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date: 25 February 2021

Levy, Amy Judithfree

(1861–1889)
  • Linda Hunt Beckman

Levy, Amy Judith (1861–1889), writer and poet, was born on 10 November 1861 at 16 Percy Place, London, the second of the seven children of Lewis Levy (1836–1895), a stockbroker, and Isabelle Levin (1840–1928). In 1872 the family moved to 11 Sussex Place, Regent's Park, London, where they lived until 1884. The Levys were Jewish, with roots in England that went back to the first half of the eighteenth century. The family observed the practices of their religion in a mild way and had strong ties to the native-born Anglo-Jewish community, but given the lack of religious belief in Levy's poems, Oscar Wilde was correct to say that 'as she grew up, [she] ceased to hold the orthodox doctrines of her nation, retaining, however, a strong race feeling' (Wilde, 3.52).

Early writings and education

A precocious feminist, at thirteen Levy reviewed Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh for a children's publication, and at seventeen wrote 'Xantippe', in which Socrates' maligned wife gives her perspective on their marriage. She attended Brighton High School for Girls, when it opened in 1876, and her letters from school show that she had a ‘crush’ on the young headmistress, Edith Creak, who became her model for a new kind of woman, autonomous and achievement-oriented. In a letter of 1878 to her sister Katie, she predicted that they would have divergent futures: 'You married, maternal, prudent … with a tendency to laugh at the plain High School Mistress sister who grinds, lodges with chums, and adores “without return”' (Beckman).

Levy became the second Jewish woman to attend Cambridge and the first at Newnham College, which she entered in 1879. She found the work both demanding and exhilarating, and left Newnham after two years: Xantippe and other Verse (1881) had been published, and she must have been eager to begin her career as a writer. Her story 'Leopold Leuniger: a study' (1880) also indicates that she found it difficult to deal with antisemitic attitudes (Amy Levy MSS), and an unpublished story ('Lallie: a Cambridge Sketch') expresses the strain of being a pioneering woman at Cambridge (Amy Levy MSS). She may have had unusual difficulty dealing with such stress because she struggled with what Richard Garnett calls 'constitutional melancholy' (DNB). In a letter of 1884 she referred to such bouts as 'the devil that lyeth ever in wait in the recesses of my heart'. Her story 'Sokratics in the Strand', her essay 'James Thomson: a minor poet', and her poem 'A Minor Poet' (all 1884) show her willingness to write about despondency and suicide.

Travel and writings

After leaving Cambridge in 1881, Levy travelled in Germany and Switzerland, going back and forth between Europe and England until the end of 1884. Some of her letters from this period show that she had internalized the antisemitism of her time. Short and dark, she appears to have accepted Anglo-Saxon norms of beauty: in 1881 she reassured her mother about lack of chaperonage, writing: 'I regret to say that I am as safe as Grandma could be'. Those who did not know her well tended to be keenly aware of her Jewishness: Katharine Tynan, the Irish poet, described Levy's 'charming Eastern face' at the first meeting of a club for women writers in 1889 (Tynan, 330).

While in London, Levy lived with her parents but followed an independent life. With such friends as Clementina Black, Eleanor Marx, Dollie Radford, and Olive Schreiner she frequented the British Museum's reading-room, a former male bastion. The presence of women led to complaints by male scholars, a situation that Levy satirizes in 'The recent telepathic occurrence in the British Museum' (1888). The arrogance of male professors is also a theme in 'Between Two Stools' (1883) and 'At Prato' (1888).

Throughout her twenties Levy published poems and stories in London magazines, and between 1882 and 1885 belonged to a discussion club whose members were London intellectuals and social activists. Those of her friends also involved with the club were committed to a life of activism on behalf of the poor. Although her fiction shows concern about the ruthless individualism and competition of her age, she was not especially concerned with the problems of the working class: in 1887: 'Somehow these girls fr. the streets, with short & merry lives, don't excite my compassion half as much as small bourgeoisie shut up in stucco villas at Brondesbury or Islington. Their enforced “respectability” strikes me as really tragic' (Levy to V. Lee, 1887, Vernon Lee MSS).

