The tragic poet Oscar Wilde called a genius

By Jennifer Lipman, April 26, 2013
Amy Levy: "incredibly underrated"

Amy Levy: "incredibly underrated"

A handwritten poem written by one of Victorian Jewry's most highly-regarded writers and feminist thinkers shortly before her suicide is expected to fetch up to £3,000 when it is auctioned next month.

Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Clapham, south London, in 1861, Amy Levy defied expectations of both her gender, religion and her class to become only the second Jewish woman student at Cambridge, and the first to study at Newnham College.

A novelist and poet, she was first published at the age of 14 and mixed in intellectual circles, with her close acquaintances including Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor, the social reformer Beatrice Webb and playwright George Bernard Shaw.

Described by Oscar Wilde as a "girl of genius" and in her Jewish Chronicle obituary as possessing "a keen insight into human affairs, and exhibiting a strength of mind far beyond her physical strength".

One of her final works, a poem called At Dawn, that was allegedly inspired by her love for the feminist novelist Vernon Lee, will go on sale at Bonhams on May 8.

It is thought to have been written in 1889, only months before Ms Levy killed herself by inhaling carbon monoxide. She was just 27 years old.

The auction of the poem is unusual, - none of her archive has ever been made for sale before. "I'm almost certain it's the text she sent to the publisher," said Roy Davids, the current owner. Acknowledging that the poet is not a household name, he said that he hoped the sale would draw attention to her impressive career.

"She was extraordinary," he said. "When you think of the prejudices women of the time faced, and for her to face them as a Jew, then it's even more extraordinary."

Although she moved away from her religious upbringing as an adult, she always viewed herself as Jewish, writing a series of essays for this paper and also publishing in Wilde's Women's World magazine a story called Cohen of Trinity about a Jewish student grappling with his own sense of difference.

One of her novels, Reuben Sachs, set in the Anglo-Jewish community of Bayswater, in west London, offered a satirical look at her co-religionists and questions of identity.

"She is incredibly underrated," said Mr Davids. "It's a great shame and it's nothing to do with the quality of
her work."

Last updated: 11:45am, April 26 2013