Amy Levy Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.