Amy Levy 1861-1889
English novelist, poet, short story writer, and essayist.
Levy's brief but impressive career has received increasing critical attention in recent years, with discussion focusing in particular on the author's fictional and poetic treatment of feminist themes, bourgeois Jewish culture, nineteenth-century urban life, and the motif of suicide. Levy's oeuvre includes three short novels, three collections of poetry, and noted contributions of short fiction and essays to such major nineteenth-century periodicals as Temple Bar, the Gentleman's Magazine, and the Jewish Chronicle. Noted in particular for her portrayal of Jewish life in her novel Reuben Sachs (1888), Levy is also recognized for her depiction of independent, entrepreneurial women in such works as The Romance of a Shop (1888). Levi's poetry is characterized by her facility with a variety of forms, though most critics emphasize her skill as a lyric poet.
Born in Clapham in 1861, Levy was the second daughter of Lewis Levy and Isobel Levin. Levy's writing career began early, her poem "Ida Grey" appearing in the journal the Pelican when she was only fourteen. Levy became the first Jewish woman admitted to Newnham College of Cambridge University in approximately 1879. The following year, Dublin University Magazine published what many critics consider among her most significant poems, "Xantippe"; her first story, "Mrs. Pierrepoint" appeared in Temple Bar later that same year. Levy's literary career continued to progress during her college years, with her first collection of poetry, Xantippe and Other Verse, appearing in 1881. During the next few years, she published several short stories as well as a second collection of poetry, A Minor Poet and Other Verse (1884). In 1886, Levy began writing a series of essays on Jewish culture and literature for the Jewish Chronicle, including "The Ghetto at Florence," "The Jew in Fiction," "Jewish Humour," and "Jewish Children." Publishing sentimental stories in Temple Bar in 1888 and 1889, Levy also contributed to Oscar Wilde's journal, Woman's World. Levy's first two novels, The Romance of a Shop and Reuben Sachs, were published in 1888. Her second volume of poems, A London Plane-Tree, was published the following year. Deeply depressed by causes still conjectural, Levy committed suicide in 1889, shortly before her twenty-eighth birthday.
Considered Levy's major work, the novel Reuben Sachs represents the author's most direct treatment of the theme of Jewish values and culture. Focusing on the upper-middle-class Jews who were becoming increasingly present in all walks of English society during the nineteenth century, the novel comments on what Levy perceived as the materialistic values and cultural insularity of the English Jewish bourgeoisie. The presence of negative stereotypes in the novel's characterizations suggests authorial ambivalence toward the Jewish subject matter—a problem which has been the focus of much critical discussion of Levy's oeuvre. Linda Hunt comments: "[Reuben Sachs] is a novel whose stance is so slippery—the relationship between narrator and narrative so shifting—the reliability of the narrative voice so questionable . . . that the reader is not at all sure where Levy stands." Feminist themes are also important in Levy's fiction and poetry. Cited by many critics as an example of Levy's feminism, the poem "Xantippe," for example, is written from the perspective of Socrates' wife. The Romance of a Shop also explores a woman's perspective through its depiction of four sisters who experience the pleasures and hardships of running a business in London during the 1880s. Women are also the focus of the posthumously published short story "Wise in Her Generation" (1890), which presents a cynical view of the "marriage game" that dominated the activities of many Victorian women. Commenting on the style of Levy's fiction, Edward Wagenknecht observes: "All are direct, simple, straight-forward narratives, avoiding all unnecessary complications, and paying no heed to the sophisticated, self-conscious considerations of 'method' which were coming more and more into vogue." As a poet, Levy is best known for her lyric verse, much of which reveals a brooding, pessimistic tone. Critics have commented on her facility with the ballad form, and her penchant for assuming a variety of narrative voices and perspectives in her verse. Suicide is a prominent motif in such poems as "Felo De Se," as it is in much of Levy's fiction. The short story "Sokratics in the Strand" (1884), for example, depicts a depressed poet's conversation with a successful, optimistic attorney—an experience which further disheartens the poet and blights his prospects for a bearable life.
With the exception of early praise by E. K. Chambers, who placed Levy's works in the tradition of modern pessimism, most recent critical discussion of Levy's works has been concerned with her status as a Jewish writer. Although widely regarded as an accomplished artist, Levy is considered a problematic figure by many because her depictions of Jewish culture (particularly in Reuben Sachs) often suggest stereotypes and anti-Semitic sentiments. While praised by such critics as Oscar Wilde for its "directness, its uncompromising truth, its depth of feeling," Reuben Sachs was rejected by many contemporary Jewish readers as anti-Semitic, stereotypical, and hostile. Some contemporary critics, however, such as Melvyn New and Deborah Epstein Nord, have emphasized the feminist, rather than ethnic, motifs of the work. Nord, for instance, notes that it is a feminine consciousness that comes to dominate the narrative: "[Levy] allows herself to imagine without disguise the chilling position of the unmarried woman cornered into lifelong celibacy or a loveless marriage." Arguing for a general reassessment of Levy's status as a writer, New comments: "It seems possible that Levy's Jewishness has gotten in the way of a valid assessment of her achievements, most particularly as a feminist voice." New's 1993 anthology of Levy's writings brought into print several works which had been largely inaccessible, potentially contributing to the growth of critical attention to Levy's work.
