By Eleanor Myerson
“The gifted subject of these paragraphs, whose distressing death has brought sorrow to many who knew her only from her writings, was born at Clapham, and spent the greater part of her short and outwardly uneventful life in London.”
So begins Oscar Wilde’s obituary for the author Amy Levy, who ended her own life only a year after the publication and incredible success of her two novels, The Romance of a Shop, and Reuben Sachs. As Oscar Wilde wrote, Reuben Sachs “is a novel that probably no other writer could have produced. Its directness, its uncompromising truth, its depth of feeling, and, above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make it, in some sort, a classic.”
So why is this classic novel hardly ever to be found on the bookshop shelf or classroom syllabus?
Why had I – an English lit grad student who makes every effort to work on women’s writing, to the extent that as an undergraduate, I refused to write about Milton in favour of Mary Wroth – not heard of Amy Levy until a few months ago?
Who, in fact, was Amy Levy?
Amy Levy was born in 1861 to a Jewish family in South London. Her father, Lewis Levy, was a stockbroker, and he and his wife Isabelle were able to give Amy the advantages of a middle class education. At fifteen, Amy enrolled in Brighton High School for Girls, founded by Emily and Maria Shirreff, feminist pioneers of women’s education. Amy was the first Jewish student to enter the school, just as, soon after, she became the first Jewish student to attend Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1879. These experiences alone would make Amy Levy unusual. The religious test of faith for university enrollment had been abolished as recently as 1871: until then, Jewish and Catholic students were explicitly prohibited from attending. Newnham itself was founded in 1871. In terms of both women’s rights and Jewish rights, Levy was part of the first wave of students to take up the opportunities that others had been denied. Once graduated from Newnham, she was quick to sign up for membership of the reading room at the British Museum, where she met and became the associate of, among others, Eleanor Marx, Olive Schreiner and Vernon Lee.
There is so much to admire about Levy. At the age of seventeen, she made her writing debut in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle – on the subject of ‘Jewish Women and Women’s Rights’. “Sir”, she writes, “Will you allow me to make a few remarks on your columns on a letter which appeared last week in the Jewish Chronicle, bearing on the subject of ‘Women’s Rights’?” Showing brilliant irony as well as justifiable anger, Levy cuts through the previous correspondent’s arguments:
“in those few cases where women have had equal chances of developing, the men have not always ‘beaten them in a canter’. Caroline Herschel and Jeanne Pascal shared in the highest of their brother’s calculations; Mrs Somerville (a self-taught genius, by the way) was ahead of many of the scientists of her day; […] the first year that women had access to the Royal Academy School of Art, Miss Osborn won the gold medal”.
It is a bitter realization that the examples of women’s achievement that Levy lists so elegantly, are now for the most part, forgotten.
(Although, they don’t have to be – Caroline Herschel (1750-1847) was the first woman to discover a comet, awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomy Society in 1828. Mary Fairfax Somerville (1780-1872) was an acclaimed science writer. Emily Mary Osborn (1828-1925) was a pre-Raphelite painter who exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Grosvenor Gallery. Jeanne Pascal alone is elusive – assumedly the sister of the mathematician Blaise Pascal.)
Amy Levy’s teenage feminism was of a caliber that contemporary activists would do well to emulate. Of how many Victorians can the same be said? Her letter is characterized by keen awareness of the value of other women’s success across the arts and sciences, and by determination to use her voice to speak out within her own community.
And there’s more. As I said to my father when I first picked up a copy of her poetry over the winter break, “I didn’t know this was gay, too…”
All that is known of Levy’s relations with other women, aside from speculation, comes from her own lyric self-representation. In a sense, this is a shame – there are no Victorian queer photographs of the kind that Alice Austen has left us. (Google her. You can do it now – I’ll excuse you.) At the same time, there is a certain liberation in the fact that it’s impossible to reduce Levy’s attraction to women to autobiographical details. There is nothing to do but listen to her story, in her own words –
“In days of spring, when my blood ran high,
I lay in the grass and looked at the sky,
And dreamed that my love lay by my side –
My love was false, and then she died.” (The Last Judgment)
To queer women, the presence of the feminine in a Victorian love lyric – she was false, really? she? I can’t believe it – comes as an incredible voice of validation from across the centuries. This is what was not meant to exist. This is what we are still told in the silence of sex ed. and rom coms, does not exist. But Levy is adamant:
“How like her! But ’tis she herself,
Comes up the crowded street,
How little did I think, the morn,
My only love to meet!” (In the Mile End Road)
It is so simple: the mistaken feeling of recognizing a past lover (in this poem, the following stanza tells us that it is the wrong woman) but still so unique. The urban specificity of Levy’s verse lends an extra element of cross-historical recognition, at least in my own case, as a Londoner – to me, coming to Levy’s street is like coming home.
