Is everybody’s life like this?

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters by Linda Hunt Beckman
    Ohio, 331 pp, £49.00, May 2000, ISBN 0 8214 1329 5

Had Amy Levy (1861-89) never existed, contemporary criticism would have thought her up. We have been recovering women writers for three decades now, but Levy was also a Jew and probably a lesbian, as well as a feminist; and at a time like ours when ‘margins’ are central, she can be singled out for having inhabited several at once. Not only did she belong to the pioneering generation of women at Cambridge, she was the first Jew to be admitted to Newnham. She was also a precociously gifted writer, whose first volume of poetry appeared before she was twenty; and by the time of her suicide eight years later she had published three short novels, as well as a number of essays, and had just corrected the proofs of her third volume of poems.

For a woman whose poetry so often dwells on pain and suffering, Levy seems to have had a remarkably sunny childhood. The second of seven children born to an upper-middle-class family of assimilated Jews whose English roots went back to the 18th century, she appears to have grown up in an atmosphere of intellectual tolerance and playfulness. Beckman has been able to discover little about the Levys’ religious practices, but the evidence suggests that they were not particularly observant. When Amy’s father was asked what person he would choose to be other than himself, he answered: ‘Mr Darwin.’ With a high-spiritedness reminiscent of the Austens rather than the Brontës, the young Levys wrote and sketched, put out literary magazines, and indulged in home theatricals. At 19, Amy played Shylock in a household production of The Merchant of Venice, Act IV.

Though Levy would later comment with some sharpness that ‘for a long time … the shadow of the harem has rested on our womankind,’ it is hard to believe that she was thinking of her own family when she protested that Jews raised their women for nothing but marriage. One of her childhood drawings shows a woman in bloomers standing on a soapbox with a sign reading ‘Women’s Suffrage! Man is a Cruel Oppressor’; and whether or not her parents shared this sentiment, they clearly did nothing to discourage their daughter’s intellectual aspirations. At 15, she was sent to Brighton High School for Girls, a progressive institution founded by feminists, where she promptly succumbed to an intense crush on its Cambridge-educated headmistress; at 18, she set off for Cambridge herself. She had four brothers, but Jewish tradition notwithstanding, she was the only member of her family to go to university.

In ‘The Old House’, one of the last poems Levy wrote before she committed suicide, the speaker returns in imagination to her former home where ‘the dream was dreamed in unforgotten days’ only to flee in anguish from the spectre of her youthful self: ‘I am shamed/Before that little ghost with eager eyes.’ There appear to have been several reasons for her decision to kill herself – not the least of which, as Beckman sensibly suggests, was a biochemical tendency to depression. But it can also seem as if the very expansiveness of the aspirations nurtured by her childhood made the limitations of her adult experience harder to bear. Though Beckman does not speculate to this effect, she does note the painful difference between the exuberant tone of Levy’s youthful correspondence and the words of an 1888 letter to a close friend: ‘O Clemmy, Clemmy, is everybody’s life like this? I ought to have made something of mine, but it’s too late.’

What Levy ought to have achieved by the age of 27 is not clear – the letter in question is a fragment – but the poetry speaks to the intensity of her desires, even as it repeatedly suggests how in both love and fame she has fallen short of her ambition. She had intended to call her first book of verse Poeta Esuriens – ‘The Hungry Poet’; and though she abandoned the idea, she never seems to have satisfied the ‘endless Hunger’ it articulated. A late poem called ‘The Last Judgment’ ends with a bitter turn on the speaker’s confession that he has nothing but ‘dreams’ to offer at the final reckoning:

Some men sicken, with wine and food;
I starved on dreams, and found them good.

Some of the unsatisfied craving and self-laceration may derive from literary convention: although the same poem announces that ‘My love was false, and then she died,’ nothing in the present biography encourages us to take this literally. Levy herself acknowledged her debts to Shelley, Clough, Browning, Swinburne, Goethe and Heine, among others; in an obituary tribute to the author of the City of Dreadful Night, she identified the ‘one note’ that sounded throughout Thomson’s work as ‘a passionate, hungry cry for life’.

Beckman emphasises as well a tradition of female melancholy that descends from Letitia Landon and Felicia Hemans to Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. She also looks, understandably, for the personal origins of Levy’s despair, while acknowledging that many of the facts in the case remain elusive. After a century in private hands, Levy’s manuscripts and letters became accessible to scholars for the first time in the 1990s; and this volume – which includes a heavily annotated selection from the letters in an appendix – would presumably not have been possible without them. Beckman does not say on what principle she decided which letters to include, nor does she say how many survive; but the fact that the 37 published here apparently constitute ‘most’ of what’s available suggests something of the problem. And although the ones we have here are often revealing – especially, as Beckman notes, in their abrupt shifts of tone – their cryptic allusions to a broken heart or half-joking threats of suicide still leave much to speculation and inference.

