Amy Levy

Amy Levy (Amy Judith Levy, November 10th, 1861 – September 10th, 1889) was an English writer.

Born into an upper middle-class Jewish family, Levy was first educated at home by tutors. Around 1872, she and her siblings created a family magazine, The Poplar Club Journal, where they wrote articles, poems, and short stories.

In 1875, Levy won a prize for her essay on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, which she published in the children’s periodical Kind Words, when she was 13. That same year, she also published a poem, “The Ballad of Ida Grey,” in the feminist journal The Pelican.

In 1876, when she was 14, Levy attended Brighton High School. There, she fell in love with the young headmistress, Miss Edith Creak, and started a lifelong friendship with writer Clementina Black and with Black’s sister, the translator Constance Garnett.

After graduating from high school, in 1879, Levy started attending Cambridge University. In 1879, she her letter “Jewish Women and Women’s Rights” was published in the Jewish Chronicle, and the poem “Run to Death: A True Incident in Pre-Revolutionary France”, in the July issue of the Victorian Magazine. In 1880, her first story, “Mrs. Pierrepoint” appeared in Temple Bar.

Levy was the second Jewish woman at Cambridge and the first at Newnham College, where she studied classical languages and literature, from 1879 to 1881. In 1881, Levy left university without completing her degree and decided to work, so as to break free from her family.

She started to submit articles and short stories to various periodicals, and travelled extensively through Germany, Switzerland and Italy. In 1881, at 20, Levy published her first poetry collection, Xantippe and Other Verse. In, 1884 she published her second poetry collection, A Minor Poet and Other Verse. In 1888, she published her first novel, The Romance of a Shop (1888). That same year, she published two essays in Woman’s World, a journal edited by Oscar Wilde: “The Poetry of Christina Rossetti” and “Women and Club Life.” Amy Levy wrote three novels, short stories and three collections of poetry, as well as articles and translations. Her work was published in several periodicals, such as the Cambridge Review, London Society, Victoria Magazine, Pall Mall Gazette, Star, the Spectator, and Dublin University Magazine.

While in England, she attended the bohemian circles and radical meetings of the Fellowship of the New Life, the Fabian Society, the Social Democratic Federation, and the British Museum Reading Room, where she met and befriended a group of emerging New Woman writers, such as Caroline Maitland (“Dollie Radford”), Olive Schreiner, Beatrice Webb (née Beatrice Potter), and Eleanor Marx. Levy was also friends with playwright George Bernard Shaw, with writer Grant Allen, with the academic Ellen Wordsworth Darwin, and with the poet Rosamund Marriott Watson (who wrote under the pseudonyms Graham R. Tomson).


“The Lost Friend

The people take the thing of course,
They marvel not to see
This strange, unnatural divorce
Betwixt delight and me.

I know the face of sorrow, and I know
Her voice with all its varied cadences;
Which way she turns and treads; how at her ease
Things fit her dreary largess to bestow.

Where sorrow long abides, some be that grow
To hold her dear, but I am not of these;
Joy is my friend, not sorrow; by strange seas,
In some far land we wandered, long ago.

O faith, long tried, that knows no faltering!
O vanished treasure of her hands and face!
Beloved to whose memory I cling,
Unmoved within my heart she holds her place.

And never shall I hail that other “friend,”
Who yet shall dog my footsteps to the end.”

– Amy Levy


Having often felt marginalised as an Anglo-Jewish woman, Levy wrote a series of articles for the Jewish Chronicle, such as “The Jew in Fiction”, published in 1886, in which she criticises the treatment of Jewish characters by writers such as Charles Dickens and George Eliot. She accused George Eliot of romanticising the Jewish characters in Daniel Deronda (1876), and wrote that no novelist had yet attempted a proper portrayal of the Jew with “his surprising virtues and no less surprising vices”. She also tackled the subject of Jewish identity in her novel Reuben Sachs (1889), and in her short story “Cohen of Trinity”, published in in the May edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine, in 1889.