Xantippe and Other Verse (poetry) 1881
"Between Two Stools" (short story) 1883
A Minor Poet and Other Verse (poetry) 1884
"Sokratics in the Strand" (short story) 1884
"The Ghetto at Florence" (essay) 1886
"The Jew in Fiction" (essay) 1886
"Jewish Humour" (essay) 1886
"Jewish Children" (essay) 1886
The Romance of a Shop (novel) 1888
Reuben Sachs (novel) 1888
A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse (poetry) 1889
Miss Meredith (novella) 1889
*A London Plane Tree (poetry) 1889
"A Slip of the Pen" (short story) 1889
"Wise in her Generation" (short story) 1890
* This work was published posthumously
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SOURCE: Review of The Romance of a Shop and Reuben Sachs, in The Literary World, Vol. XX, No. 8, April 13, 1889, p. 123.
[In the following review, the anonymous critic offers a favorable assessment of Levy's novels The Romance of a Shop and Reuben Sachs.]
The critic who takes up a new novel, by a new and unknown writer, in these days when the number of novels is legion, may be forgiven if he does not look forward to much pleasure from its perusal. There is such a painful amount of "meritorious mediocrity" in print today that there are nine chances out of ten against the new novel being worth reading. But this wearisome sameness, this monotonous dead level of current fiction, forms an excellent contrasting background for real merit. Great is the satisfaction then, after taking up a novel from which one expects nothing, to find that the writer actually has power and possibilities. It is with this keen kind of satisfaction that we lay down The Romance of a Shop. It is not a great novel, but it is distinctly above the average and shows that the writer must be a woman of intellect and insight. It has evident faults of construction, but its pages are lit up with touches of pathos and glimpses of human life which astonish us with their truth and beauty.
The story is of four sisters left orphans, who attempt to support themselves in London by photography. The...
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SOURCE: "Poetry and Pessimism," in The Westminster Review, Vol. CXXXVIII, July-December, 1892, pp. 366-76.
[In the following assessment of Levy's career. Chambers places Levy in the context of late nineteenth-century literary pessimism.]
In the mind of a student of humanity, if he be also a reader of books, intellectual problems are apt to crystallise around individual personalities. A single poet, a single novelist, comes to stand to him for a whole complex of thought, a web of vague ideas and tendencies which are elsewhere, as we say, in the air, but which first become palpable when compelled by an artist's hand into the rigidity of the written word. This is especially the case with poets, for poetry, by its very nature, strikes to the heart of things and sets them before us in their naked essence, stripping away the vesture of irrelevant detail that, in the novel no less than in life, often veils and obscures them. It is by its poignancy, its directness of presentment, that poetry claims to be, as a medium of ideas, what Aristotle called it, most akin to philosophy.
The analysis, for example, of modern pessimism can scarcely be dissociated from the study of that gifted writer whose work it permeates and informs, Amy Levy. Two little volumes of her poems, in a dainty green-and-white binding, lie on my table, and have fascinated me for hours together. Vividly personal as they are, the...
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SOURCE: "The Anglo-Jewish Writer," in Encounter, Vol. XIV, No. 2, February, 1960, pp. 62-4.
[In the following essay, Glanville views Levy's works as a product of Anglo-Jewish alienation.]
There are Anglo-Jewish writers; there is no such thing as Anglo-Jewish writing. As for the writers, the two things that strike one about them are their scarcity, and their relative lack of distinction. The great bulk of Anglo-Jewry shares with American Jewry its origins in Eastern Europe, where a mass exodus began after the passing of the Russian May Laws, in 1881. But where American Jewry has produced an astonishing crop of writers and poets—Saul Bellow, Lionel Trilling, Karl Shapiro, Nelson Algren, Arthur Miller, and the rest—English Jews can point only to a handful of minor figures.
This was forcibly made clear to me when the Jewish Chronicle recently asked me to conduct a series of interviews with "younger Jewish writers." One found, in the event, half a dozen, but of these, not one could remotely be called a major literary figure, while three were in that amorphous category known as "young and promising." A category from which Arnold Wesker has since emerged.
One more characteristic of Anglo-Jewish writers instantly comes to mind. They don't, on the whole, write about English Jews, though Wolf Mankowitz, the chief exception, has made a name with highly competent whimsy...
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SOURCE: "Amy Levy," in Daughters of the Covenant: Portraits of Six Jewish Women, Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1983, pp. 55-93.
[In the following essay, Wagenknecht provides a survey of Levy's life and career, characterizing her as "a child, albeit a belated, disappointed, and disillusioned child, of the Romantic Age."]
