Eugénie Foa was born Rebecca Eugénie Rodrigues Henriquès in Bordeaux, France on June 12, 1796 and died in Paris in 1852. Foa was the first professional Jewish woman author, supporting herself entirely from her writings. She wrote children’s books, novels and short stories in the Romantic genre of her day, some of which treated Jewish subjects. In addition, Foa contributed many articles to contemporary periodicals, sometimes under the pseudonym Miss Maria Fitz-Clarence. She was in all likelihood the founder of the Journal des enfants, the first periodical aimed explicitly at a young readership. Foa also became involved in the emerging feminist movement, contributing in 1848 to the movement’s journal La Voix des femmes (Women’s Voice). She was particularly concerned with the challenges faced by women writers, their difficulties in finding financial support and public recognition. In her own day, Foa’s books were extremely popular, going through numerous printings. Several of her children’s stories were translated into English and she had a following in the United States as well as in France.
Foa was born into the elite class of French Sephardic Jewry. Like many others in that world, the family relocated from Bordeaux to Paris in the 1810s. Her parents hailed from two of the most important and wealthy Jewish families of Bordeaux. Her father, Isaac Rodrigues Henriquès (1765–1836), was head of a family bank called Les Fils d’A. Rodrigues. Her mother, née Esther Gradis (d. 1859), hailed from a family whose business, David Gradis et fils, specialized in armaments and the colonial trade (especially in the West Indies and Canada), and many of whose members were important community leaders and philanthropists. There were three other children: Laure Sara (1803–1882); Hippolyte (b. 1812) and Hanna Léonie (1820–1884). Léonie, who became a noted sculptor, married the composer Jacques-Fromenthal Halévy (1799-1862) in Paris in 1842; their daughter was the noted Dreyfusard salon hostess, Geneviève Halévy Bizet Strauss (1849–1926). Hippolyte worked in the family bank, but also wrote numerous works of fiction as well as treatises on the place of Judaism in the modern world.
In 1814 Eugénie married the twenty-one-year-old Genoese merchant Joseph Foa, but the marriage was unhappy and short-lived. After being abandoned by her husband, Eugénie returned to her parents’ home on Paris’s rue Monthalon where she lived until her father’s death. She had converted to Catholicism by the time she began work on her series of saints’ lives for children in 1841; perhaps for that reason, she became estranged from her mother and sought state support for her writing.
Foa wrote in numerous genres, but her most widely read books were her children’s books. Le Petit Robinson de Paris, ou le triomphe de l’industrie (Little Robinson of Paris, or The Triumph of Industry, 1840) was the most successful of these; it went through at least six printings in France and several more in the United States. The children’s books were didactic in tone, stressing such bourgeois virtues as charity, hard work and religious tolerance. She also wrote stories that championed the rights and virtues of oppressed people, such as slaves, women, the deaf and, of course, children. Most of her children’s stories are based on the fictitious or real childhood experiences of famous people, including French leaders (e.g. Napoleon) and saints (e.g. St. Genevieve and St. Vincent de Paul). To some degree, the moral issues stressed in these works reflect her broader political commitments, as demonstrated in her contributions to contemporary journals including Le Livre de la jeunesse, Le Journal des femmes, Le Journal des demoiselles, La Chronique de Paris and Le Siècle. These issues included the abolition of the slave trade, improvement in girls’ education, and the equal recognition and public support for the work of women writers.
Foa was also the author of several romantic novels that treated Jewish themes, including Le Kidouschim ou l’anneau nuptial des hébreu (Kiddushin, or The Jewish Wedding Ring, 1830), Philippe (1831), Rachel, ou l’héritage (Rachel, or The Inheritance, 1833) and La Juive: Histoire du temps de la Régence (The Jewess: A Story of the Regency Era, 1835). All of these books shared a common set of themes. They described and explained Jewish holidays (such as A seven-day festival to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. Also called the "Festival of Mazzot"; the "Festival of Spring"; Pesah.Passover) and life-cycle rituals (such as redemption of the first-born, Lit. "son of the commandment." A boy who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbar mitzvah, marriage and divorce) in such a way that they appeared comprehensible, moral and beautiful in the eyes of the French reading public. The stories also all revolved around Jewish heroines, whom Foa presented quite differently from most romantic authors. Foa’s Jewish women all attempted to forge their own way in the world, independent of their fathers as well as their lovers. In addition, although her stories often featured Jewish women who sought independence from their families through romantic love with Christian men, they departed from typical plot lines in that the heroines did not seek to convert to Christianity. In this sense, Foa played with representations of Jews and of women in contemporary literature, giving her protagonists a degree of self-determination and pride in their heritage that were rare in stories of this sort.
Like those of the protagonists of her stories, Foa’s life and work can be seen as a struggle for equality and recognition in a world full of obstacles for women, especially women writers, and for Jews. The success she did achieve, in spite of these obstacles, is impressive; it paved the way for women authors of later generations who would seek recognition and support equal to that of their male counterparts. Although her writings have been largely forgotten, her lively style and intricate plots make for interesting reading; they are also invaluable sources for understanding the place of women and Jews in nineteenth-century France.
Bitton, Michèle. Poétesses et lettrées juives: une mémoire éclipsée. Paris: 1999; Ezdinli, Leyla. “Altérité juive, altérite romanesque: Rachel (E. Foa) et Lavinia (G. Sand).” Romantisme: Revue du dix-neuvième siècle 81 (1993): 27–40; Meulsch, Elisabeth-Christine. “Creativity, Childhood and Children’s Literature, or How to Become a Woman Writer: The Case of Eugénie Foa.” Romance Languages Annual 8 (1997): 66–73.
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Leff, Lisa Moses. "Eugénie Foa." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 27, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/foa-eugenie>.