Biography of Amy Levy
Poetry by Amy Levy
Amy Judith Levy (10 November 1861 – 9 September 1889) was an Jewish essayist, poet, and novelist best remembered for her literary gifts; her experience as the second Jewish woman at Cambridge University, and as the first Jewish student at Newnham College, Cambridge; her feminist positions; her friendships with others living what came later to be called a “New Woman” life, some of whom were lesbians; and her relationships with both women and men in literary and politically activist circles in London during the 1880s.
Early life and education
Levy was born in Clapham, an affluent district of London, on 10 November 1861, to Lewis and Isobel Levy. She was the second of seven children born into a Jewish family with a “casual attitude toward religious observance”, who sometimes attended a Reform synagogue in Upper Berkeley Street the West London Synagogue. As an adult, Levy continued to identify herself as Jewish and wrote for The Jewish Chronicle. She is an example of a Jewess in the liberal environment of the 19th century Victorian England.
Levy showed an interest in literature from an early age. At 13, she wrote a criticism of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s feminist work Aurora Leigh; at 14, Levy’s first poem, “Ida Grey: A Story of Woman’s Sacrifice”, was published in the journal Pelican. Her family was supportive of women’s education and encouraged Amy’s literary interests; in 1876, she was sent to Brighton and Hove High School and later studied at Newnham College, Cambridge. Levy was the first Jewish student at Newnham when she arrived in 1879 but left before her final year. It is very possible that if she wasn’t a Jewess her works would not have been published and distrubuted so widely, since her affluent Jewish family sponsored these pursuits.
Her circle of friends included Clementina Black, Ellen Wordsworth Darwin, Dollie Radford, Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl Marx), and Olive Schreiner. While travelling in Florence in 1886, Levy met Vernon Lee, a fiction writer and literary theorist six years her senior, and fell in love with her. Both women went on to explore the themes of sapphic love in their works. Lee inspired Levy’s poem “To Vernon Lee”.
The Romance of a Shop (1888), Levy’s first novel, is regarded as an early “New Woman” novel and depicts four sisters who experience the difficulties and opportunities afforded to women running a business in 1880s London, Levy wrote her second novel, Reuben Sachs (1888), to fill the literary need for “serious treatment … of the complex problem of Jewish life and Jewish character”, which she identified and discussed in a 1886 article “The Jew in Fiction.”
Levy wrote stories, essays, and poems for popular or literary periodicals; the stories “Cohen of Trinity” and “Wise in Their Generation”, both published in Oscar Wilde’s magazine The Woman’s World, are among her most notable. In 1886, Levy began writing a series of essays on Jewish culture and literature for The Jewish Chronicle, including The Ghetto at Florence, The Jew in Fiction, Jewish Humour, and Jewish Children.
Levy’s works of poetry, including the daring A Ballad of Religion and Marriage, reveal her feminist concerns. Xantippe and Other Verses (1881) includes “Xantippe”, a poem in the voice of Socrates’s wife; the volume A Minor Poet and Other Verse (1884) includes more dramatic monologues as well as lyric poems. Her final book of poems, A London Plane-Tree (1889), contains lyrics that are among the first to show the influence of French symbolism.
Amy Levy was a Lesbian Jewess.
Levy experienced episodes of major depression from an early age. In her later years, her depression worsened in connection to her distress surrounding her romantic relationships and her awareness of her growing deafness. On 9 September 1889, two months away from her 28th birthday, she killed herself at the residence of her parents at Endsleigh Gardens” by inhaling carbon monoxide. Oscar Wilde wrote an obituary for her in The Women’s World in which he praised her gifts. She was the first Jewish woman to be cremated in England, her ashes were buried at Balls Pond Road Cemetery in London.