‘Written with the heart’s blood’: Ellen Darwin and Amy Levy

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In summer 1888 Ellen Darwin told her sister-in-law Ida that her friend Amy Levy was coming to visit. She confided that she had some concerns about Amy’s new novel:

‘She has written a novel, in which the heroine is partly me. I have not read it yet, but I don’t expect much: her stories and novels are rather saddening.’

Reuben Sachs: A Sketch, Amy Levy’s second novel, was published a few months later. It attracted controversy, both for its satirical depiction of an affluent Anglo-Jewish community and its critique of the Victorian marriage market. It is also a poignant love story about two people who love each other, but money and ambition get in the way.

Ellen Darwin was not Jewish, and her Yorkshire upbringing was very different from the fictional Judith Quixano’s Portuguese connections. Why did Amy have Ellen in mind when she wrote about Judith? Possibly Ellen shared Judith’s  beauty and ‘deep, serious gaze of the wonderful eyes’, as seen in the photograph above; certainly she had her passionate nature and her almost austere adherence to truthfulness.

Ellen and Amy met in 1879 at Newnham, the fledgling women’s college in Cambridge. Ellen Crofts, as she was then, was 25 and the college’s history and English literature lecturer. Previously she had been one of Newnham’s earliest students. Amy Levy was the first Jewish woman to study at Cambridge: at just 17 she had already shown promise as a writer.

Two years later, Amy left Cambridge without taking her final exams. Perhaps this was because she wanted to devote more time to her writing: her first poetry collection, Xantippe and Other Verse, published while she was still a student, had been generously praised. But Amy also suffered from bouts of clinical depression and was often deeply unhappy at Cambridge. Ellen Crofts, her young tutor, was the one of the few people that she could turn to for sympathy, and, according to a contemporary, encouragement to keep on writing:

 ‘…she from the first recognized genius in a student who, extremely unpopular, was shunned by co-mates and dons alike until Ellen made a friend of her, and so helped to draw out talents that the literary world have since acknowledged.’

It seems very likely that Amy Levy was the unpopular, unhappy Newnham student and Ellen Crofts was her friend and supporter, one of the first to recognise her literary gifts.

Ellen and Amy’s friendship continued after Amy left Cambridge. Ellen married Frank Darwin and left her lecturing post, but stayed in Cambridge teaching part-time at Newnham and serving on its council. Ellen and Frank’s daughter Frances was born in 1886. Amy had moved back to her parents’ house in Bloomsbury and, encouraged by Ellen, was beginning to publish her poetry, short stories and articles. After Oscar Wilde read a short story of hers in 1887 he declared that it had ‘a touch of genius’ and commissioned more work from her, including her article ‘Women and Club Life’ for Woman’s World, the magazine that he edited. Amy’s first novel The Romance of a Shop was published in 1888, and a year later she was among twenty leading female authors invited to take part in the first Women’s Literary Dinner at Piccadilly, which became an annual event until 1914.

Amy had achieved literary success, but not the emotional stability she craved, and tragically, just over three months later she took her own life, aged 27. Her last poetry collection, A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse, was published shortly after she died, and in January 1890 Ellen Darwin reviewed it for the Cambridge Review. She described how Amy Levy’s poetry’s power comes from ‘the personal struggle for life and joy continually beaten back’, and she compared it to that of Emily Bronte:

‘It is as different as their natures were different, but it has this one thing in common – it was written with the heart’s blood.’

Perhaps Ellen knew better than anyone Amy’s ‘eager vital temperament’, and her constant, heroic struggle to live under the shadow of depression.

Ann Kennedy Smith

Sources: My thanks to Anne Thomson and Newnham College for permission to reproduce Ellen Darwin’s photograph (Newnham PH/10/4 Chrystal Album no.2), and for access to the archives. For more on Amy Levy, see Eleanor Fitzsimons’s excellent Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew (Duckworth Overlook, 2015) and blog article here. I also consulted Ellen’s letter to Ida Darwin at the Cambridge University Library (Add.9368.1:3543); Linda Hunt Beckman, Amy Levy: her life and letters (Ohio, 2000); B.A. Clough, ‘In Memoriam-Ellen Wordsworth Darwin’ Newnham College Roll Newsletter 1903; Ellen Darwin, ‘The Poems of Amy Levy’, Cambridge Review, 23 Jan 1890; and ‘Amy Levy’ on the Victorian Web here. The Persephone Books website has more information on Amy and links to her books here.

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Written with the heart’s blood: Ellen Darwin and Amy Levy'(October 14, 2016): https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)

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