How can I explain to someone who is used to reading their narrative in the mainstreams of literature, what it feels like to read Levy? Well – again, I’ll turn to Amy herself to explain what it’s like to be invisible:
“You look across the fruit and flowers,
My glance your glances find. –
It is our secret, only ours,
Since all the world is blind.” (At a Dinner Party)
The gaze between women, and yes, there are more examples now, there’s Patience Agbabi, there’s St Vincent on the radio, is still surprising to find on the page in front of me. I re-read the poem. Could it be about anything else? I conclude, with the confidence of my two English lit degrees, that it could not. I re-read it again, and feel like crying. Since all the world is blind, the queer woman reader of Levy’s poem is drawn into intimate dialogue with the poet and her lover. We would have seen it. We wouldn’t have told anyone, but we would have known.
In so far as Levy’s gender and sexuality are concerned then, she is an unselfconscious pioneer of visibility, radical in the clear-headedness with which she is able to relate her own narrative. However, when Levy is mentioned – which, to be clear, is not that often – it is usually in connection with the trope of the self-hating Jew.
I first came across Amy Levy in Devorah Baum’s brilliant book, Feeling Jewish (A Book for Just About Anyone), where she is indeed to be found under the chapter heading of “Self-Hatred”. Baum comments on Levy’s short story ‘Cohen of Trinity’, discussing the feelings of alienation and insecurity that pervade the text. The short story in question is excruciating and unforgettable, told in the voice of a gentile student, a ‘friend’ of Cohen’s who makes amiable remarks about his companion’s “full prominent lips, full prominent eyes, and the curved beak of the nose with its restless nostrils”. As Baum notes, this stereotyping passes comment on the anti-Semitic lens through which events are received, more than it reinforces these stereotypes. Yet this has not prevented Levy from being reduced time and again to the self-hating Jew.
I am not against self-hatred per se – I like the fiction of Philip Roth and Howard Jacobson as much as the next person. But I am against the category of self-hatred in so far as it is used to simplify and silence, as in Levy’s case it seems to be. Amy Levy is self-hating – so she’s not due for a revival. Amy Levy is self-hating – so there’s nothing to be said about her fiction. This reduction and marginalization seems to have occurred from Levy’s time up to today. The Jewish Chronicle, which usually reviewed Anglo-Jewish publications in full, omitted to do so in the case of Reuben Sachs, instead publishing a sideways-glancing article on the subject of “Critical Jews” (1889). It makes for interesting reading:
“Wherever there are two Jews, there are two critics. Jews are nothing if not critical. […] Jewish litterateurs, finding a ready interest in descriptions of Jewish life among the general novel-reading public, have gone to the pains of renewing their acquaintance with Jewish society for a few weeks in order to obtain local colour. On the strength of this, they produce superficial sketches of the aspects of Jewish manners that strike them unpleasantly. In non-Jewish authors this might be innocuous […] The dignity of communal life must not be endangered by the vagaries of too critical Jews.”
This passage begs many questions. Does the writer really think it is less harmful for a Victorian gentile to write about Jewish communities, than for non-observant Jewish writers to do the same? What would be gained from vacuous depictions of ‘dignity’, over the realities of human interaction? What danger do these critical Jews really pose to their communities? As an indirect review of Levy’s masterpiece, it is unforgivable. It contains no mention of the subtleties of Levy’s prose, her humour, her – oh, why not say it – genius.
