Writers in Victorian England

by Nadia Valman

British poet and novelist Amy Levy, in January 1889, just six months before she took her own life at the age of twenty-seven. It first appeared alongside Oscar Wilde's tribute to this exceptional individual—a Jewish woman of letters in nineteenth century England—published in an 1890 issue of Women's World.
Photograph by Montabone, courtesy of Katherine Solomon.
In Brief

Spurred to publish initially as a response to the concerted campaigning of Christian conversionists, women writers were the first Anglo-Jews to produce literature on Jewish themes in nineteenth-century England. The first writers—including Grace Aguilar, the first bestselling Anglo-Jewish author—were motivated to publish positive depictions of Jews in response to antisemitism and Christian conversionist campaigns. Later writers, such as Amy Levy and Julia Frankau, created not only works portraying Jews as loyal Englishmen and women worth of equal rights but also satirical novels critical of the Anglo-Jewish community; they were sometimes criticized as adopting the language of Victorian antisemitism. The diversity of Jewish women’s writings displays the changing attitudes of Anglo-Jews as the nineteenth century progressed.

Spurred to publish, in the first instance, as a response to the concerted campaigning of Christian conversionists, women writers were the first Anglo-Jews to produce literature on Jewish themes in England. Among them, Grace Aguilar went on to become the first bestselling Anglo-Jewish author. By the end of the nineteenth century, literature by Jewish women had expanded to encompass not only works defensive of the dignity and rights of Anglo-Jewry, but also satirical novels critical of the community’s materialism and marriage practices.

Grace Aguilar: The First Bestselling Anglo-Jewish Author

The romance and domestic fiction of the novelist, poet, and devotional writer Grace Aguilar remained popular among Victorian readers throughout the century, although most of her literary successes were posthumous. Aguilar’s work included fiction and poetry for the general woman reader as well as works specifically addressing a Jewish audience and Jewish questions. She was also a prolific poet, publishing in Anglo-Jewish periodicals as well as in the American Jewish journal The Occident. Aguilar was born in Hackney, near London, where her family later returned after several years’ stay in the Devon town of Teignmouth to aid her father’s ailing health. In Devon, Aguilar spent her youthful years far from any Jewish congregation; here she often attended chapel and found Protestant sermons especially inspiring. Although she was to become an ardent public defender of Judaism, the influence of contemporary Christian culture, particularly Evangelicalism, can also be distinctly felt in her writing.

Of Descendants of the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal before the explusion of 1492; primarily Jews of N. Africa, Italy, the Middle East and the Balkans.Sephardic descent, Aguilar published her first fictional work, Records of Israel (1844), on the subject of Iberian Jews devastated by enforced exile from their beloved motherland. In her teens, she had written her first romance on this theme, The Vale of Cedars; or The Martyr, a story of the heroic suffering of a crypto-Jewish woman in Inquisition Spain, which was published only in 1850, after her death. Much of Aguilar’s work resonated with the anti-Catholic climate of early Victorian England. While often striving to illustrate the theological congruences between Judaism and Protestantism, she also repeatedly sought to identify Jews with the Protestant nation that had given them refuge from Catholic persecution and that, she insisted, had inspired in them a new patriotism. Aguilar’s work was published during the time that Jews were campaigning for political emancipation and her fiction can be seen as part of the effort to portray Jews as loyal Englishmen and women worthy of equal civil rights.

Aguilar also produced novels aimed at the popular female reading public. During the 1830s, she composed Home Influence: A Tale for Mothers and Daughters, eventually published in 1847 to great success. Subsequent books, published after her death on the instruction of her mother Sarah Aguilar, included a sequel, The Mother’s Recompense (1851), and Woman’s Friendship (1850). These novels contributed significantly to the Victorian genre of domestic fiction, which extolled the role of the middle-class mother as religious and moral educator in the home. Even her Scottish historical romance, The Days of Bruce (1852), one of the most popular of her novels, followed this model.

The non-fiction work that Aguilar chose to publish during her lifetime, however, focused on defenses of Judaism directed towards a Jewish readership: The Spirit of Judaism (1842); The Jewish Faith (1846), a series of fictional letters to a young Jewish woman urging her to resist the temptations of conversion; and The Women of Israel (1845) in which, by recreating the lives and careers of Jewish women in Biblical and post-Biblical history in terms that made them familiar and appealing to the Victorian Jewish woman reader, she attempted to counter missionary arguments that Judaism denigrated women and had nothing to offer them. While strongly opposing Christian polemic, Aguilar’s book nonetheless registered the worry that Jewish women were indeed undereducated and vulnerable to religious persuasion.

