Amy LEVY (1861-89)

A short life and a precocious talent.  Her teenage writing included a review of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and at seventeen, in full flood of feminism, Xantippe, in which she let Socrates’s maligned wife tell her side of their marriage.  This poem was reissued in 1881 in Xantippe and other Verse.  Levy’s Jewishness was important to her, though she doesn’t appear to have had much religious faith; she was the first Jewish woman to attend Newnham College at Cambridge, and some of her writings at that time, notably her story Leopold Leuniger: a study (1880), attack anti-Jewish prejudice.  Other pieces, both published and private, show a young woman’s fascination with suicide.

She was active among women writers sidelined in a male world: she was one of the first to demand access to the British Museum’s Reading Room; she campaigned to improve woman’s lot; and in A Minor Poet and other Verse she made little attempt to hide her lesbianism (several poems were about her love for another woman).  In 1886 she fell in love with the writer Vernon Lee (real name Violet Paget), with whom she remained close for the rest of her short life, and she continued to produce good and, within intellectual circles, well-regarded writing.  Her novel Romance of a Shop appeared in 1888 but its successor Reuben Sachs (also 1888) offended Jewish critics, who thought it attacked the Jewish lifestyle, and gentile critics, who thought it stereotypically Jewish.  Levy was disheartened by the strength of criticism (which with modern hindsight is seen as unjustified) and poured much of her angst into her third novel Miss Meredith which she completed in just six weeks.  The story has an obvious autobiographical basis in its telling of a writer (disguised, in that he is gentile) whose book is unacceptable to the dominant culture.  After her last book of poetry, A London Plane-Tree and other Verse, she became increasingly depressed – and hypochondriacal – and committed suicide in September 1889 by asphyxiating herself with charcoal fumes.  In a final tiny act of trail-blazing she became the first Jewish woman in England to be cremated.

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