Amy Levy, Author of Reuben Sachs

Amy Levy, British poet and novelist

Amy Levy (November 10, 1861 – September 9, 1889) was a British essayist, novelist, and poet who, despite the gift of talent and early accomplishments, died by her own hand just shy of twenty-eight.

Her best-known work was Reuben Sachs, the 1889 novel of Jewish life in Victorian England, was quite unusual for its time. It was preceded by the 1888 novel of a business-minded family of sisters, The Romance of a Shop. 1889 also saw the publication of a significant collection of poetry, A London Plane Tree and Other Poems, and an additional novel, Miss Meredith.

Levy was the second Jewish woman at Cambridge University, and as the first Jewish student at Newnham College, Cambridge. She was becoming known for her feminist positions and friendships with others who would become known as “New Women.”

She had relationships with both men and women, though she seemed to prefer women. She associated with those who were politically active circles in London in the 1880s.


Early promise; a life cut short

Amy Levy showed early promise as a poet, publishing A Minor Poet and Other Verse in 1884 when she was just shy of twenty-four. Some of the poems had been published in 1881 in a pamphlet she had printed while at Cambridge, titled Xantippe and Other Poems. Her early literary successes notwithstanding, the mood of her poems, many of which were melancholic and pessimistic, reflected a person of great sensitivity, with a tendency to depression.

Beginning in 1886, wrote several essays on Jewish culture and literature for The Jewish Chronicle. The best known is The Ghetto at Florence. Others included The Jew in FictionJewish Humour, and Jewish Children.

What’s known of Levy’s life confirms that she suffered from major depression from the time she was young. As she grew into womanhood, her depression deepened, in part due to the turmoil of her romantic relationships.  She was also distressed by her increasing deafness.

On September 9, 1889, just two months shy of her twenty-eighth birthday, she committed suicide at her parents’ home in Endsleigh Gardens by inhaling carbon monoxide. The first Jewish woman to be cremated in England, her ashes are interred at Balls Pond Road Cemetery in London.

Amy Levy had written a few short stories for Oscar Wilde’s magazine, The Women’s World. He wrote an obituary for her published in that magazine, in which he extolled her talents.


A brief chronology Amy Levy’s life and work

The following brief biography appeared in  Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, London: Smith, Elder, & Co. (1885–1900).

Amy Judith Levy (1861–1889), poet and novelist, second daughter of Mr. Lewis Levy, by his wife Isabelle (Levin), was born at Clapham on November 10, 1861. Her parents were of the Jewish faith. She was educated at Brighton, and afterward at Newnham College, Cambridge. She early showed decided talent, especially for poetry, pieces thought worthy of preservation having been written in her thirteenth year.

In 1881 a small pamphlet of verse from her pen, Xantippe and other Poems, was printed at Cambridge. Most of the contents were subsequently incorporated with her second publication, A Minor Poet and Other Verse, 1884. Xantippe is in many respects her most powerful production, exhibiting a passionate rhetoric and a keen, piercing dialectic, exceedingly remarkable in so young a writer.

It is a defense of Socrates’s maligned wife, from the woman’s point of view, full of tragic pathos, and only short of complete success from its frequent reproduction of the manner of both the Brownings.

The same may be said of A Minor Poet, a poem now more interesting than when it was written, from its evident prefigurement of the melancholy fate of the authoress herself. The most important pieces in the volume are in blank verse, too colloquial to be finely modulated, but always terse and nervous.

A London Plane Tree and Other Poems, 1889, is, on the other hand, chiefly lyrical. Most of the pieces are individually beautiful; as a collection they weary with their monotony of sadness.

The authoress responded more readily to painful than to pleasurable emotions, and this incapacity for pleasure was a more serious trouble than her sensitiveness to pain: it deprived her of the encouragement she might have received from the success which, after a fortunate essay with a minor work of fiction, The Romance of a Shop, attended her remarkable novel, Reuben Sachs, 1889.