In 1884 A Minor Poet and other Verse appeared, bringing before the public most of the poems she had been writing since her days at Cambridge. A group of these are about a failed romance with a woman who is associated with music. It is likely that she was writing about an actual relationship or infatuation since her letters from Germany indicate a disappointment in love. Nearly all the poems in A Minor Poet are sad, and many are about death, reflecting her own temperament and situation, but also the influence of the melancholy poetry of some Victorian women poets, and of the German pessimists, especially Heinrich Heine. Levy's lyrics and dramatic monologues are particularly striking for their philosophical questioning as to whether there is any essential order or meaning that can justify the anguish of her speakers.

In August 1885 Levy's sister Katie was married. In 'Out of the World' (1886) Levy's narrator evokes what followed: 'When the wedding preparations was [sic] over … a great blankness fell over my soul' (London Society, 49, 1886, 53–6). The ‘prudent’ destiny which Levy had long ago predicted for Katie must have brought to the surface troubling questions about her own alternative path. Recovering from depression, she spent the winter of 1886 in Florence. Her father had arranged for her to write a series of articles for the Jewish Chronicle, and in these essays she reclaims her membership in what she calls the Jewish ‘family’—on her own terms. Not religious, she emphasizes what Jews have in common culturally—particularly humour. In 'Jewish humour' (1886) she writes: 'The most hardened Agnostic deserter from the synagogue enjoys its pungency' (Complete Novels and Selected Writings). Nor does she refrain from criticism. 'Middle-class Jewish women of to-day' (1886) challenges the Jewish community's expectations of women: 'The assertion even of comparative freedom on the part of a Jewess often means the severance of the closest ties, both of family and of race' (Complete Novels and Selected Writings).

Friendship with Violet Paget and her circle

Levy's visit to Florence in 1886 was pivotal because she met the novelist, scholar, and aesthetician Violet Paget (Vernon Lee). The love poems she sent to Lee ('To Vernon Lee' and 'New Love, New Life') reveal how important this meeting was, and in letters Levy expressed her admiration: 'You are something of an electric battery to me … & I am getting faint from lack of contact!' (Levy to V. Lee, 1887, Vernon Lee MSS). The friendship introduced Levy to Lee's circle of friends, particularly the poet Dorothy Blomfield, the novelist Bertha Thomas, and the historian Bella Duffy. Levy may have felt that she had more in common with these women than with her old friends (though she remained close to Black and Schreiner) because they were feminist writers and scholars rather than activists.

In 1886–7 and during much of 1888 Levy was in an unusually optimistic and energetic frame of mind. This is apparent from her activities on behalf of the University Women's Club, her vigorous lyrics about urban life, essays such as 'Women and club life' and 'The poetry of Christina Rossetti' (1888), and the burst of creative energy which produced two novels. Romance of a Shop (1888) is about four sisters who, in defiance of societal expectations, open a photography business and live on their own after their father dies. With her second novel, Reuben Sachs, about to be published, she revisited Florence in November 1888; her letters to Katie show her sadness about the end of a romantic relationship.

Reuben Sachs was a powerful novel about life in the affluent Anglo-Jewish community, telling of a rising lawyer who loves and then rejects his cousin Judith in favour of a more politically and socially advantageous marriage; Levy gives the novel a feminist focus by emphasizing Judith's predicament. It was perceived by the Jewish press as an attack on Jewish life, but Levy may have been more uncomfortable with the views of Gentile reviewers, who tended to read it as a corroboration of long-standing stereotypes about Jews. Few saw that its contradictory, multiple perspectives on Jewish character and life were far from wholly negative; that the longing Judith feels for her people when she is removed from them at the novel's end suggests the warmth and family love of the Jewish community; and that the novel's allusions to George Eliot's Daniel Deronda indicate that the Jewish world, materialistic and competitive, is a microcosm of the larger society.

