The Polack Archive

About Maria Polack

Maria Polack, author of Fiction Without Romance: or The Locket-Watch (1830) was a lifelong resident of London’s East End. Anglo-Jewish historian, Cecil Roth, claims that Polack is the first Anglo-Jewish novelist. In addition to writing a novel, Polack was a teacher who worked with students from The Jews’ Free School.

Although little is known of Polack’s life, evidence of her work and religious affiliations have been preserved in East End institutional archives of The Great Synagogue, The Jews’ Free School, and Brady Street Cemetery. Fiction Without Romance’s subscription list indicates that Polack was well connected to readers in London and throughout the Atlantic world.

Fiction Without Romance, Polack’s only known novel, appeared during a period when her community sought effective ways of educating Jewish youth to become English citizens. Education was thus not only challenging for all the usual reasons. In Polack's lifetime, English Jews were having to find ways to integrate into British society as Jews. Writers who followed, such as Israel Zangwill in Children of the Ghetto (1892), show the struggles this generation faced in  carving out a dual identity as English Jews. To complicate matters, this period witnessed a rise of Christian conversion efforts, and Fiction Without Romance makes powerful arguments against Jewish assimilation and in favor of religious pluralism.

Polack’s unusual title, Fiction Without Romance, combined with numerous passages about how to educate girls, tap into contemporary debates about what young people ought to read. Some worried about the dangers of allowing young girls to be influenced by romance narratives. Discussions among characters in Fiction Without Romance directly recall debates among women artists in the 1790s and beyond about the stakes of educating girls and the potential harm or benefits of using literature to teach people about life. Polack alludes to some of the loudest voices in these debates, including Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Hamilton, Felicia Hemans, Bathsua Pell Makin, Clara Reeve, Lucia Elizabeth Vestris, and Mary Wollstonecraft.