Like many Americans, I first encountered the name of Amy Levy in the fine poem "Broken Music" Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote about her after her tragic death.
All out of tune in this world's instrument.
I know not in what fashion she was made,
Nor what her voice was, when she used to speak,
Nor if the silken lashes threw a shade
On wan or rosy cheek.
I picture her with sorrowful vague eyes
Illumed with such strange gleams of inner light
As linger in the drift of London skies
Ere twilight turns to night.
I know not; I conjecture. 'Twas a girl
That with her own most gentle desperate hand
From out God's mystic setting plucked life's pearl—
'Tis hard to understand.
So precious life...
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SOURCE: "'Neither Pairs nor Odd': Female Community in Late Nineteenth-Century London," in Signs, Vol. 15, No. 4, Summer, 1990, pp. 733-54.
[In the essay below, Nord explores how Levy's poetry and fiction reflect the social realities of London in the 1880s.]
[Amy Levy] dealt the most directly with her single state and her urban existence; she was also the most overtly ambivalent about the sexual identification of her public persona. Her Jewishness made her more thoroughly and permanently an outsider in English society than either [Beatrice] Webb or [Margaret] Harkness: theirs was at least in part a willed marginality; Levy's was inherited and indelible. Still, in her poetry she writes of her alien status only obliquely, and in her novel Reuben Sachs she signals a marked ambivalence about her ties to her own people. She was the only member of this group who had been to university—she was educated at Newnham—and her experiences at Cambridge might well have heightened her feminist sensibilities while, at the same time, binding her to certain male traditions of learning and literature. Her second volume of poems, A London Plane Tree, published posthumously in 1889, contains two illustrations: the first is a frontispiece drawing of a plane tree next to a church and the second shows a young woman seated hand-on-brow at a desk, surrounded by papers that cover and spill off the...
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SOURCE: Introduction to The Complete Novels and Selected Writings of Amy Levy, 1861-1889, edited by Melvyn New, University Press of Florida, 1993, pp. 1-52.
[In the following essay, New provides an overview of Levy's life and writings, maintaining that Levy is impressive for "the depth of her commitments, the versatility of her talents, the breadth of her learning."]
Amy Levy was born in Clapham in 1861 and died by charcoal gas inhalation in 1889, two months before her twenty-eighth birthday. In taking her own life, she not only raised numerous questions about the despairs of an educated Jewish woman in late Victorian England but also put an end to a promising literary career. In her twenty-seven years she had been the first Jewish woman admitted to Newnham College, Cambridge; had published three short novels and three slim collections of poetry; and had become a contributor to several major literary magazines, including Temple Bar and The Gentleman's Magazine, as well as to the "leading and almost universally read weekly newspaper among British Jews,"1The Jewish Chronicle. Oscar Wilde's obituary notice in Woman's World (which he founded in 1888, and to which Levy contributed poems, short stories, and essays) took particular notice of this promise cut short:
The gifted subject of these paragraphs, whose distressing death has...
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SOURCE: "Amy Levy and the 'Jewish Novel': Representing Jewish Life in the Victorian Period," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 235-53.
[In the following essay, Hunt examines Levy's novel Reuben Sachs as a critique of prevailing representations of Jewish life in Victorian literature.]
In the last month of 1888 Macmillan brought out what was to become a controversial novel within the Jewish community on both sides of the Atlantic. Amy Levy, a twenty-seven-year-old Jewish woman who had already made something of a name for herself as a writer of poetry, non-fictional prose, and fiction, was the author of this book, Reuben Sachs. It was her first published work of fiction about Jewish life. The question of how to represent Jews in fiction had evidently been on her mind for a long time, for in 1886 Levy had published in the weekly Jewish Chronicle an article, "The Jew in Fiction," in which she had criticized the treatment of Jewish characters by a number of different novelists.
In this article Levy takes jabs at Dickens' unpleasant Fagin but is no more pleased by his idealized Jew, Riah (in Our Mutual Friend); she reminds us that Thackeray too has Jewish characters who are entirely negative; and she speaks disparagingly of a now-forgotten novelist, a Mr. Baring-Gould, who, she charges, "follows the old Jew-baiting traditions" in his...
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Modder, Montagu Frank. "The Old Order Changeth." In The Jew in the Literature of England to the End of the 19th Century, pp. 317-24. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1939.
Includes discussion of Levy's portrayal of the Jewish community in Reuben Sachs and "Cohen of Trinity."
Price, Warwick James. "Three Forgotten Poetesses." The Forum 47 (March 1912): 361-76.
Includes discussion of Levy's poetry, emphasizing the tone of longing and sadness that characterizes her verse.
Udelson, Joseph H. "Amy Levy." In his Dreamer of the Ghetto: The Life and Works of Israel Zangwill, pp. 54-58. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1990.
Offers a survey of Levy's career and comments on the major thematic interests of her fiction and poetry.
Additional coverage of Levy's life and career is contained in the following source published by Gale Research: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 156.
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