Scholars argue that Levy was a “platonic lesbian”. Throughout her life, she formed a series of intense attachments to women she idolised, such as her teacher and mentor Edith Creak, whom Levy tried to emulate. Then, in the early 1880’s, Levy fell in love with the wife of Charles Villiers Stanford (conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society), Jennie Stanford, to whom Levy wrote two poems: ‘To Sylvia’ and ‘Sinfonia Eroica’, in late 1881 and early 1882.


At a Dinner Party

With fruit and flowers the board is decked,
The wine and laughter flow;
I’ll not complain—could one expect
So dull a world to know?

You look across the fruit and flowers,
My glance your glances find.—
It is our secret, only ours,
Since all the world is blind.”

– Amy Levy


In 1886, while she was in Florence, Levy met and fell in love with Vernon Lee, for whom she wrote two poems, “To Vernon Lee” and “New Love, New Life”. In 1887, Levy wrote to Lee: “You are something of an electric battery to me (this doesn’t sound polite) & I am getting faint fr. want of contact!“. In a letter to her mother, written in June 1887, Vernon Lee said that Levy was one of the five people in London that she “was most pleased to see”. Through Lee, Levy met the writer Dorothy Blomfield, with whom she is said to have fallen in love. Levy wrote, in a letter to Lee: “Miss Blomfield attracts me immensely”.


To Vernon Lee

On Bellosguardo, when the year was young,
We wandered, seeking for the daffodil
And dark anemone, whose purples fill
The peasant’s plot, between the corn-shoots sprung.

Over the grey, low wall the olive flung
Her deeper greyness; far off, hill on hill
Sloped to the sky, which, pearly-pale and still,
Above the large and luminous landscape hung.

A snowy blackthorn flowered beyond my reach;
You broke a branch and gave it to me there;
I found for you a scarlet blossom rare.

Thereby ran on of Art and Life our speech;
And of the gifts the gods had given to each
Hope unto you, and unto me Despair.”

– Amy Levy


From her early youth Amy experienced periods of depression, but her condition worsened after the death of her brother Alfred from syphilis in 1887. Around that time, she discovered that she was gradually becoming deaf, and was suffering from eye infections and neuralgia. Constance Garnett once affirmed that Levy was constantly afraid of becoming mad. In a letter to Clementina Black, Levy had written: “(…) have many more sane years, am standing as it were with my hand on the Colney Hatch mental asylum door-knob”. Levy’s letters from the period also reveal that she was sad about the end of a romantic relationship with a woman (who was probably Dorothy Blomfield). Her novel Reuben Sachs (1889) had also been severely criticized and Levy had been accused of corroborating with longstanding stereotypes about Jews.


“A March Day in London

The east wind blows in the street today;
The sky is blue, yet the town looks grey.
‘Tis the wind of ice, the wind of fire,
Of cold despair and of hot desire,
Which chills the flesh to aches and pains,
And sends a fever through all the veins.

From end to end, with aimless feet,
All day long have I paced the street.
My limbs are weary, but in my breast,
Stirs the goad of a mad unrest.
I would give anything to stay
The little wheel that turns in my brain;
The little wheel that turns all day,
That turns all night with might and main.

What is the thing I fear, and why?
Nay, but the world is all awry–
The wind’s in the east, the sun’s in the sky.
The gas-lamps gleam in a golden line;
The ruby lights of the hansoms shine,
Glance, and flicker like fire-flies bright;
The wind has fallen with the night,
And once again the town seems fair
Thwart the mist that hangs i’ the air.

And o’er, at last, my spirit steals
A weary peace; peace that conceals
within its inner depths the grain
Of hopes that yet shall flower again.”

– Amy Levy


Levy committed suicide on September 10, 1889 at her parents’ home in Bloomsbury. She locked herself in her bedroom and lit a charcoal fire in the grate, and died from inhaling carbon monoxide. In a letter to Bella Duffy, written after the suicide, Vernon Lee said that Levy had “learned in the last 6 weeks that she was on the verge of a horrible and loathsome form of madness apparently running in the family and of which she had seen a brother of hers die”. Richard Garnett wrote about Levy’s suicide: “No cause can (…) be assigned for this lamentable event, except constitutional melancholy, intensified by painful losses in her own family, increasing deafness, and probably the apprehension of insanity, combined with a total inability to derive pleasure from extraneous circumstances which would have brightened the lives of most others”.

