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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Grace Aguilar (1816–1847)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IN 1840, a Jewish writer of English fiction was a new and interesting figure in English literature. Disraeli, indeed, had flashed into the literary world with ‘Coningsby,’ that eloquent vindication of the Jewish race. His grandiose ‘Tancred’ had revealed to an astonished public the strange life of the Desert, of the mysterious vastness whence swept forth the tribes who became the Moors of Spain and the Jews of Palestine. Disraeli, however, stood in no category, and established no precedent. But when Miss Aguilar’s stories began to appear, they were eagerly welcomed by a public with whom she had already won reputation and favor as the defender and interpreter of her faith. Her great popularity as a novelist was, however, posthumous; for only a single novel, ‘Home Influence,’ appeared in her lifetime (1847). The rest of her stories were published under the editorship of her mother after her death.  1
  The youngest child of a rich and refined household, Grace Aguilar was born in 1816 at Hackney, near London, of that historic strain of Spanish-Jewish blood which for generations had produced not only beauty and artistic sensibility, but intellect. Her ancestors were refugees from persecution, and in her burned that ardor of faith which persecution kindles. Fragile and sensitive, she was educated at home, by her cultivated father and mother, under whose solicitous training she developed an aptitude for music and a great interest in history, especially that of the Jews. During her childhood the family traveled considerably through England, and in 1828 removed to Devonshire. The girl’s precocity led to early efforts at literary composition. At the age of twelve she had written a heroic drama on her favorite hero, Gustavus Vasa. At fourteen she had published a volume of poems. At twenty-four she accomplished her chief work on the Jewish religion, ‘The Spirit of Judaism,’ a book republished in America with preface and notes by a well-known rabbi, Dr. Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia. Although the orthodox priest found much in the book to criticize, he was forced to commend its ability. It insists on the importance of the spiritual and moral aspects of the faith delivered to Abraham, and deprecates a superstitious reverence for the mere letter of the law. It presents Judaism as a religion of love, and the Old Testament as the inspiration of the teachings of Jesus. Written more than half a century ago, the book is widely read to-day by students of the Jewish religion.  2
  Four years later Miss Aguilar published ‘The Jewish Faith: Its Spiritual Consolation, Moral Guidance, and Immortal Hope,’ and ‘The Women of Israel,’ a series of essays on Biblical history, which was followed by ‘Essays and Miscellanies.’ So great was the influence of her writings that the Jewesses of London gave her a public testimonial, and addressed her as “the first woman who had stood forth as the public advocate of the faith of Israel.” While on her way to visit a brother then residing at Schwalbach, Germany, she was taken ill at Frankfurt, and died there, at the early age of thirty-one.  3
  The earliest and the best known of Miss Aguilar’s novels is ‘Home Influence,’ which rapidly passed through thirty editions, and is still a favorite book with young girls. There is little incident in the story, which is the history of the development of character in a household of six or seven young persons of very different endowments and tendencies. It was the fashion of the day to be didactic, and Mrs. Hamilton, from whom the “home influence” radiates, seems to the modern reader somewhat inclined to preach, in season and out of season. But the story is interesting, and the characters are distinctly individualized, while at least one episode is dramatically treated.  4
  ‘The Mother’s Recompense’ is a sequel to ‘Home Influence,’ wherein the further fortunes of the Hamilton family are so set forth that the worldly minded reader is driven to the inference that the brilliant marriages of her children are a sensible part of Mrs. Hamilton’s “recompense.” The story is vividly and agreeably told.  5
  Of a different order is ‘The Days of Bruce,’ a historic romance of the late thirteenth century, which is less historic than romantic, and in whose mirror the rugged chieftain would hardly recognize his angularities.  6
  ‘The Vale of Cedars’ is a historic tale of the persecution of the Jews in Spain under the Inquisition. It is told with intense feeling, with much imagination, and with a strong love of local color. It is said that family traditions are woven into the story. This book, as well as ‘Home Influence,’ had a wide popularity in a German version.  7
  In reading Grace Aguilar it is not easy to believe her the contemporary of Currer Bell and George Eliot. Both her manner and her method are earlier. Her lengthy and artificial periods, the rounded and decorative sentences that she puts into the mouths of her characters under the extremest pressure of emotion or suffering, the italics, the sentimentalities, are of another age than the sinewy English and hard sense of ‘Jane Eyre’ or ‘Adam Bede.’ Doubtless her peculiar, sheltered training, her delicate health, and a luxuriant imagination that had seldom been measured against the realities of life, account for the old-fashioned air of her work. But however antiquated their form may become, the substance of all her tales is sweet and sound, their charm for young girls is abiding, their atmosphere is pure, and the spirit that inspires them is touched only to fine issues.  8
  The citation from ‘The Days of Bruce’ illustrates her narrative style; that from ‘Woman’s Friendship’ her habit of disquisition; and the passage from ‘Home Influence’ her rendering of conversation.  9
 
 
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