This is a most powerful work, alike in the condensed tragedy of the main action, the striking portraiture of the principal characters, and the keen satire of the less refined aspects of Jewish society. It brought upon the authoress much unpleasant criticism, which, however, was far from affecting her spirits to the extent alleged. In the summer of 1889, she published a pretty and for once cheerful story, Miss Meredith.

Within a week after correcting her latest volume of poems for the press, she died by her own hand in her parents’ house in London, on September 10, 1889.

No cause can or need 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 or consolation from the extraneous circumstances which would have brightened the lives of most others.

She was indeed frequently animated, but her cheerfulness was but a passing mood that merely gilded her habitual melancholy, without diminishing it by a particle, while sadness grew upon her steadily, in spite of flattering success and the sympathy of affectionate friends.

She was the anonymous translator of Pérés’s clever brochure, “Comme quoi Napoléon n’a jamais existé.”

Her writings offer few traces of the usual immaturity of precocious talent; they are carefully constructed and highly finished, and the sudden advance made in Reuben Sachs indicates a great reserve of undeveloped power.

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The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy

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The Romance of a Shop — an original 1888 review 

This Victorian English novel, Amy Levy’s first, was unusual for its time, focusing on four sisters determined to start a photography business after their father’s death leaves them penniless. With only their resourcefulness and determination to fall back on, they must chart their own course.

The novel was, indeed, novel for its time, exploring the challenges of women needing to make their own living in the late 19th century. Through the voice of Levy, its young author, The Romance of a Shop explored the right of women to be independent and questioned the social norms of the day.

Though the book was far from a bestseller, reviews were generally positive. Here, from the Glasgow Herald, (November 20, 1888, is the original review of The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy.

In the compass of one volume, the authoress has packed a fresh and most unconventional romance. Four sisters, the daughters of a photographer, are left alone in the world with 600 (pounds) and a knowledge of the art of photography.

The eldest sisters is a lovable nonentity, the second clever, the third pretty and irritable, the fourth a beauty. Common sense teaches them that 600 (pounds) will not last forever. And that as they are unfitted for more exacting professions open to women, and disinclined for the commoner field of needlework drudgery, they cannot but do better than invest their money in the purchase of a small photographic business, about which they do know a great deal.

Gertrude and Lucy, the second and third daughters, embark on the new undertaking. The close of the first financial year does not find prospects brilliant, only brightening. They have scandalized and lost old friends, with a few notable exceptions, and have gained new ones.

One of the old friends, whom adversity tries and proves to be true, is Fred Devonshire, a blundering young aristocrat. He appears in season and out of season to have himself taken in every conceivable attitude and style. Yet his vanity is not satisfied; he presents himself and his guinea with an automatic regularity which is genuinely touching.

His rival for the junior parter’s hand is an artist who is a bright and natural little fellow. The beautiful young sister, Phyllis, like many who share the inheritance of a vivid spirit, dies of consumption, thus escaping the fate that the cultured disciple of evil, Darrell, would have meted out to her.

The lives of the others emerge from the shadow of struggle, even Fanny’s innocent stupidity proving a charm in the eyes of her long-lost lover.

Gertrude, the senior partner, is a firmly drawn character, who, if anything, is overly rigid in her judgements; for her, self-restraint and determination are the cornerstones of life.

Without reaching to any great depth, except in the dramatic overthrow of Sidney Darrell, Miss Levy has depicted a chapter of life that would be interesting to business girls and their guardians. The idea is novel and well worked out.

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Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy

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Reuben Sachs: Original reviews from 1889

How fascinating to see how Reuben Sachs, Levy’s second novel, was received when it first came out in 1889. The subject of Jewish family life intended for the mainstream was unusual, and the book was indeed regarded as quite a novelty.

Reviews were largely positive, though some were less than complimentary, both toward the idea of a novel about Jews, as well as for Levy’s often unpleasant portrayal some of her characters.

The Liverpool Daily Post (February 21, 1889), for example, wrote: 

“Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy claims to be, and is, more of a sketch than a novel. It deals in an unromantic way with members of an unromantic community. It is mainly character sketching with a little storytelling and no plot.