Levy’s last collection of poems, A London Plane Tree, was published posthumously, in 1889. Oscar Wilde wrote a tribute to Levy, in 1890, and once described her as “a girl who has a touch of genius in her work”. In a letter from 1889, W.B. Yeats wrote of Levy: “I saw her no long while before her death. She was talkative, good-looking in a way and full of the restlessness of the unhappy”.


“The Promise of Sleep

All day I could not work for woe,
I could not work nor rest;
The trouble drove me to and fro,
Like a leaf on the storm’s breast.

Night came, and saw my sorrow cease:
Sleep to the chamber stole;
Peace crept about my limbs, and peace
Fell on my stormy soul.

And now I think of only this —
How I again may woo
The gentle Sleep, who promises
That Death is gentle too.”

– Amy Levy


Books

Poetry

  • Xantippe and Other Verse (1881)
  • A Minor Poet and Other Verse (1884)
  • A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse (1889)

Prose

  • Pierrepoint (1880, short story)
  • The Romance of a Shop (1888)
  • Reuben Sachs (1889)
  • Miss Meredith (1889)
  • Wise in Her Generation (1890, short story)
  • The Complete Novels and Selected Writings of Amy Levy, 1861-1889, ed. Melvyn New (1993)

About her

  • Amy Levy: Critical Essays, ed. Naomi Hetherington and Nadia Valman (2010)
  • Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters, by Linda Hunt Beckman (2000)
  • “Leaving ‘The Tribal Duckpond’: Amy Levy, Jewish Self-Hatred, and Jewish Identity”, by Linda Hunt Beckman, Victorian Literature and Culture. 27.1 (1999), pp. 185-201.
  • The Fin-de-siecle Poem: English Literary Culture and the 1890s, ed. Joseph Bristow (2005)
  • “Wise in her Generation”, by Oscar Wilde, Woman’s World, Vol. 3 (1890), pp. 51-52.
  • “Murder in Mile End: Amy Levy, Jewishness, and the City”, by Alex Goody, Victorian Literature and Culture. 34.2, Fin-de-Siecle Literary Culture and Women Poets (2006) pp. 461-479.
  • The New Woman And the Empire, by Iveta Jusová (2005)
  • The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siecle, by Sally Ledger and Alison C. Ledger (1997)
  • Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew, by Eleanor Fitzsimons (2015)
  • Women’s Voices: An Anthology of the Most Characteristic Poems By English, Scottish, and Irish Women, ed. Elizabeth Sharp (1887)
  • Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, the City, and Modernity, by Deborah Nord Epstein (1995)
  • Women’s Poetry and Religion in Victorian England: Jewish Identity and Christian Culture, by Cynthia Scheinberg (2002)
  • “’Neither Pairs nor Odd’: Female Community in Late Nineteenth-Century London”, by Deborah Nord Epstein, Signs, 15.4 (1990), pp. 733-754.
  • The Woman Who Dared: A Biography of Amy Levy, by Christine Pullen (2010)
  • The Origin of the Modern Jewish Woman Writer: Romance and Reform in Victorian England, by Michael Galchinsky (1996)
  • Women’s Emancipation Writing at the Fin de Siecle, ed. Elena V. Shabliy, Dmitry Kurochkin, and Karen O’Donnell (2018)
  • “Canonizing the Jew: Amy Levy’s Challenge to Victorian Poetic Identity”, by Cynthia Scheinberg, Victorian Studies, 39.2 (1996), pp. 173-200.
  • Daughters of the Covenant: Portraits of Six Jewish Women, by Edward Wagenknecht (1983)
  • The Jewess in Nineteenth-Century British Literary Culture, by Nadia Valman (2007)
  • “Semitism and Criticism: Victorian Anglo-Jewish Literary History”, by Nadia Valman, Victorian Literature and Culture, 27.1 (1999), pp. 235-248.
  • “Amy Levy: A Tragic Victorian Novelist”, by Richard Whittington-Egan, Contemporary Review, 280 (2002), pp. 40-45.

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