Posted on:Wednesday 17th March, 2021
‘The east wind blows in the street to‐day; / The sky is blue, yet the town looks grey’ begins ‘A March Day in London’ by Amy Levy (1861-1889). Greyness, biting wind; aimless and repetitive movement in a restricted space; simultaneous weariness and restlessness: the atmosphere Levy evokes feels curiously familiar at this time:
From end to end, with aimless feet,
All day long have I paced the street.
My limbs are weary, but in my breast
Stirs the goad of a mad unrest.
I would give anything to stay
The little wheel that turns in my brain;
The little wheel that turns all day,
That turns all night with might and main.
What is the thing I fear, and why?
Nay, but the world is all awry —
The wind’s in the east, the sun’s in the sky.
This poem appears in A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse (1889), a volume for which Levy borrows the epigraph from Austin Dobson: ‘Mine is an urban Muse, and bound / By some strange law to paven ground.’ In Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism: Passengers of Modernity (2005), Ana Parejo Vadillo connects Levy’s description of the ‘little wheel that turns in my brain’ with the development of urban transport and the consequent transformation of the city dweller’s experience of the metropolis, citing Arthur Symons’ notion of the ‘automobilisation of the mind’. Innovations in public transport offered women greater mobility and independence within the limits of respectability. Levy herself was one of the first to reject the convention that women should travel inside an omnibus, pointing out to her shocked family that she had been accompanied on her initial journey on the top deck by the granddaughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The ‘wandering minstrel’ of ‘Ballade of an Omnibus’ delights in movement and sociability, surveying the city from a series of unaccustomed vantage points with no need for a staid private carriage or ‘costly hansoms’. ‘The human tale of love and hate / The city pageant’ is best viewed from the bus:
In winter days of rain and mire
I find within a corner strait;
The ’busmen know me and my lyre
From Brompton to the Bull-and-Gate.
When summer comes, I mount in state
The topmost summit, whence I see
Crœsus look up, compassionate—
An omnibus suffices me.
Experimenting with French lyric forms such as the ballade and rondel, Levy explores the city’s juxtaposition of ancient and modern, aesthetic and practical, formal and crude. In ‘A London Plane-Tree’ she creates an urban pastoral, acclaiming the robust tree which does not ‘droop and pine for country air’ but thrives in smoke and fog, creating a shady space for the city dweller. ‘Ballade of a Special Edition’ relishes the cry of the newspaper seller, luridly advertising a sensational story of crime, ‘A double murder in Mile End’.
Levy’s writing is melancholy and comic, compassionate and sharp. She was conscious of her position as an outsider: a Jewish woman confronting antisemitism and misogyny; a pioneer of the type later to be named as the ‘New Woman’, whose education separated her from the daughters of more conservative Jewish families. Her critique of Anglo-Jewish materialism and social climbing in the novel Reuben Sachs (1888) is mingled with gentle satire on George Eliot’s romanticised view of Jewish life in Daniel Deronda. She condemns the patriarchal repression of women in ‘the Community’ but appreciates the conventional ladies who do not chafe at the limitations of their lives, such as the ‘excellent shopping-woman’ hunting for a bargain at Whiteley’s department store, ‘grudging no time to the matching of colours and such patience-trying operations, going through the business from beginning to end with a whole-hearted enjoyment that was good to see’ (Reuben Sachs). Levy points out that fears about the modern woman’s independence had been ludicrously exaggerated: the ‘female club-lounger, the flaneuse of St. James’s Street, latch-key in pocket and eye-glasses on nose, remains a creature of the imagination’.1 She depicts the difficulties faced by women who must earn their own money in The Romance of a Shop (1888), in which four sisters set up a photography business in Baker Street.
Modern Woman by Charles Dana Gibson
She had attended Brighton and Hove High School for Girls, an academic boarding school where she studied Latin and Greek, and she went on to university. In 1879 she became the second Jewish woman to go to Cambridge, where she studied classical and modern languages and literature. Girton (founded in 1869) and Levy’s college Newnham (1871) had been set up to give women a Cambridge education, although they were not granted full membership of the University until 1948. For Levy the experience of being an outsider was cruelly exacerbated by encounters with antisemitic prejudice and by depression, and she left Cambridge at the end of her second year. Although her own experience at Cambridge was unhappy, she retained a sense of the importance of a community of educated women as an alternative to ‘the importunities of a family circle, which can never bring itself to regard feminine leisure and feminine solitude as things to be respected’ (‘Women and Club Life’). Her university education became another target for prejudice. Grant Allen exploited her suicide to decry higher education for women in ‘The Girl of the Future’ (1890): ‘A few hundred pallid little Amy Levys sacrificed on the way are as nothing before the face of our fashionable juggernaut. Newnham has slain its thousands and Girton its tens of thousands.’
