Amy Levy, Author of Reuben Sachs
By Nava Atlas | On April 13, 2023 | Updated April 14, 2023 | Comments (0)
Amy Levy (November 10, 1861 – September 9, 1889) was a British essayist, novelist, and poet who, despite talent and accomplishment, died by her own hand when not quite twenty-eight years old.
Her best-known work was Reuben Sachs, the 1888 novel that examined Jewish life in Victorian England, something quite unusual in its time. The following year, she published a significant collection of her poetry, A London Plane Tree and Other Poems.
Amy 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.”
Amy had relationships with both men and women, though she seemed to prefer the latter. She associated with those who were politically active circles in London in the 1880s.
Early promise; a life cut short
She 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 Fiction, Jewish Humour, and Jewish Children.
What’s known of Amy 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.
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 Pettigrew, Reuben Sachs is another forgotten classic by an accomplished female novelist. Amy Levy might be described as a Jewish Jane Austen.”
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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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More about Amy Levy
- 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
- Jewish Women’s Archive
- Victorian Web
- Amy Levy: A London Poet
- Full texts on Project Gutenberg
- Listen on Librivox
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