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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Amy Levy: A Tragic Victorian Novelist


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.