Who was Amy Levy?
Amy Levy was a British poetess and novelist, one of the most remembered authors of the Victorian era. She came from an Anglo-Jewish family and became an author during the height of the Victorian Era. A member of the rich intellectual community of London, she published several poems and articles as well as a few novels. Her literary career started at a very young age—when her family participated in home theater productions, she used to contribute with her writing skills. At an early age, she gained independence and unlike most women of that era, she lived on her own away from her family. She was one of the first women to travel through London and abroad without a chaperone. Despite battling debilitating melancholy, she was a vibrant member of the London intellectual society. Her work was heavily influenced by the philosophies of the German Pessimists, the Aestheticism movement and other Victorian women writers. She identified herself as an Anglo-Jew, but was frequently critical of the Jewish community. She was also critical of the materialism, philistinism and complacency she saw in London Society. She was a talented writer but unfortunately, she ended her life at the age of 27 because of her growing depression. Her prominent works examined, among other topics, the realities of Jewish life in Europe and England, English Society, feminism and the popular philosophies of her era.
Childhood & Early Life
She was born on November 10, 1861 in Clapham, an affluent district of London, to Lewis Levy, a successful stockbroker and his wife Isabel Levy. She was the second of their seven children.
She was born in a middle class Anglo-Jewish family rooted in England and drawn towards literature. Her family participated in home theater productions where her siblings wrote literary works and she transformed it into poetry and plays.
Her writing career began at the age of 14 when her poem ‘Ida Grey’ was published in the journal ‘Pelican’.
She was sent to the Brighton and Hove High School for early education. She was highly influenced by her 21 year old headmistress, Edith Creak, a goal oriented independent woman, the type of a New Woman.
She struck lifelong friendships with Clementina Black, Dollie Radford, Eleanor Marx and Olive Schreiner.
After her schooling, she became the first Jewish woman to be enrolled at the Newnham College, Cambridge where she studied classical and modern languages in addition to literature from 1879 to 1881.
She left college without graduating when her first volume, ‘Xantippe and Other Verse’, was published in 1881.
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In 1886, she traveled to Florence, Italy and published a series of articles in ‘The Jewish Chronicle’, on Jewish life in Florence.
While in Florence, she met Violet Paget, a lesbian fiction writer. Violet became the inspiration behind two of her sonnets, ‘To Vernon Lee’ and ‘New Love, New Life’.
She published many essays and poems between 1886 and 1888 including ‘Women and Club Life’, ‘The Poetry of Christina Rossetti’, ‘At Prato’ and ‘The Recent Telepathic Occurrence at the British Museum’.
Her first novel, ‘Romance of a Shop’, a story about four sisters who defy convention and open a photography shop, was published in 1888.The book was well reviewed by critics and was also praised by Oscar Wilde.
Her second novel, ‘Reuben Sachs’, also published in 1888 was erroneously attacked by the Jewish Press as being anti-Semitic. It was mistakenly perceived by the Jewish press as an attack on Jewish life.
Some of her popular short stories include ‘Leopold Leuniger: A Study’, ‘Lallie: A Cambridge Sketch’, ‘Between Two Stools’, ‘Sokratics in the Strand’, and ‘The Recent Telepathic Occurrence at the British Museum’.
Some of her published articles were ‘The Ghetto in Florence’, ‘The Jew in Fiction’, ‘Jewish Humour’, ‘Jewish Children’, and ’Middle-Class Jewish Women of Today’.
Her third novel, ‘Miss Meredith’, was published in 1889. This novel, like her previous novels, also represented her keen interest in feminist issues and Victorian social mores.
Her final book of poems, ‘A London Plane-Tree’, was published in 1889. Its lyrics reflected the influence of French symbolism.
In 1890, her short story “Wise in Her Generation” was published posthumously.
Her 1888 novel, ‘Reuben Sachs’, depicts the tale of a tragic romance between the politically ambitious title character and his lover Judith, a young Jewess from a lower-class family. To this day, it remains her most successful novel.
The stories ‘Cohen of Trinity’ and ‘Wise in Her Generation’, both published in Oscar Wilde's magazine ‘Women's World’, are among her notable works.
In 1993, her literary work ‘The Complete Novels and Selected Writings of Amy Levy’ was published posthumously and sparked a new interest in her as a writer.
Personal Life & Legacy
Throughout her life she suffered from depression, however, she still continued to travel and write.
In 1886, she met Violet Piaget, an author better known by the pseudonym of Vernon Lee, and fell in love with her. Although Vernon was a lesbian, the feelings were not mutual and she considered Levy only a good friend.
She committed suicide on September 10, 1889 at her parents’ home in Bloomsbury in London by inhaling carbon monoxide because of increasing depression and her awareness of her growing deafness.
Her body was cremated at her own request and her ashes were interred at Balls Pond Cemetery.