The woman who dared: A biography of Amy Levy

A new life of a tragic and brilliant Victorian novelist of great observational powers uncovers her personal connections

By Elaine Feinstein, January 31, 2011
Amy Levy: lacking fashionably delicate prettiness and disliking her looks

Amy Levy: lacking fashionably delicate prettiness and disliking her looks

Christine Pullen
Kingston University Press, £20

The tragic figure of Amy Levy has always intrigued me. The child of a prosperous, middle-class family, she was the first Jewish student to study at Newnham College, Cambridge. She went up with a collection of poetry already published to high praise. This included a poem in the voice of Socrates' unhappy wife Xanthippe. When she left Cambridge, her circle of friends soon included Eleanor, the daughter of Karl Marx, the novelist Olive Shreiner, Beatrice Webb, and George Bernard Shaw. Oscar Wilde described her as "a girl of genius".

She was a New Woman, a rare creature indeed among the largely conformist Jewish community of her time, and she became part of a world that included followers of Darwin and some early proponents of eugenics, such as the statistician Karl Pearson, a protégé of Galton. With all her attainments, she valued her life so little that she killed herself in 1889 at the age of 27.

Christine Pullen is far from the first to ask why. (Indeed, some of the earliest speculations arose within a fortnight of Amy's death.) Amy's own work supplies many possible answers. Much of the writing about her suicide is influenced by her brilliant story, Cohen of Trinity, in which she describes a talented, Jewish student who comes to recognise that a group of aristocratic young men he longs to join will never accept him. His ungainly walk and alien features make him appear like a species of "pond life", whatever his success. So, at a moment of triumph, he takes his own life.

Pullen goes behind this reading of Amy's own story to uncover, through letters and diaries, the complex social life Levy was leading, with many trips to Europe and a web of close friendships.

Levy's shrewd observation of mercantile Jewish middle-class life in her innovative novel Reuben Sachs suggests she could never have been happy within that world but, unlike the intelligent heroine of her novel, she is far from trapped there.

Though the photographs in this book suggest none of the delicate prettiness fashionable at the time, Amy was not ugly, yet she disliked her own appearance. She wrote from Dresden to her anxious mother: "There won't be any impropriety in my teaching any number of young men… I have never excited in anyone a desire to forget themselves." Pullen records Amy's frequent moods of depression but rightly portrays her in the context of the intellectual fervour of her time: feminism, socialism, Darwinism, and theories of free love.

Levy made strong emotional attachments to women, which often went unreciprocated. Pullen explores these fully but her investigation of Amy's relationship to Professor Karl Pearson is most fresh and significant. Pearson's callous behaviour, not only towards Amy, but also towards many of the women who were attached to him, may well have precipitated her suicide; an absurd waste, even though she left behind an important body of work.

Elaine Feinstein's latest book is 'Cities'

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011