Aguilar’s most important and public defense of the Jews, published in the year of her death, was her essay on the “History of the Jews in England” (1847). While including her characteristic praise of England as a liberal nation that had welcomed the Jews rather than persecuting them, it concluded with a surprisingly strident call for an end to the political restrictions they continued to suffer in Victorian England, as “the last relic of religious intolerance” that was “discreditable to the common sense of the age.” In this, the last of her works to be published during her lifetime, Aguilar harnessed the moral authority of her public image as a pious woman writer to speak out in favor of Jewish emancipation.

Other Early Nineteenth-Century Writers

Contemporaries of Grace Aguilar, the sisters Celia (1823-?) and Marion Moss (1821-1907) grew up in the provincial town of Portsea, Hampshire, as members of a prosperous and active Jewish community; later in life both became teachers. Like Aguilar, they were motivated to write, they claimed, because, despite the modern waning of “prejudice existing against us as a nation, … the English people generally, although mixing with the Jews in their daily duties, are as unacquainted with their history, religion and customs, as if they still dwelt in their own land, and were known to them but by name.” The Moss sisters therefore produced two volumes of historical romance, The Romance of Jewish History (1840) and Tales of Jewish History (1843), annotated with information about Jewish beliefs and practices. Their early writing was published by private subscription and they never achieved the same public notice as Aguilar. However, they remain of interest for their ingenious attempt, like Aguilar, to rewrite Jewish history in the form of nineteenth-century literary genres.

In the Romance and Tales, the Moss sisters, like Aguilar, drew on the genre of historical romance, associated particularly with female writers, as well as the Romantic poetry of oriental nationalism. Their writing looked back not, like Aguilar’s, to the sufferings of the Descendants of the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal before the explusion of 1492; primarily Jews of N. Africa, Italy, the Middle East and the Balkans.Sephardim in early-modern Europe, but to biblical and post-biblical Jewish history—aiming to portray “the Jews as they were while yet an independent people.” The stories that form their books are based on episodes from scripture and other sources that provide narratives of heroic martyrdom in the cause of national liberation. However, they add to these tales of male military endeavor their own additional stories of courageous, patriotic women, whose contribution to the national struggle is as important as that of their male counterparts.

Apologia remained a keynote in Anglo-Jewish women’s writing until even later in the nineteenth century. Although Jewish emancipation had been achieved in 1858, by the 1870s Anglo-Jewry was under scrutiny once again in the wake of the unprecedented success of Jewish businessmen and financiers in the expanding London money market. Writing of this period registers the ways that social acceptance did not follow smoothly from political equality. When Emily Marion Harris (?-1900), a poet and writer of romance novels, turned her hand to a Jewish theme in Estelle (1878), her earnest Jewish heroine found herself frequently moved to defensive speeches when in gentile company. “I cannot help seeing that the world judges us more with curiosity than respect,” she protests. “Industry is far more the source of our success than greed or avarice. [... Judaism] is a code full of humanity, of gentleness, and an exquisite tenderness, that enjoins us in spite, or rather as a result, of our own misfortunes, to love the unfortunate and the stranger.”

Harris’s novel concerns a young Jewish woman who experiences an impossible conflict between her personal vocation as an artist and her obedience to her father who forbids it. In addition, despite her devotion to Judaism, Estelle finds herself drawn to a gentile neighbor who is more sympathetic to her talents than her Jewish family. In the novel, Harris’s heroine resolutely sacrifices both artistic and romantic aspirations, but ends the novel strengthened by her decisions. However, in a sequel, Benedictus (1887), Harris follows the stories of a younger generation of Anglo-Jews, whose talents and social interests finally lead them away from Judaism. The novel also depicts the encounter between middle-class Jews and the new Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe who had hugely expanded the London Jewish population in the 1880s. Drawing on her own experience running a club for working girls in London, Harris makes a case for the personal involvement of philanthropists in the lives of the poor, instead of imposing impersonal welfare plans upon them.

Amy Levy: A Late Victorian Feminist

While Harris’s work as a social worker, and the way she represented it in her novels and essays, drew on the Victorian ideology of female moral duty not unlike that which informed the writing of Grace Aguilar, her contemporary Amy Levy identified herself more clearly with the aims of late-Victorian feminism. Levy was among the first Jewish women to go to Cambridge University, she travelled widely in Europe alone and with other women, and her life as a writer was conducted among a circle of liberal intellectual friends who met at the British Library in London, attended progressive discussion groups, and were engaged in various kinds of social reform work (although Levy herself declined this kind of involvement).

