Our Foremother: Amy Levy 1861-1889

Even the barest outline of Amy Levy’s life is tantalizing. Born in the Clapham section of London in 1861, she was the first Jewish woman admitted to Newnham College, Cambridge. In her lifetime .she published three novels and three collections of verse, and contributed to several major literary magazines, including Temple Bar and The Gentleman ‘s Magazine. She also wrote for The Jewish Chronicle, one of the leading British Jewish newspapers of the time.

In 1889, Amy Levy inhaled a lethal amount of charcoal gas, and died a suicide—just two months before her 28th birthday.

Melvyn New, author of The Complete Novels and Selected Writings of Amy Levy [University Press of Florida], presents Levy as an unmarried Victorian woman and urban intellectual whose Jewish identity was deeply conflicted. Though she was scornful of (and disillusioned by) the Anglo-Jewish world she inhabited, she was also unable to break from that world. Levy lived, as well, the “bell jar” existence of all educated women of her era. Describing that existence. New quotes from the then-president of the British Medical Association who prophesied that “educated women will become more or less sexless. Such women have highly developed brains,” he explained coldly, “but most of them die young.”

Oscar Wilde’s obituary of Amy Levy (which appeared in Woman’s World, a magazine which Wilde founded in 1888 and to which Levy contributed poems, stones and essays) bestowed upon her this posthumous praise:

Miss Levy’s two novels, The Romance of a Shop and Reuben Sachs were both published last year [1888]. The first is a bright and clever story, full of sparkling touches; the second is a novel that probably no other writer could have produced. Its directness, Its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make it in some sort, a classic …To write thus at six and twenty Is given to very few.

Today, however. Levy is scarcely known and is largely unread. Her work, it must be said, is uneven. Her short stories are disappointing, but her poetry is stronger and shimmers with emotion. Her three short novels, without question, are exceptional, and one of them, Reuben Sachs, is a masterpiece.

Of the novels, Reuben Sachs— which generated strong negative feelings in London’s Jewish community when it first appeared—was one of the first realistic examinations of assimilated Jews in 19th century England. Another novel. The Romance of a Shop, portrays working women in late Victorian society and offers a glimpse into the bohemian world of artists. Levy’s shorter fiction ranges from a story about an Anglo-Jewish Cambridge student (who commits suicide) to a portrait of a woman turned bitter and cynical by the courtship rituals of the era. Her nearly 50 poems includes her powerful dramatic monologue “Xantippe,” in which Socrates’ wife explains the world from her own perspective. Levy’s essays include sketches on “Jewish Children,” “Jewish Humor,” “Jewish Middle-Class Women,” and “Women’s Clubs in London,” and a blistering attack on the pomposities of Henry James and his circle.

Levy’s literary concerns give some clues to her autobiography (of which Melvyn New reports very little). Levy seems to have been obsessed with physical appearance. and, in particular, with the fate of unattractive women. Her heroines typically have difficulty finding true soul mates in a world of petty materialism and stuffy, conservative values. The themes of her poetry are largely unrequited loves, lost chances, and death. “There is no breath, no sound, no stir,/ The drowsy peace to break;/ I close my tired eyes—it were/ So simple not to wake,” she writes.

Two of Levy’s novels. The Romance of a Shop and Miss Meredith, are concerned with marriage—seemingly the most essential issue for 19th century women, for marriage was the main, if not exclusive, means of achieving rank, power, privilege and financial security. Interestingly, both books end happily. The Romance of a Shop, though marred by some pretentious epigraphs, quotes and literary allusions, centers on four sisters who have been left destitute by the death of their dashing, reprobate father. Rather than be split apart and sent off to live with relatives, the sisters school themselves in the trade of photography and open a little shop, hoping to earn a living. There are loves and marriages, disappointments and deaths. Gertrude, the unlovely, brilliant, sensitive sister, looks after the social interests of the others, even as she resents a society which condemns her plain face and is blind to her exquisite soul. Hers is a nature that is fully realized by Levy, and she emerges as a strong, fully rounded character. The novel’s best scene takes place in a graveyard, at the burial of Phyllis, the youngest, prettiest and most spoiled sister. The sense of abandonment, sorrow and waste is exquisitely rendered.

Reuben Sachs, the chef d’peuvre so bountifully praised by Wilde, is the book in which the issue of being Jewish is brought most visibly and explicitly to the forefront. The eponymous hero is a brilliant young man who sets his cap for a political career. Wealth, fame, success seem to be his destiny; his doting, upper-middle-class Jewish family looks on with affection and pride. Naturally, young Sachs is expected to make a match that will advance his glittering prospects—only he has made the mistake of falling in love with Judith Quixano, a poor relation. Judith is beautiful, sensitive and refined; she returns Reuben’s love in kind. Finally, though, ambition triumphs over passion, and Reuben rejects Judith. In her anguish, she accepts the suit of a man she neither respects nor loves. They marry, and she later learns that Reuben has died quite suddenly. Her grief is so great that it goes beyond despair, and she emerges from it utterly changed. This is the territory of Edith Wharton or Henry James and in this slim, remarkable book, Levy earns her right to be grouped among them.

Levy’s descriptions of 19th-century Jewish life are fascinating. She describes Reuben Sachs as being “of middle height and slender build. He wore good clothes, but they could not disguise the fact that his figure was bad, and his movements awkward; unmistakably the figure and movements of a Jew,” she writes.

Describing a branch of Reuben’s family. Levy states:

Born and bred in the very heart of 19th century London, belonging to an age and a city which has seen the throwing down of so many barriers, the leveling of so many distinctions of class, of caste, of race, of opinion, they had managed to retain the tribal characteristics, to live within the tribal pale to an extent which spoke worlds for the national conservatism. Their friends, with few exceptions, were of their own race, the making of acquaintance outside the tribal barrier being sternly discouraged by the authorities. Mrs. Samuel Sachs indeed had been heard more than once to observe pleasantly that she would sooner see her daughters lying dead before her than married to Christians.

Some of Levy’s comments, were they penned by a non-Jew, would strike us as blatantly anti-Semitic; the fact that they were written by a Jewish woman makes them all the more complex and challenging. Here is a passage describing the reactions of family members seated around the dinner table as the patriarch begins to chant the lengthy blessings after a meal:

Alec had put his hat on rakishly askew, and was winking as though to intimate that the whole thing was not to be taken seriously.

Rose, led on by Jack Quixano, giggled hysterically behind her pocket handkerchief.

Leo and Esther took on airs of aggressive boredom. Judith, lifting her eyes, met Reuben’s in a smile, and even Montague Cohen permitted himself to yawn.

Only old Solomon at the head of the table, mumbling and droning out the long grace in his corrupt Hebrew—his great face impenetrably grave—appeared to take an interest in the proceeding.

Here, perhaps, lies a ray of light in the center of this heart of darkness, a ray that sheds some illumination on the puzzling questions of Amy Levy’s life and death. For it seems that her self-hatred extended in many directions: towards the confines of her sex, towards her religion and culture and class. Not that any of these were reasons in and of themselves to end a life so filled with promise, but at least they hint—in some measure—at the depth and extent of her sorrow, a sorrow that none of her very real accomplishments could help to ameliorate. When we read her—and she deserves to be read—we must keep that sorrow in some nearby mental place, a silver key to unlock the secrets of her discerning and morally complicated art.

Yona McDonough is a freelance writer living in New York Her latest hook, for children, is Eve and Her Sister:[Greenwillow Press].