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.’

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