The short but controversial life of a 19th-century writer whose literary oeuvre was almost forgotten
It is 130 years since the publication of Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy, an often misunderstood novel about the unfulfilled lives of Victorian women. I have long admired this work for its radical take on marriage but would have remained ignorant of its existence had Persephone Books not rescued it from oblivion in 2001. It was then I first read it and discovered how remarkably courageous it was for its time.
She questioned ideas of identity and the place of immigrants in English society long before such matters were openly discussed. Several of her poems were published in the first Oxford Book of Victorian Verse in 1922 but this did not prevent Amy Levy from slipping into obscurity after her suicide at the age of twenty-seven.
One of seven brothers and sisters, Amy was born in Clapham, in 1861, to Isabelle and Lewis Levy, a comfortable middle-class Jewish family. She was educated at an early Girls’ Public Day School Trust in Brighton, enjoying her time there immensely. Then at the age of 13, she published her first poem in The Pelican, a feminist journal.
In 1879 she became the first Jewish student (and one of the first women) to attend Newnham College in Cambridge – publishing a story in Temple Bar during her first term there. Regrettably she left before completing her education, never to return. Although she had given every appearance of enjoying Newnham and was certainly popular with the other young women, she found the opposition from some of the Cambridge men (who saw no point in educating women) difficult to tolerate.
At the age of 18, she penned a letter for the Jewish Chronicle on the subject of “Jewish Women and Women’s Rights”. She also contributed work to several leading feminist and women’s periodicals of her day, including Emily Faithfull’s Victoria Magazine and Oscar Wilde’s Women’s World – in one essay even daring to criticise the then literary giant, Henry James, suggesting he was somewhat provincial.
Her first collection of poems, Xantippe, in defence of Socrates’ maligned wife, was published when she had started a career as a literary essayist and journalist at the age of 20. She then went on to write three novels: The Romance of a Shop (1888), Reuben Sachs (1888) and Miss Meredith (1889).
Although Amy frequented London literary circles and was friends with some of the most progressive women writers of her time, she often felt alone and craved an emotionally fulfilling life without constricting social bonds. One of the main reasons for her isolation was quite simply the fact she was a woman. In her poem ‘Ballad of Religion and Marriage’, she wrote:
Monogamous still at our post,
Reluctantly we undergo
Domestic round of boiled and roast,
Yet deem the whole proceeding slow.
Daily the secret murmurs grow;
We are no more content to plod
Along the beaten paths – and so
Marriage must go the way of God.
It has been suggested that Amy probably had lesbian affairs with other poets, such as Vernon Lee. She certainly treated fellow members of the Women Writers’ Club and her female travelling companions (such as Dorothy Bloomfield, Kit Anstruther-Thomas and Mary Robinson) as close friends and confidantes – but her true sexuality remains a mystery.
Levy seemed most troubled by her Anglo-Jewish background. Unlike George Eliot (one of Amy’s heroines) with Daniel Deronda, she saw her people from the inside, struggling for acceptance while simultaneously appearing to distance themselves from society. Sadly, her satirical feminist novel, Reuben Sachs, which dealt with what Amy saw as the materialism of late Victorian Jews, upset many people, who felt that she was being scornful of the East End Jewish community.
The year after this novel was published; Amy committed suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide fumes from burning charcoal. It was a tragic waste of unfulfilled talent and led to her (like many excellent women writers of the period) all but passing from literary view. Nevertheless, some of her work has been republished in recent years, suggesting a possible revival of her reputation in the 21st century.
”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.”
Oscar Wilde on Reuben Sachs