In the winter of 1889 Levy threw herself into a whirlwind of social and professional activities, completing her third novel, Miss Meredith, in six weeks. After two Jewish newspapers excoriated Reuben Sachs her mood darkened, as those who saw her that spring and summer recalled. W. B. Yeats said: 'She was talkative, good-looking in a way and full of the restlessness of the unhappy' (Yeats, 87). In May, Levy published 'Cohen of Trinity' (1889). The story's Gentile narrator describes the growing despair of the Jewish protagonist who, having written a very popular book, comes to realize that he will none the less never be understood by the dominant culture.

Depression and death

The controversy over Reuben Sachs probably triggered Levy's last episode of depression, as she retreated to her parents' home at 7 Endsleigh Gardens, Bloomsbury, five days after the Jewish Chronicle (which had previously shown restraint) attacked Reuben Sachs for the first time. While in seclusion that August she corrected the galleys for A London Plane-Tree and other Verse. (Its lyrics are marked by emotional integrity and condensed power.) A posthumous story, 'Wise in her generation' (1890), links the commodification of women to society's social Darwinism, more evidence that Levy did not believe the competitive ethos of the Jewish community to be an anomaly in British society.

Levy committed suicide by asphyxiation on 10 September 1889 at 7 Endsleigh Gardens. The controversy over Reuben Sachs was a factor, but her personal life was giving her pain, she was becoming increasingly deaf, and, according to Richard Garnett and Vernon Lee, she feared insanity (a groundless fear) (Lee to B. Duffy, 14 Oct 1889, Vernon Lee MSS). Garnett understood that Levy's final bout of depression had deep roots:

She was indeed frequently gay and animated, but her cheerfulness was but a passing mood that merely gilded her habitual melancholy, without diminishing it by a particle, while sadness grew upon her steadily, in spite of flattering success and the sympathy of affectionate friends.

DNB

Levy was the first Jewish woman in England to be cremated; her ashes were interred at Kingsbury Road Jewish cemetery, Dalston, London, on 15 September, in the presence of relatives and friends.

In the immediate wake of Levy's death, many spoke of their affection and of her gifts and promise. Yeats said: 'Had she cared to live, a future of some note awaited her' (Yeats, 87); Wilde praised both her poetry and her fiction: 'To write thus at six-and-twenty is given to very few' (Wilde, 3.52); and Garnett wrote: 'the sudden advance made in Reuben Sachs indicates a great reserve of undeveloped power' (DNB).

Levy's work received little attention after the 1890s, but her obscurity should be seen as part of the larger neglect of women who wrote in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. The Complete Novels and Selected Writings of Amy Levy, 1861–1889 appeared in 1993, sparking a revival of interest in her work, attention that is related to current scholarly investigations of the literature produced by British Jews and Victorian women.

Sources

  • L. H. Beckman, Amy Levy: her life and letters (2000)
  • The complete novels and selected writings of Amy Levy, 1861–1889, ed. M. New (1993)
  • O. Wilde, ‘Amy Levy’, Woman's World, 3 (1890), 52
  • Colby College, Waterville, Maine, Miller Library, Vernon Lee MSS
  • W. B. Yeats: letters to the new island, ed. H. Reynolds (1934), 87
  • A. Levy, ‘Lallie: a Cambridge sketch’, Camellia plc, Linton Park, Kent, Camellia Collection, Amy Levy Archive
  • K. Tynan, Twenty-five years: reminiscences (1913), 330
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • Linton Park, Kent, Camellia plc, Camellia Collection: Amy Levy Archive [manuscripts (published and unpublished), letters, Levy's daily calendar for 1889, sketches, photographs, juvenilia, books, other papers]
  • Colby College, Waterville, Maine, Miller Library, Vernon Lee Collection [letters to Lee]

Likenesses

  • photographs, Camellia plc, Linton Park, Kent, Amy Levy Archive, Camellia collection
  • photographs, repro. in Beckman, Amy Levy: her life and letters

Wealth at Death

£174 6s.: probate, 18 Feb 1890, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)