Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Aguilar, Grace

AGUILAR, GRACE (1816–1847), novelist and writer on Jewish history and religion, was born of Jewish parents, of Spanish descent, at Hackney, in June 1816. Of delicate health from infancy, she was chiefly educated at home, and rapidly developed great interest in history, especially in that of the Jews, besides showing much aptitude for music. In her youth she travelled through the chief towns of England, and resided for a long time in Devonshire, whither her family removed in 1828. At an early age she first attempted literary composition. Before reaching her twelfth year she produced a drama on ‘Gustavus Vasa,’ and in her fourteenth year she began a series of poems, of no particular merit, which were published in a collected form in 1835, under the title of the ‘Magic Wreath.’ She never completely recovered from a severe illness by which she was attacked in the same year, and when the death of her father soon afterwards forced her to depend on her writings for a portion of her livelihood, her health gradually declined until her death, twelve years later. At first she devoted herself to Jewish subjects. The ‘Spirit of Judaism,’ her chief work on the Jewish religion, after being printed for private circulation in England, was published in America in 1842, with notes by an American rabbi who dissented from her views, and it met there with a warm welcome. In the treatise she boldly attacked the formalism and traditionalism of modern Judaism, and insisted on the importance of its purely spiritual and high moral aspect, as indicated in much of the Old Testament. Four years later she produced a work with a similar aim for general reading in this country, entitled ‘The Jewish Faith, its Spiritual Consolation, Moral Guidance, and Immortal Hope.’ And about the same time (1845) she published a series of essays on biblical history, called ‘The Women of Israel.’ Her occasional contributions to periodical literature on religious questions were collected after her death, under the title of ‘Sabbath Thoughts and Sacred Communings,’ 1851. But Grace Aguilar is better known as a voluminous writer of novels, most of which were, however, published posthumously under the editorship of her mother. ‘Home Influence, a Tale for Mothers and Daughters,’ alone appeared in her lifetime (1847). It met at once with a good reception, and, after having passed through nearly thirty editions, is still popular. ‘A Mother's Recompense,’ a sequel to ‘Home Influence,’ and ‘Woman's Friendship,’ novels of similar character, were published in 1850 and 1851 respectively. Two historical romances, the ‘Days of Bruce, a Story from Scottish History’ (1852), and the ‘Vale of Cedars’ (1850), a story of the Jews in Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, together with a collection of short stories, entitled ‘Home Scenes and Heart Studies’ (1853), exhaust the list of Grace Aguilar's works. All her novels are of a highly sentimental character, and mainly deal with the ordinary incidents of domestic life. Like the rest of her writings, they evince an intensely religious temperament, but one free from sectarian prejudice.

In June 1847 Grace Aguilar's health, owing mainly to her literary exertions, was clearly breaking down, and she determined to leave England on a visit to a brother who was studying music at Frankfort. Before her departure the Jewish ladies of London presented her with a testimonial and an address, ‘as the first woman who had stood forth as the public advocate of the faith of Israel.’ Soon after her arrival in Frankfort, Grace Aguilar was taken seriously ill, and, dying on 16 Sept. 1847, she was buried in the Jewish cemetery of the town. Her friend, Mrs. S. C. Hall, describes her as a woman of singularly lovable character, and relates many charitable acts done by her to fellow authoresses. Two of her works, the ‘Mother's Recompense’ and the ‘Vale of Cedars,’ have been translated into German.

[Memoir by Sarah Aguilar (prefixed to Home Influence, 1849); Art Union Journal, ix. 347; Pilgrimages to English Shrines, by Mrs. S. C. Hall (second series), pp. 154–169; Eclectic Review (new series), iii. pp. 134–155 (Feb. 1858); Marie Enriquez Morales von Grace Aguilar, frei bearbeitet und mit einem Vorwort versehen von J. Piza (Institut zur Förderung der israelitischen Literatur), Magdeburg, 1860.]

S. L. L.