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
Thank you Paula for introducing us to Amy Levy. You tell us a gripping tale about
a brave young woman and a very gifted and passionate one at that.
I had never heard about her but will now see if I can find some of her written work, being poetry or a novel.
I like the review by Oscar Wilde on Reuben Sachs.
Thank you, Miriam. So glad you feel inspired to read Amy Levy’s work. 😊
Thanks for this article, Paula. Persephone Books are doing an amazing job, aren’t they?
I’ve added this one to my TBR.
Thanks, Camille. Yes indeed, Persephone Books has saved a great many interesting authors from literary oblivion. They’re a total one-off!
So glad you featured her on your blog- I hadn’t heard of her though the name Reuben Sachs seems vaguely familiar. Would love to read something by her and get to know more about her.
Thank you. Glad you found it of interest. I hope you enjoy discovering Amy Levy’s writing. 😊
I love hearing about new writers – particularly women ones – from the past. I say particularly women because we have so few women’s voices that I want to hear more. I used to buy Virago books in its early days because they were reviving older women writers. I know of Persephone of course but haven’t bought any of their books to date. That might change soon.
What a sad story – that awful sense of feeling lonely even though you may have friends and people around you. Devastating that she killed herself so young.
Thanks Sue. It was a difficult time to be a woman (still is in some countries) – I’m so glad I wasn’t born in that era. Persephone has rediscovered all sorts of neglected (mainly mid 20th-century female) authors. They have a very loyal following – and deservedly so. Yes, a sad story indeed. I think she was probably quite a sensitive young woman and must have felt desperately alone.
Thank you for sharing this mini-biography. I hadn’t heard of Amy Levy prior to this post; she sounds like someone I should certainly look into! Persephone has done a great job bringing nearly forgotten women writers back to the fore, which is why I love to follow them. As a Jew myself, I feel reading Reuben Sachs should be high on my TBR.
You’re very welcome, Jackie. Since it was the 130th anniversary of Reuben Sachs being published I thought it may be a good time to write a short piece on Amy Levy. She was a troubled soul but had something special. Sadly her talents were never able to fully develop. I’m sure the Jewish aspects of this book will interest you, too.
How interesting! Three books by the age of 27 is a big accomplishment. And sad that she died so young… I wonder what clinched it for her?
Thanks for the introduction!
You’re very welcome, Naomi. Yes I agree, she was a fascinating character – talented from such an early age. So very sad she chose to end her life.