Grace Aguilar: 19th Century Poet, Religious Commentator & Romance Author

December 26, 2023
by Melanie Meyers
Cover of 1903 edition of Home Influence.

The AJHS archival holdings are rich with the stories of American Jewish women. From the personal papers of notable individuals such as Nita Lowey and Molly Picon, and the collections of large organizations such as Hadassah and UJA-Federation, the stories of Jewish women and their contributions to the landscape of American Jewish history are both fascinating and inspirational. But the library holdings also have a significant body of books featuring Jewish women as authors and thinkers; the library holds both fiction and non-fiction written by Jewish women, and these works were often influential in their own right. One such author was Grace Aguilar, who wrote poetry, religious commentary, and historical romance, among many other genres and forms. Her life was sadly a short one; she passed away in 1847 at age 31, after a lifetime of chronic maladies and illnesses, but she left behind an astonishing corpus of work across these myriad genres, many of which are found in the library collections and were acquired in the earliest days of the Society.

Lithograph image from Home Influence.

Unlike most of the other authors in our collections, Aguilar was not American; she spent her entire life in England and was of Sephardic ancestry. However, while her location may have been overseas, her audience and influence were not confined to Europe; her materials were very popular in America, and she maintained a lively correspondence with Isaac Leeser, the influential scholar and religious leader. Leeser was the editor of the periodical The Occident, and he was also launching a new publishing initiative, The Jewish Publication Society of America. While they did not always agree (especially on matters of religious interpretation), Leeser did publish her text, The Spirit of Judaism, in 1842; the work discusses various suggestions for religious reforms and emphasized the potential expansion of women’s roles within Judaism. 

Lithograph image from Home Influence.

Aguilar began writing in her teen years, and her illnesses over the course of her life did not seem to hamper her work. She wrote twelve full-length books, in addition to poems, sermons, and selections for periodicals. One of her most famous works is Home Influence, published in 1847, the year of her death; this popular work went into thirty printings, and a sequel was published posthumously, as she left behind an impressive body of work for future publication. One of the AJHS’s copies of Home Influence (published in 1903) is pictured in this post, a beautiful copy with decorated bindings, that provides a window into women’s lives and literature from centuries past.

Decorative binding of Home Influence, 1903 edition.
Title page of Home Influence, New York D. Appleton and Co, 1903