Levy left Cambridge after her second year without sitting for her Tripos; but whether she was suffering from depression or simply decided to capitalise on the publication of her first volume of poetry remains unclear. An unpublished poem scribbled in her geology book condemns her failures in work and in love and ends by prescribing a dose of poison, yet the high spirit with which she berates herself makes it an equivocal piece of evidence. A cousin reported that Levy had an unhappy love affair at college; but while the adolescent letters boast openly of her ‘passion’ for the adored headmistress (‘Frankly I’m more in love with her than ever – isn’t it grim?’), whoever replaced Miss Creak in her affections remains mysterious. Although Levy had a large circle of female friends in the years after Newnham – Eleanor Marx, Olive Schreiner and Beatrice Potter (the future Mrs Webb) were among the more notable – her love for other women went largely unrequited. The best-known object of her affections seems to have been the novelist and aesthetician Vernon Lee, to whom she obliquely declared herself in two love poems included in a letter of 1886. ‘You are something of an electric battery to me … & I am getting faint fr. want of contact!’ she wrote a few months later; but Lee, who hardly lacked for erotic attachments, apparently did not respond in kind. Still another letter announces: ‘By the bye, I really do mean to write a novel, & you are to be not the heroine, but the hero!’ Presumably nothing ever came of this Orlando-like project.

Levy seems to have been convinced of her unattractiveness: ‘Little Body, all misshapen’, an early poem begins. A letter drily assures her mother that a plan to tutor some German boys poses no threat to her virtue: ‘I have never excited in anyone a desire to “forget themselves” in any way.’ The photographs in this book do show a rather plain woman, though Yeats, who met her in the last year of her life, pronounced her ‘good-looking in a way’. It is also difficult to separate Levy’s feelings about her physical attractions, or lack of them, from her deep ambivalence about her Jewishness. Like other signs of self-division and contempt, Levy’s anti-semitic impulses did not really surface until she left home for college. A caricature probably executed at that time shows two obviously Jewish women, whose exaggeratedly beaked noses, hooded eyes and heavy jewellery convey, as Beckman puts it, ‘a new, much more troubled preoccupation with “racial” difference’. A visit to a synagogue in Dresden after leaving Cambridge prompted an even more unambiguous outburst of revulsion:

[A] beastly place it was. Zion unventilated & unrefreshed sent forth an odour wh. made me feel [illegible] for the rest of the day. The place was crammed with evil-looking Hebrews … This afternoon we call on … some wealthy Hebrews of our ‘acquaintance’ who, for Js [Jews], don’t seem half bad. I say, ‘for Js’ because the German Hebrew makes me feel, as a rule, that the Anti-Semitic movement is a most just & virtuous one.

Though Levy seems to have mixed quite comfortably with gentiles as a child, Cambridge may have taught her the limits of assimilation. A story about a Jewish undergraduate called Leopold Leuniger, written during her years at Newnham, ends in a spasm of self-hatred, when Leuniger visits a fellow student’s country estate and overhears an aristocratic acquaintance make a disparaging remark about the ‘race’. Beckman also points to England’s own growing ambivalence about Jews during the last decades of the century, as old habits of tolerance towards assimilated families like the Levys were tested by new waves of immigration from Eastern Europe and by the increasing popularity of racial theorising. Whether or not Levy’s Jewishness made romantic attachments to other women more difficult, as Beckman speculates, it does seem likely that her heightened sensitivity to ethnic difference helped drive her from Cambridge.

Levy did not publish her story about Leopold Leuniger, though she was obsessed enough with the conflicts he represented to return to the character in two later studies of Jewish life: the controversial Reuben Sachs (1888) and a brief tale called ‘Cohen of Trinity’ (1889). (Beckman, who thinks the Leuniger story one of Levy’s strongest, had apparently intended to include it and another unpublished story in an appendix; but this, she cryptically announces in a note, ‘became impossible’.) Levy seems to have regarded her fiction primarily as a source of income. She was not orphaned, like the heroines of her first novel, The Romance of a Shop (not published until 1888); but reversals in the family fortunes similarly threatened her with downward mobility, and she was determined to support herself as best she could. Beckman concedes that most of her stories are potboilers, and the last novel, Miss Meredith (1889), little more than a pleasing fairytale, though she wants to credit their author’s ‘professionalism’ rather than condemn her lack of creative talent. In The Romance of a Shop the heroine who most obviously resembles Levy herself abandons a verse-drama about Charlotte Corday to set up a photography studio and sell the occasional poem or story to a magazine: ‘We all have to get off our high horse … if we want to live,’ says a fellow artist. Recent criticism has been more inclined to fault The Romance for marrying its heroines off at the end than for selling its aesthetic ideals short, but Beckman comes to its defence, not altogether convincingly, by arguing that it exaggerates Victorian conventions for satiric purposes.

