Amy Levy: A Tragic Victorian Novelist

By Whittington-Egan, Richard | Contemporary Review, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Amy Levy: A Tragic Victorian Novelist


Whittington-Egan, Richard, Contemporary Review


SHE died in an upstairs bedroom, by the light of the morning star, that shone over Endsleigh Gardens, and not over Leamington Spa.

She died inhaling death deeply and willingly: carbon monoxide from the charcoal that she burnt in the sealed and oxygen-starved small London room.

She was twenty-seven years of age, a poet and novelist of rising distinction. Her name was Amy Levy.

After more than ten decades' eclipse, this fragile ghost from the 1880s, once hailed by Oscar Wilde as 'a girl who has a touch of genius in her work', has been summoned back from the limbo of mere scholarly memory by the recent rescue and republication of Melvyn New, in America, of her Complete Novels and Selected Writings (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993), together with a full biography, Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters, by Linda Hunt Beckman (Ohio University Press, 2000): a renaissance echoed on this side of the Atlantic by Persephone Books' reissuing of her novel Reuben Sachs.*

Linda Beckman's new biography is timely, providing a much-needed corrective to those previous accounts -- even in what one might have considered dependable places -- which have exhibited positively tabloid standards of investigative accuracy. Thus, while one version puts her to work at a loom in a factory, and has her living in a garret, another has her earning a meagre crust as a teacher in London.

Amy, the second daughter of the seven siblings of Lewis Levy, export merchant, and Isabelle (nee Levin), was born on 10th November 1861, at Clapham, South London, into a bourgeois Jewish family, passing prosperous but not the possessors of 'old money', whose maternal English rootings reached back to early eighteenth-century Falmouth.

When she was fourteen, Amy was sent to Brighton High School, Girls' Public Day School Trust. She was already displaying a certain literary talent, having the previous year had a poem, 'The Ballad of Ida Grey', published in the Pelican, a feminist journal, and, also at the age of thirteen, having reviewed Elizabeth Barrett Browning's feminist epic, Aurora Leigh, in the children's magazine, Kind Words.

Brighton's headmistress, Edith Creak, aged twenty-one, fresh out of Newnham College, Cambridge, established in 1871 in the wake of Girton, had been one of Newnham's five original female students. Amy became positively obsessed with Miss Creak. An early homoeroticism manifested itself as a 'grand passion' rather than a mere schoolgirl 'crush', which she developed and unashamedly advertised. The young Miss Creak became more than her mentor, her alter Ego, and Amy, following in her Cantabrian footsteps, became, in 1879, the first Jewish student to enter Miss Creak's old college -- Newnham. She did not, however, follow in Edith Creak's academic traces, coming down in 1881, before completing her final year and without taking her Tripos.

It would seem, Linda Beckman suggests, that during 1880, while at Newnham, Amy was 'caught up in some personal drama that evoked intense feeling, emotional turbulence, and painful disappointment'. An unhappy, possibly one-sided, love affair is hinted at.

After Cambridge, Amy was to spend large tracts of the succeeding four years travelling on the Continent, frequently on her own. These excursions were not entirely devoid of alarums - as on the occasion when, staying alone at an inn in the Black Forest in the summer of 1884, she was frightened by the unwelcome night-time visit of a priest (harmless as it proved) to her room.

When she was in London she always stayed at her parents' home, which, since 1872, had been at 11 Sussex Place, Regents Park. In December 1884, they moved to 26 Ulster Place, Regents Park, where they remained until 1885, when they moved once more, this time to 7 Endsleigh Gardens, Bloomsbury. In the 1881 census Amy's father had described himself as a stock and share broker, and it may be that his prosperity had somewhat decreased, for Amy appears to have worried about the family finances and regarded the move from Sussex Place to Ulster Place as symptomatic of economic decline.

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