Let me explain why I love Reuben Sachs. I won’t spoil it for you with synopses. It is enough to say loosely, that it follows the young and successful writer, Reuben, of Ashkenazi background, through his relationship with Judith Quixano, of Sephardi heritage, and his friendship with, among others, the upper-class Jewish convert, Bertie Lee-Harrison. The novel reads at times like a Jewish Jane Austen, and at others like a prefiguration of Virginia Woolf. I mean both of those comparisons with absolute faith and integrity. For instance, one chapter opens:
“There is nothing more dear to the Jewish heart than an engagement…”
Jane Austen’s irony receives another layer of brilliance when combined with the slanted tone of the Jewish joke. Levy’s narrative style is indebted to her magisterial forerunner without Austen’s presence being overstated, and the influence of Austen’s balanced clauses appears in such a way as to gently point out the gaps in the stories that the previous novelist was able to tell. In terms of Woolf, I offer this from the last pages of the book:
“On the pavement the people gathered, thicker and thicker. A pair of lovers moved along slowly, close against the park railings, beneath the shadow of the trees. The pulses of the great city beat and throbbed; the great tide roared and flowed ever onwards.”
Out of context, this could be Mrs Dalloway. The pulse of the city in the midst of the tide of time and urban existence has a function akin to Woolf’s chiming of Big Ben; the experimental and fluid description of London, even to the details of the railings and the trees, are all high modernism. Levy was writing on the cusp of the twentieth century, at the tail end of the Victorian period, amidst the emergence of new artistic patterns – although she didn’t live to see the new era begin. As such she exhibits all the awareness and excellence of old styles, while proving herself to be, as she always was, at the vanguard of change.
If Jane Austen hadn’t died so young, she would have been one of the great Victorian novelists. If Amy Levy had lived, she would have been one of the great Modernists.
So what was it in Reuben Sachs that disturbed the reviewer of the Jewish Chronicle to such an extent that he (let’s assume it might as well have been a man) couldn’t appreciate any of these delights?
Well, one possible answer is anti-Zionism – or, to be more accurate, anti-proto-Zionism, since Levy died before the movement officially began. Bertie Lee-Harrison joins the community for Yom Kippur. After he leaves, the group discusses him:
“I wonder”, cried Rose, throwing herself into the breach, “what Mr. Lee- Harrison thought of it all.”
“I think,” said Leo, “that he was shocked at finding us so little like the people in Daniel Deronda.”
“Did he expect,” cried Esther, “to see our boxes in the hall, ready packed and labelled Palestine?”
“I have always been touched,” said Leo, “at the immense good faith with which George Eliot carried out that elaborate misconception of hers.”
Amy Levy’s representation of the skeptical attitude of the community towards the development of Zionism speaks for itself. She writes with candour and elegant wit – but the political edge is real. It is not inconceivable that when the Jewish Chronicle reviewer reacted to the ‘too critical’ element in Levy’s novel, this is one such scene that lingered distastefully in his mind.
None of this is to say that there is not evidence of internalized anti-Semitism in Levy’s work. I truly would not repeat the comments about German Jews that Levy made in a letter written in 1881 on the occasion of a visit to Dresden. (I think it’s safe to say that had she lived into the mid-twentieth century, Levy wouldn’t have repeated them either.) But Levy’s primary attitude towards Jewishness can be summed up from a survey of another passage from Reuben Sachs – in this case, the reaction of the group to the announcement that Bertie Lee Harrison has “gone over body and soul to the Jewish community”:
“There was an ironical exclamation all round. The Jews, the most clannish and exclusive of peoples, the most keen to resent outside criticism, can say hard things of one another within the walls of the ghetto.”
Today, the ‘ironical exclamation’ of which Levy writes has been popularized by writers such as Nora Ephron and Woody Allen. In the late Victorian age, it was rarer for Jewish writers to achieve the acclaim that Levy managed for herself. In her writing, Levy realized that the self-ironizing habits of Jewish humour are an ideal vessel for literature: self-reflective and distinctively aware of others’ perspectives, Jewishness aids rather than abets her composition of third-person narrative. But her success meant that she spoke outside the ghetto walls (figuratively – Levy was never a child of the ghetto) and in so doing, opened up the subtle inflections of Jewish conversation to the gaze of her contemporaries. These lines hint at Levy’s presentiment of the resentment that was to come her way on the publication of her novel. In a sense, it was Levy’s success that marked her as a ‘too critical Jew’.
So Amy Levy was one of a kind. If this article has steered clear of discussing the circumstances and conditions that led to her early suicide, that is deliberate. There is much more to say of Levy than that she should have lived longer. And there is more to say than that she should have had more Jewish pride. Simply put, Amy Levy needs to be read. So I urge you to read her, in libraries, in out of print copies from Ebay. Because nothing is gained from discussing Levy’s self-hatred, while she suffers in her status as the self-hating – who?