Levy remains a fascinating figure to contemporary literary critics because of the eclecticism of her writing. Her precocious early poetry, composed in her teens, included ‘Run to Death,” about a gypsy woman pursued by French aristocrats, and “Xantippe,” a dramatic monologue in which the maligned wife of Socrates makes a spirited claim for the intellectual capacity of women. The poetry that she published in the 1880s, however, was more stylistically innovative. Some of her poems evoke the dynamic, thrilling atmosphere of modern London; others are passionate love lyrics addressed to women, and express complex and ambivalent states of mind and feeling; others articulate a profound pessimism. Throughout this decade, Levy also published essays both light and serious, and short stories, often on the theme of the frustrations of intelligent women trapped by their dependence on romantic love.

A number of Levy’s works, including her essay on the poet James Thomson, as well as her poem “A Minor Poet,” and her stories “Sokratics in the Strand” and “Cohen of Trinity” explore the figure of the suicidal poet, disappointed by life and by the limitations of his talent. “Cohen of Trinity” portrays a Jewish undergraduate at Cambridge University who oscillates between displays of brilliance and bouts of despairing self-hatred. Although he eventually becomes a celebrated writer, the story ends with his suicide, apparently motivated by the belief that “Nothing…can alter the relations of things -- their permanent, essential relations... ‘They shall know, they shall understand, they shall feel what I am.’ That is what I used to say to myself in the old days. I suppose, now, ‘they’ do, more or less, and what of that?”’ The story was published in May 1889, only months before Levy’s own suicide.

In 1886 Levy wrote a series of articles for the London newspaper the Jewish Chronicle, confidently and often humorously critical of the contemporary Jewish community. These included “Middle Class Jewish Women of To-Day,” in which Levy castigated Anglo-Jewry’s treatment of women as outdated, “primitive” and ‘oriental.” The young Jewish woman, she charged, is taught to suppress “her healthy, objective activities, ... her natural employment of her young faculties” and “to look upon marriage as the only satisfactory termination to her career.” In her novel Reuben Sachs (1888), Levy also drew attention to the plight of Jewish women condemned to the uncertain vagaries of the marriage market. The story relates the career of a young Jewish barrister, Reuben Sachs, who, at the encouragement of his ambitious family, abandons his romance with the intelligent and beautiful, but impoverished heroine Judith Quixano in order to pursue a life in politics—but dies of overwork before he can take up office. The novel, however, is more interested in the fate of Judith, who is left to a loveless marriage and exile from Anglo-Jewry. She comes to a bitter yet wiser understanding of her own capacity for passion only at the end of the novel, when she has lost all hope of fulfilling it.

Julia Frankau: Distancing from Judaism

Levy’s attitude to Jews remains a subject of controversy among literary critics, some of whom have seen her as adopting the language of contemporary antisemitism. There is little doubt, however, that her contemporary Julia Frankau (1859-1916), who wrote under the (male, gentile) pseudonym of Frank Danby, sought through her writing to distance herself from her Jewish origins. Although Frankau came from a middle-class background and married a Jewish businessman her social aspirations brought her into contact with the gentile world of journalism and theatre. Her writing, like Reuben Sachs, attacked the materialism, vulgarity, and ruthless ambition of late-Victorian Jewish society, but, unlike Levy’s novel, presented it as utterly devoid of redemptive qualities. In her novel Dr Phillips (1887), the story of a philandering Jewish doctor, she ascribes the vices of nouveau riche society to Judaism itself: “The great single Deity, the ‘I am the Lord thy God, and thou shalt have no other,’ that binds Judaism together, is as invincible now as it was when Moses had to destroy the Golden Calf on Mount Horeb. And that Deity is Gain.” For writers of the late nineteenth century, it proved impossible to critique Anglo-Jewry without resorting to the crude language of stereotype.

If earlier Jewish writers saw British Jews as potential model citizens in a progressive society, late nineteenth-century writers saw them as epitomizing the most regressive aspects of modern society. The hostility that Frankau expressed in her writing contrasts strikingly with the idealized portraits of Jews that were the hallmark of Grace Aguilar’s publications only forty years earlier. Like Levy and to some extent Harris, by the end of the century Frankau felt emboldened to offer criticism of Anglo-Jewry rather than apologia on its behalf. This was a mark not only of the broader cultural pessimism of the period, but also of the increasing confidence and diversity of Anglo-Jewish literary voices.


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How to cite this page

Valman, Nadia. "Writers in Victorian England." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 24, 2024) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/writers-in-victorian-england>.