas Amy Levy was a rebel who examined Jewish life from the outside. Levy also had the misfortune to be ahead of her time. A number of feminist intellectuals suffered from Victorian society’s reaction to their ideas and ideals, but Levy found life to be impossible. What direction would her writing have taken had she lived? The structure of Jewish society in Britain changed substantially during her lifetime, with the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe bringing poor Jews flooding into the slums of London, Manchester, Leeds and other cities following Czar Alexander II’s assassination. The changing appearance of the Jewish community would have provided Levy with a challenge for her writings in dealing with the problems the new immigrants faced in settling down into a new and freer environment. It was, however, left to Israel Zangwill to take on this task.

Cecil Bloom, who lives in England, is the retired technical director of a multinational pharmaceutical corporation. He now spends much of his time researching and writing on Jewish history, music, and literature. A number of his articles have appeared in Midstream and in publications in the UK, Israel, South Africa, and Australia.