Xantippe og Sokrates, 1895 by P.H. Kristian Zahrtmann
She wrote poems, novels, articles for the Jewish Chronicle, and essays and short fiction for The Woman's World, a periodical edited by Oscar Wilde. He had noticed a promising volume of poetry, Xantippe, and Other Verse (1881), published while she was a student: ‘The modest little paper-covered book, which contains only thirty pages, was published in Cambridge, and was, we believe, never advertised. Its merit, however, attracted a good deal of attention, and the whole edition was sold out.’2 This volume contains a dramatic monologue, ‘Xantippe’, in which Levy voices the despair and fierce grief of Socrates’ wife, a woman known to history only as a scold. Her Xantippe has entered into marriage with a man she saw as a mentor, and is bitterly disappointed to realise that Socrates wanted a submissive wife and not an equal. When Plato, Socrates and Alcibiades contemptuously dismiss her attempt to contribute to their philosophical conversation, she disfigures the white marble of the idealised Hellenic scene in a maenadic frenzy:
But swiftly in my bosom there uprose
A sudden flame, a merciful fury sent
To save me; with both angry hands I flung
The skin upon the marble, where it lay
Spouting red rills and fountains on the white…
In ancient Athens, Xantippe’s lonely rage turns to icy despair and withdrawal. Levy, in 1880s London, could turn to sympathetic peers. She encountered writers and journalists like Eleanor Marx, Clementina Black and Olive Schreiner at the British Museum, a publicly visible space associated with professional labour, as Susan David Bernstein explains in Roomscape: Women Writers in the British Museum from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf (2013). Yet she was troubled by the isolation of the woman artist, writer or scientist, who would have to ‘fight her way unknown and single-handed; to compete with a guild of craftsmen all more or less known to one another, bound together by innumerable links of acquaintance and intercourse’ (‘Women and Club Life’). Despite the flourishing of women’s writing in the nineteenth century, London literary and intellectual networks remained predominantly masculine, with the exclusion of women as much a feature of the fin-de-siècle Rhymers’ Club as of the Athenaeum.
There has been much speculation about Levy’s sexuality. Sally Ledger’s description of Levy as a ‘New Woman poet with Sapphic interests’ seems apt: several of Levy’s love lyrics have female addressees, and some of her late poems respond to the revival of interest in Sappho in the 1880s.3 She sent several poems to her friend Vernon Lee (Violet Paget), confessing her love. However, it is unclear whether these poems of unrequited love represent feelings of romantic friendship or sexual passion. What is clear is that Levy suffered from serious and recurrent bouts of depression, perhaps exacerbated by her increasing deafness and the hostile reception of Reuben Sachs. In September 1889, two months before her 28th birthday, she took her own life at her parents’ house by inhaling carbon monoxide. This sonnet, published after Levy’s death, claims a place among London poets, connecting her with the urban writers of the past through the shared experience of melancholy and despair, offering the reflection that the poet’s suffering will pass into silence and perhaps offer consolation for the sorrows of the future:
London Poets’. (In Memoriam)
They trod the streets and squares where now I tread,
With weary hearts, a little while ago;
When, thin and grey, the melancholy snow
Clung to the leafless branches overhead;
Or when the smoke‐veiled sky grew stormy‐red
In autumn; with a re‐arisen woe
Wrestled, what time the passionate spring winds blow;
And paced scorched stones in summer: — they are dead.
The sorrow of their souls to them did seem
As real as mine to me, as permanent.
To‐day, it is the shadow of a dream,
The half‐forgotten breath of breezes spent.
So shall another soothe his woe supreme —
‘No more he comes, who this way came and went.’
Goldsmiths, University of London
1 Amy Levy, 'Women and Club Life', Woman's World (June 1888), 364-7.
3 As Linda Hunt Beckman points out, Levy would not necessarily have understood Sappho’s poetry as homoerotic before the 1885 publication of H. T. Wharton’s Sappho: Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings and a Literal Translation, the first English publication to reproduce Sappho’s feminine pronouns (Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters).