Amy Levy has been identified by Sally Ledger as a “New Woman poet with Sapphic interests.” (126) She published an impressive amount of poetry which mostly deals with feminist issues and is deeply rooted in urban milieu. Her poetry is distinguished by a variety of forms and themes, including dramatic monologue and intense confessional lyrics, which depict a female persona overcome with a brooding pessimism about the nature of human existence and human relations. Some of her lyric poems were influenced by the poetry of Heinrich Heine and German Romanticism. They speak about disappointed love and suicide thoughts.
Naomi Hetherington and Nadia Valman contend that “It was Levy’s poetry rather than her fiction, however, that initially led to her categorisation as a New Woman”. (10) In 1881, Levy, still a student at Newnham, published Xantippe and Other Verse. The title poem, “Xantippe” is considered by many critics as Levy’s most significant poetic achievement, which places her among the New Woman poets. The form of the poem is a dramatic monologue told by Xantippe, an old woman on her deathbed, who reminisces her youth and confesses that her husband needed to have only a servant wife and not an intellectual companion. As a young girl, Xantippe had cherished intellectual ambitions hoping that she would not be confined “to sitting at the loom”, but marriage with Socrates brought her mostly frustration and alienation.
What cared I for the merry mockeries
Of other maidens sitting at the loom?
Or for sharp voices, bidding me return
To maiden labour? Were we not apart,—
I and my high thoughts, and my golden dreams,
My soul which yearned for knowledge, for a tongue
That should proclaim the stately mysteries
Of this fair world, and of the holy gods? [Levy, 358]
In Levy’s view, Xantippe’s fate was similar to that of a great number of Victorian women, who were unable to pursue their intellectual vocation because they were denied education and confined to the domestic sphere.
Levy’s other notable feminist poems include “Magdalen” (1884) and “A Ballad of Religion and Marriage” (1888). The former is a bitter dramatic monologue spoken by a ‘fallen’ woman who is dying in a religious penitentiary where she redeems her earlier conduct. The latter poem contests the traditional division into ‘married’ and ‘odd’ women. Levy hopes that in future people will not be classified according to their marital status or religion.
Levy’s poetry is predominantly concerned with a woman’s, or rather a New Woman’s, presence in the urban public spaces. In the late Victorian period an increasing number of middle-class women gained access to the public sphere. Increasingly, female students, teachers, readers at the British Museum, and upper-class lady shoppers were seen walking unchaperoned the streets of the West End. Levy was one of the first women poets in late Victorian England, who wrote about the pleasures of riding an omnibus.
Ballade of an Omnibus
Some men to carriages aspire;
On some the costly hansoms wait;
Some seek a fly, on job or hire;
Some mount the trotting steed, elate.
I envy not the rich and great,
A wandering minstrel, poor and free,
I am contented with my fate —
An omnibus suffices me.
In winter days of rain and mire
I find within a corner strait;
The ‘busmen know me and my lyre
From Brompton to the Bull-and-Gate.
When summer comes, I mount in state
The topmost summit, whence I see
Croesus look up, compassionate —
An omnibus suffices me.
I mark, untroubled by desire,
Lucullus’ phaeton and its freight.
The scene whereof I cannot tire,
The human tale of love and hate,
The city pageant, early and late
Unfolds itself, rolls by, to be
A pleasure deep and delicate.
An omnibus suffices me.
Princess, your splendour you require,
I, my simplicity; agree
Neither to rate lower nor higher.
An omnibus suffices me. [Levy, 387]
Amy Levy was a poet of the modern metropolis and had she lived longer, she might have become a significant forerunner of English modernism. In her poems published posthumously in 1889 under the title A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse, she uses a fin-de-siecle London as a source of her poetic inspiration. Levy’s urban poems Linda Hunt Beckman contends that:
Levy was one of the poets who pioneered symbolist methods in England, and she seems to have turned to symbolism’s poetics with increasing frequency toward the end of her life [Bristow, 224]
Levy published more than a dozen short stories in several periodicals. Many of them contain hidden autobiographical elements and New Woman issues. One of her earliest stories, “Between Two Stools” (1883) concerns Miss Nora Wycherley, who, like Levy, after a study at Cambridge, finds it hard to adjust to the mundane society of Bayswater in London.
Another short story, “The Diary of a Plain Girl” (1883) portrays a young woman who develops an inferiority complex due to her physical appearance. The story reflects Levy’s own preoccupation with her Semitic looks, which led her to a lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem.
In 1889, Levy published in the Gentleman's Magazine one of her best short stories, “Cohen of Trinity,” which describes a Jewish Oxford student, later a talented writer, who recognises that he will never be accepted by a group of aristocratic young men he would like to join. He writes a highly successful literary work, “half poem” and “half essay”, but at the moment of his greatest literary triumph, he commits suicide. Cohen’s suicide, like Levy’s, may be interpreted as an unresolved identity crisis. Raised in an Anglo-Jewish family, Levy was increasingly aware that she was an outsider among both the Jews and the gentiles.
Amy Levy published three short novels, The Romance of a Shop, Reuben Sachs, and Miss Meredith. In each of them Levy switches genres: the first is a New Woman novel; the second is a novel of Anglo-Jewish experience; and the third — a governess novel. All the three novels have at least one common feature: they show Levy’s keen interest in feminist issues and Victorian social mores.
The Romance of a Shop
Published in 1888, Levy’s first novel, recounts the story of four young sisters, Gertrude, Lucy, Phyllis, and Fanny Lorimer, who, after the death of their father, establish a photography business in Baker Street and live on their own to a great dismay of their relatives. The novel, written from a proto-feminist perspective, subverts the traditional Victorian notion of gender roles, which confined women to marriage and domesticity, and proposes an alternative experience for young, unmarried women: an independent paid job and an unconventional career.
The Romance of a Shop can be classified as a New Woman novel which portrays autonomous and achievement-oriented women. According to Deborah Epstein Nord, Levy’s first novel “anticipates Gissing’s novel The Odd Women in a number of interesting ways.” (200). It deals with the problem of “redundant,” — i.e. unmarried — young women who defied convention and sought professional employment and new identity within Victorian society. Levy shows in her novel that women have the right to practise a profession and achieve a financial independence. Although Levy’s novel is not very radical and it ends rather conventionally, it is an important contribution to the New Woman fiction. Levy demonstrated both explicitly or implicitly that the traditional gender roles must be redefined in the wake of emerging modernity.
Reuben Sachs (1888) depicts critically the parochial and patriarchal Anglo-Jewish life in the 1880s, characterised by conservatism, mammon worshipping, and oppression of women. The eponymous character of the novel, Reuben Sachs, is an aspiring young lawyer who is in love with a girl, but he refuses to marry her because she is poor and may be a burden in his future political career. The novel raised controversy due to its critical representation of the affluent upper-class Anglo-Jewish community. In Reuben Sachs, Levy also critiques George Eliot’s patronising depiction of Jews in her novel Daniel Deronda. Levy praises Anglo-Jews for their sense of communality, but deplores their materialism, fiercely competitive lifestyles and lack of ennobling ideals. Another interesting theme in the novel is the commodification of unmarried women by the late Victorian marriage market.Miss Meredith
Levy’s last novel, or rather novella, Miss Meredith (1889), which seems to be a reworking of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Villette, tells the story of a young Englishwoman who travels to Pisa to work as a governess for an aristocratic Italian family. The family’s younger son, Andrea, who has just returned from America with democratic and egalitarian views, falls in reciprocated love with the protagonist and proposes to marry her. Although his parents initially oppose the interclass marriage, they finally approve of it in order to conform with “the spirit of the times.”
Although Miss Meredith might be termed a hastily-written high-brow potboiler, it reveals the young author’s serious attempts to emulate Henry James’s international theme and cross-cultural romance. The novel brings characters to life and contains some interesting intertextual references to literature and culture.
In 1883, Levy published in the Cambridge Review her first important essay, “ James Thomson: A Minor Poet.” Thomson, a Scottish poet now remembered chiefly for his long poem, “The City of Dreadful Night,” attracted Levy’s attention because she discovered in his poetry not only a mood of existential sadness, which afflicted her too, but also a familiar feeling of social exclusion.
How comes it that in a day like our own, when the shrill, small voices of a legion of bepraised versifiers are heard all around – how comes it that this man of such large powers, such truth, such force of passion and intellect, such originality, should have been entirely overlooked for the greater part of his life, and even at its close so scantily recognised? [Levy, 508]
Levy, who suffered acutely from low self-esteem in both literary and private spheres, found in Thomson a soul mate with whom she had mental and artistic affinity. She was impressed by Thomson’s bleak image of a modern metropolis and his representation of an alienated and introverted mind.
In 1886, Levy published several articles on Jewish themes in the Jewish Chronicle. In “ The Jew in Fiction,” she makes an overview of the Jewish characters in English literature and contends that it lacks a satisfactory representation of Jewish life. In her view George Eliot’s Jewish characters are highly idealised and therefore not convincing. Levy claims that Anglo-Jews must be represented in literature in an unbiased way.
In “Middle-Class Jewish Women of To-Day” (1886), Levy writes about the deplorable conditions of Jewish women in a patriarchal Anglo-Jewish community:
What, in fact, is the ordinary life of a Jewish middle-class woman? Carefully excluded, with almost Eastern jealousy, from every-day intercourse with men and youths of her own age, she is plunged all at once – a half-fledged, often half-chaperoned creature –into the "vortex" of a middleclass ball-room, and is there expected to find her own level. In the very face of statistics, of the unanswerable logic of facts, she is taught to look upon marriage as the only satisfactory termination to her career. Her parents are jealous of her healthy, objective activities, of the natural employment of her young faculties, of anything in short which diverts her attention from what should be the one end and aim of her existence! If, in spite of all the parental efforts she fail, from want of money, or want of attractions, in obtaining a husband, her lot is a desperately unenviable one. [Levy, 525]
Acclaimed by Oscar Wilde as “a girl who has a touch of genius in her work” (Whittington-Egan, 40), Amy Levy, a gifted and high-minded New Woman poet and novelist, gave evidence in her poetry and prose of the discontent and restlessness of Anglo-Jewish identity in the late Victorian period. Levy’s deeply felt ethnic otherness and inability to establish a lasting relationship with people she loved alienated her from the mainstream English literary life and may have contributed to her final breakdown and suicide.
After a century of neglect Amy Levy’s short literary career has in recent years received an increasing attention of Victorianists due to a renewed interest in the New Woman themes, Jewish identity, late Victorian urban experience, and the motifs of despair and suicide in Victorian culture. The rediscovery of Amy Levy must be credited to Melvyn New, who edited and published her three novels and selected writings in 1993, and to Linda Hunt Beckman, whose book, Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters (2000) contains important biographical information and letters. Apart from these, in 2010 two other important publications appeared. Naomi Hetherington and Nadia Valman edited a collection of essays, Amy Levy: Critical Essays, which trace Levy’s biography, her problems with identity, literary influences and offer close reading of some of her works. Christine Pullen published The Woman Who Dared: A Biography of Amy Levy, which sheds new light on Levy’s life and shows her as a late Victorian New Woman and a forerunner of modernism in English literature.
References and Further Reading
Beckman, Linda Hunt.Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000.
__. “Leaving ‘The Tribal Duckpond’: Amy Levy, Jewish Self-Hatred, and Jewish Identity,” Victorian Literature and Culture. 27.1 (1999), 185-201.
Bristow, Joseph, ed. The Fin-de-siecle Poem: English Literary Culture and the 1890s. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005.
Goody, Alex. “Murder in Mile End: Amy Levy, Jewishness, and the City,” Victorian Literature and Culture. 34.2, Fin-de-Siecle Literary Culture and Women Poets (2006) 461-479.
Hetherington Naomi and Nadia Valman, eds. Amy Levy: Critical Essays. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2010.
Jusová, Iveta. The New Woman And the Empire. Columbus: Ohio State University, 2005.
Ledger, Sally and Alison C. Ledger. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siecle. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Levy, Amy. The Complete Novels and Selected Writings. Edited by Melvyn New. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993.
Lipman, Vivian. D. A History of the Jews in Britain Since 1858. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1990.
Nord Epstein, Deborah. Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, the City, and Modernity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.
__. “’Neither Pairs nor Odd’: Female Community in Late Nineteenth-Century London.” Signs, 15.4 (1990) 733-754.
Pullen, Christine. The Woman Who Dared: A Biography of Amy Levy. Kingston upon Thames: Kingston University Press, 2010.
Scheinberg, Cynthia. “Canonizing the Jew: Amy Levy's Challenge to Victorian Poetic Identity,” Victorian Studies, 39.2 (1996), 173-200.
Valman, Nadia. The Jewess in Nineteenth-Century British Literary Culture. Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century British Literary Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
__. “Semitism and Criticism: Victorian Anglo-Jewish Literary History,” Victorian Literature and Culture, 27.1 (1999) 235-248.
Whittington-Egan, Richard. “Amy Levy: A Tragic Victorian Novelist.” Contemporary Review, 280 (2002) 40-45.
Last modified 22 May 2012