Both in its day and ours, Reuben Sachs has posed a more difficult challenge. Like many 19th-century fictions, Levy’s brief novel turns on a conflict between marriage for advantage and marriage for love, though it is relatively unusual in resolving that conflict tragically. Not only does the titular hero, an intelligent and ambitious Jew, abandon the heroine in order to satisfy his Parliamentary aspirations, but the heroine herself makes an empty marriage to a rich and socially prominent convert; and both sacrifices are ironically rendered pointless when the hero dies prematurely of ‘cardiac disease’ soon after the election. What makes the novel troubling is not its plot, but the consistency with which the characters’ crasser motives are identified with their Jewishness and the disturbing generalisations about the ‘race’ that are scattered through the text. The narrator is especially hard on her characters’ appearance, speaking of ‘the ill-made sons and daughters of Shem’, or remarking of Reuben’s clothes that ‘they could not disguise the fact that his figure was bad, and his movements awkward; unmistakably the figure and movements of a Jew.’ In fairness, as Beckman observes, the novel also represents Jewish family life with considerable warmth and treats the heroine’s final isolation from the community as a genuine loss. But it is hardly surprising that Reuben Sachs was greeted with outrage by the Jewish press, or that gentile reviewers found their prejudices confirmed.

What is surprising is how unprepared Levy seems to have been for the controversy. Her only remarks on the novel beforehand, at least in the letters that survive, confirm that she took it more seriously than The Romance of the Shop (‘wh. is slight & aims at the young person’) but betray no hint of anxiety about its reception. This silence is the more notable because there is some evidence that her feelings about ‘the tribal duck-pond’, as Reuben terms the Jewish community, had evolved since her virulent attack of anti-semitism in the German synagogue. In 1886 Levy had written a series of articles for the Jewish Chronicle on subjects ranging from the ghetto in Florence to Jewish humour; and though these pieces are hardly uncritical, they do suggest that she was coming to terms with her own ambivalence. ‘Not for all Aristophanes can we yield up our national freemasonry of wit … our family joke, our Jewish Humour,’ her article on the subject concludes; and Beckman is surely right to read this article’s celebration of the simultaneous laughter and pathos in Heine as a key to what Levy wished to achieve in her writing. When the self-hating Leuniger returns in Reuben Sachs, the novel counters his anti-semitic remarks with Reuben’s more affirmative views.

Beckman’s attempt to make artistic sense of the novel’s incongruities is still uphill work, however. Calling attention to a number of places in which the narrator’s pronouncements appear to conflict with other evidence in the text, she tries to argue that these contradictions are deliberately self-subverting: ‘the relationship between the narrator and the narrative is slippery because Levy wants the reader to understand that it is impossible to establish the truth about the Jews.’ But if this is indeed what Levy wanted her readers to understand, she seems to have failed pretty thoroughly. An artistic intention so well hidden is hard to distinguish from mere lack of control; and it seems more probable that Levy had still not attained sufficient distance from her subject.

Despite some inclination to special pleading, Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters is a valuable guide to its subject. The thinness of the record necessarily makes it a more speculative biography than most, but Beckman is always careful to make clear on what grounds she has constructed her hypotheses. She is especially good at sorting out the different voices in which Levy speaks, though her own tactful readings of individual poems and stories seem more apposite than dutiful talk about ‘the clash of … subject positions’. She also does a good job of dispelling some of the myths that have persisted in attaching themselves to Levy. As late as 1993, The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers, for example, was still reporting that she lived in a ‘garret’ and worked in a factory – both of which legends Beckman traces to a 1912 essay that described Levy as ‘a Clapham factory girl’ with little schooling who ‘read voraciously at her loom’. More recently, feminist scholars have assumed that her friendship with Eleanor Marx and Beatrice Potter meant that she shared their left-wing politics; but Beckman patiently lays this romance to rest as well.

Despite tributes from Oscar Wilde and others in the years immediately following Levy’s death, most of her work had long been out of print when Melvyn New edited The Complete Novels and Selected Writings of Amy Levy for the University of Florida Press in 1993. Beckman acknowledges New’s edition, while at the same time addressing a number of works, published and unpublished, that he omitted.