Amy Levy

Born: 10 November 1861
Died: 10 September 1889
Poetess and novelist, second daughter of Mr. Lewis Levy, by his wife Isabelle [Levin], was born at Clapham on 10 Nov. 1861. Her parents were of the Jewish faith. She was educated at Brighton, and afterwards at Newnham College, Cambridge. She early showed decided talent, especially for poetry, pieces afterwards thought worthy of preservation having been written in her thirteenth year. In 1881 a small pamphlet of verse from her pen, ‘Xantippe and other poems,’ was printed at Cambridge. Most of the contents were subsequently incorporated with her second publication, A Minor Poet and other Verse, (1884). ‘Xantippe’ is in many respects her most powerful production, exhibiting a passionate rhetoric and a keen, piercing dialectic, exceedingly remarkable in so young a writer. It is a defence of Socrates’s maligned wife, from the woman’s point of view, full of tragic pathos, and only short of complete success from its frequent reproduction of the manner of both the Brownings. The same may be said of ‘A Minor Poet,’ a poem now more interesting than when it was written, from its evident prefigurement of the melancholy fate of the authoress herself. The most important pieces in the volume are in blank verse, too colloquial to be finely modulated, but always terse and nervous. A London Plane Tree and other Poems, (1889), is, on the other hand, chiefly lyrical. Most of the pieces are individually beautiful; as a collection they weary with their monotony of sadness. The authoress responded more readily to painful than to pleasurable emotions, and this incapacity for pleasure was a more serious trouble than her sensitiveness to pain: it deprived her of the encouragement she might have received from the success which, after a fortunate essay with a minor work of fiction, The Romance of a Shop, attended her remarkable novel, Reuben Sachs, (1889). This is a most powerful work, alike in the condensed tragedy of the main action, the striking portraiture of the principal characters, and the keen satire of the less refined aspects of Jewish society. It brought upon the authoress much unpleasant criticism, which, however, was far from affecting her spirits to the extent alleged. In the summer of 1889 she published a pretty, and for once cheerful story, Miss Meredith, but within a week after correcting her latest volume of poems for the press, she died by her own hand in her parents’ house, 7 Endsleigh Gardens, London, 10 Sept. 1889. No cause can or need be assigned for this lamentable event except constitutional melancholy, intensified by painful losses in her own family, increasing deafness, and probably the apprehension of insanity, combined with a total inability to derive pleasure or consolation from the extraneous circumstances which would have brightened the lives of most others. She was indeed frequently gay and animated, but her cheerfulness was but a passing mood that merely gilded her habitual melancholy, without diminishing it by a particle, while sadness grew upon her steadily, in spite of flattering success and the sympathy of affectionate friends. Her writings offer few traces of the usual immaturity of precocious talent; they are carefully constructed and highly finished, and the sudden advance made in Reuben Sachs indicates a great reserve of undeveloped power. She was the anonymous translator of Pérés’s clever brochure, Comme quoi Napoléon n’a jamais existé.

All books by Amy Levy