Probably few who read the book ever imagined that so much could be said, and so well said, in the way of introducing and describing a limited number of Jews. The descriptions and the portraits are faultless, if the people described are not. The mirror is held up to wealthy, prosperous Jews with a footing in English society is not a flattering one.”

The review goes on to quote directly from the book, and I’m loathe to reprint those here, as Levy perpetuates stereotypes about the Jewish people in a most unflattering manner.

A mixed review from Scotland

The following review in The Glasgow Herald (February 28, 1889) titled “Reuben Sachs, a Sketch, by the author of A Minor Poet”  was a bit more balanced than the one quoted above, the subject was regarded as a curiosity, but the freshness and skill that Levy brought to its pages was praised:

“It is curious how little one knows of that strongly individualized and exclusive community that maintains its national and religious peculiarities so little changed in the midst of our nineteenth century progress.

Miss Levy’s latest work is not merely a story of love and ambition, it is a revelation of the inner life of the Chosen People of London. The picture that it unveils is more novel and striking than edifying. It is so little flattering that one would feel prompted to question its truthfulness, were it not that the name of the author is at least a guarantee of accurate knowledge and of that familiarity that too frequently begets contempt.

Can it be that the children of Israel have at last become a people without a hope nor an ideal? Does the enthusiasm for George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda awake in them no feeling beyond a pitying contempt? Have the flesh pots of London, Paris, and Berlin had a more deteriorating effect than even those of ancient Egypt?

The pages of Reuben Sachs suggest numberless similar questions and excite a curiosity to possess, apart from fiction, a full and trustworthy account of the social and religious conditions Jews in Great Britain.

As a story, Reuben Sachs is a fresh, brilliant, and fascinating piece of work, and though the material is as old as humanity, Miss Levy has managed to give it new shape, and to introduce a couple of novel situations.

Briefly, it’s the tragedy of two young people whose childish liking for each other develops into love at the moment when ambition and social considerations render love an impossibility.

For a moment, Reuben hesitates and is tempted to sacrifice Mammon and fame for affection, but as he is on the point of making a declaration the boys in the street selling the evening papers announce the death of his successful Parliamentary rival, the member for St. Baldwin’s.

The portal of a splendid career is thrown open to him. The words die on his lips and he forsakes Judith to contest the open seat. He is successful, but in the meantime Judith is all but forced into a brilliant marriage. The close comes abruptly with Reuben’s sudden death from heart disease.

One cannot help feeling that the tragedy is the outcome Reuben’s choice, and that he himself discovered in the height of his success how grievous had been his failure.

Miss Levy sketches character with a masterly hand. The Jews and Jewesses in these pages are thoroughly flesh and blood. Loud in color, overloaded with gold and jewels, slangy in speech, they furnish an effective background for the few sympathetic people in the story.”

A contemporary reconsideration

Of her best-known work, the 1888 novel Reuben Sachs, Persephone Books wrote of the contemporary reissued edition:

“Oscar Wilde observed: ‘Its directness, its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make Reuben Sachs, in some sort, a classic.”

Julia Neuberger writes in her Preface, ‘This is a novel about women, and Jewish women, about families, and Jewish families, about snobbishness, and Jewish snobbishness,” while in the Independent on Sunday Lisa Allardice said: “Sadder but no less sparkling than Miss PettigrewReuben Sachs is another forgotten classic by an accomplished female novelist. Amy Levy might be described as a Jewish Jane Austen.”

More about Amy Levy

Major Works

  • Xantippe and Other Verse (1881)
  • A Minor Poet and Other Verse (1884)
  • The Romance of a Shop (1888) novel (republished in 2005, Black Apollo Press)
  • Reuben Sachs (1888) (republished by Broadview Press and Persephone Books)
    — See an e-pub of the original edition
  • A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse (1889)
  • Miss Meredith (1889; a novel)
  • The Complete Novels and Selected Writings of Amy Levy: 1861–1889
    (published in 1993 by Melvyn New)

Biography and Criticism

  • Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters by Linda Hunt Beckham (2000)
  • Amy Levy: Critical Essays by Naomi Hetherington and Nadia Valman (2010)

More information and sources

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