A Biographical Note

Amy Judith Levy, a late Victorian poet and novelist, was born on 10th November 1861 at Clapham, South London, into an upper middle-class Jewish family. Her father was a stockbroker. At fourteen, Amy was sent to Brighton High School, run by the Girls’ Public Day School Trust, where she soon became spellbound by the young headmistress, Miss Edith Creak, the type of a New Woman freshly graduated from Newnham College, Cambridge, which had already admitted women students. While in Brighton, Amy made lifelong friends with Clementina Black, the future novelist and publicist, and her sister Constance, the future translator of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anton Chekhov. After finishing the Brighton High School, Levy was enrolled as the second Jewish woman at Cambridge University and the first at Newnham College, where she studied classical and modern languages and literature between 1879 and 1881.

Amy left Cambridge without completing her degree and decided that she must free herself from the restraints that her parents had imposed upon her and start an independent life. She soon embarked on extensive journeys on the Continent, usually with a female companion, visiting Germany, Switzerland and Italy, gathering material for articles and short stories which she began to submit to various journals. While back in London, she met regularly with a group of the emerging New Woman writers and radicals, who attended the British Museum Reading Room, including Dollie Radford, Constance and Clementina Black, Olive Schreiner, Eleanor Marx, Beatrice Potter (later Webb) and her cousin Margaret Harkness. Although she did not share socialist or radical views of her circle of friends and acquaintances, she was actively engaged in the intellectual discussions of the London bohemia. She attended the meetings of the Fellowship of the New Life, the Fabian Society, the Social Democratic Federation, and A Men and Women’s Club founded by Karl Pearson, a mathematician, prominent freethinker and socialist. Besides, like an increasing number of young independent New Women, she frequented London theatres and art galleries, walked streets and rode by omnibus unchaperoned.

Amy Levy held ambivalent views about her Jewishness. As a child she received a basic Jewish upbringing and probably took Hebrew lessons, however, her subsequent education was secular and her circle of friends were mostly gentiles (non-Jews). Unlike the Yiddish-speaking impoverished pogrom-fleeing Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, she identified herself as an Anglo-Jew, but her attitude to this community was often critical. It was in Cambridge that Levy met with anti-Semitism, and gradually began to feel marginalised in feminist and bohemian circles as a freethinking Anglo-Jewish woman. Although she had ambivalent feelings about her Jewish heritage, she began to write a series of articles for the Jewish Chronicle in 1886. All these articles as well as her short story “Cohen of Trinity” and the novel Reuben Sachs tackle the complex subject of Anglo-Jewish identity.

Amy Levy lived during the fervent debates about social Darwinism, eugenics, gender and ethnic identity, and theories of free love. As an emancipated, non-practising but self-identified Anglo-Jewish New Woman, she found it difficult to conform to the norms and gender relations dominant among Anglo-Jewry. She was critical about materialism, philistinism and self-complacency of emancipated British Jews.

Levy’s sexual orientation remains a point of contention among scholars. She was, it seems, a platonic lesbian, who never experienced a requited love attachment with any of the women to whom she was attracted. In 1886, while Levy stayed in Florence, she met and became infatuated in Vernon Lee (Violet Piaget), a novelist and essayist, for whom she dedicated one of her best sonnets.

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. [Levy, 398]

The last word of the sonnet announces a growing acute melancholy, isolation and loneliness which afflicted Amy Levy in the last years of her life. From her early youth Amy experienced periods of depression and was gradually becoming deaf. She committed suicide at the height of her literary career, two months before her twenty-eighth birthday. She died by inhaling charcoal gas on September 10, 1889 at her parents’ home in Bloomsbury. Her body was cremated by her own request and her ashes interred at Balls Pond Cemetery.

In her short life, Amy Levy wrote three novels, short stories and three collections of poetry. She also contributed articles and translations to several periodicals, including Belgravia, the Cambridge Review, the Gentlemen's Magazine, the Jewish Chronicle, London Society, Temple Bar, the Victoria Magazine, and Oscar Wilde's Woman's World.

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