In summer 1888 Ellen Wordsworth Darwin (née Crofts) told her sister-in-law Ida Darwin that her former student Amy Levy was coming to visit. ‘She has written a novel, in which the heroine is partly me’, she told Ida. ‘I have not read it yet, but I don’t expect much: her stories and novels are rather saddening.’
Why did Amy have Ellen Darwin in mind when she wrote about Judith Quixano in her second novel, Reuben Sachs: A Sketch? (Reuben Sachs and his beautiful, penniless cousin Quixano are deeply in love, but his political ambitions prevent him from marrying her.) Darwin was not Jewish, and her Yorkshire upbringing was very different from the fictional Quixano’s Portuguese connections. Possibly Ellen shared what Levy describes as Judith’s ‘deep, serious gaze of the wonderful eyes’ (as can be seen in the 1903 photo of Ellen) certainly she had her passionate nature and almost austere truthfulness.
In 1879 Levy was 17 and the first Jewish woman to study at Newnham College Cambridge when she met Ellen Crofts, as she was then, the college’s resident lecturer in English literature and History. Ellen was just beginning her academic career, having studied at Newnham from 1874-77; Levy was a brilliant and ambitious young poet. The two women became friends through their shared love of literature. Ellen was the great-niece of the poet William Wordsworth, and another uncle, Henry Sidgwick, was a Cambridge philosopher and one of the founders of Newnham College. She was working on a book about Elizabethan and 17th-century lyric poetry when she met Amy, who had published an essay on Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh when she was 13.
Despite enjoying her studies, Amy Levy was often lonely at Cambridge. In the close community of Newnham she felt all too conscious of her Jewish difference, and she found it difficult to join in the other young women’s cocoa parties and outings. Ellen, as her sympathetic and serious-minded tutor, was one of the few people that Amy could turn to. Writing about Darwin in 1903, her contemporary Blanche Smith recalled how ‘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.’
Could this unpopular but talented student have been Amy Levy? We can’t be sure, but in 1881 she 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 (1881) published while she was still a student, was praised by influential critic Richard Garnett. Possibly she did not want to take the mathematics paper necessary to sit for the Tripos, which women students won the right to do in May 1881 (see my post on Mary Willcox here).
Ellen and Amy’s friendship continued after Amy left Cambridge, and it’s possible that they met up in Switzerland in the summer of 1883, when both women happened to be on holiday there. Three years later Levy would publish a poem called ‘To E.’ about a happy day that she spent with two other writer friends in the mountains: one was an unnamed male poet, and the other a ‘learned’ woman. (‘You, stepped in learned lore, and I,/ A poet too.’) Towards the end of the poem, Levy’s unrequited love for the woman is hinted at: ‘And do I sigh or smile to-day?/Dead love or dead ambition, say,/Which mourn we most? Not much we weigh/Platonic friends.’
In September 1883 Ellen gave up her Newnham lectureship (and ambitions to be a serious literary scholar) when she married the botanist Francis Darwin, who had moved to Cambridge after his father Charles Darwin’s death in 1882. Ellen became a stepmother to Frank’s young son Bernard, and their daughter Frances was born in 1886. Amy continued to divide her time between Europe and the British Library in London, where she befriended Eleanor Marx and Beatrice Webb (née Potter) and published poetry, short stories and articles in the Jewish Chronicle. But although she had close friendships with other women – and most likely a serious (on Levy’s part) love affair in Florence with Violet Paget, who wrote under the pseudonym Vernon Lee – Levy did not find the lasting romantic friendship that she longed for.
In the summer of 1888, when she travelled to Cambridge to visit Ellen, 27-year-old Levy was on the cusp of great success as a writer. Oscar Wilde, then editor of Woman’s World, had described one of her stories as having ‘a touch of genius’, and commissioned more work from her, including her article ‘Women and Club Life’. Levy’s first novel The Romance of a Shop (1888) was selling well. The book ‘aims at the young person’, as she said herself, and it’s an entertaining and light-hearted story about four independent young sisters who set up their own photography studio in London. Her next novel would be much more ambitious and complex and would, she hoped, make her name as a writer.
Reuben Sachs: A Sketch was published soon after Levy’s trip to Cambridge. The idea for it had developed from Levy’s 1886 article called ‘The Jew in Fiction’ in the Jewish Chronicle in which she called for ‘a serious treatment… of the complex problem of Jewish life and Jewish character.’ With Reuben Sachs she wanted to challenge the anti-Semitic tropes of the Victorian novel, such as Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (1871), as well as the well-meaning but unexamined assumptions of George Eliot’s pro-Semitic Daniel Deronda (1876) in which the Jewish family’s baby ‘carries on her teething intelligently’.
From the first, Reuben Sachs attracted controversy for its scathing depiction of the affluent upper-class Anglo-Jewish community that Levy knew well. Even though she describes a close and loving London community, who take in impoverished Judith Quixano and treat her as one of their own, Levy’s mordant attack on Jewish materialist values and critique of the late-Victorian marriage market meant that her book was widely criticized. Her satirical humour in the style of Zola or Daudet was not understood, nor was her attempt to parody George Eliot.
During the first half of the following year Levy – who never sought popularity – managed to shrug off the negative reviews. She threw herself into her writing, and took part in literary events, including organizing gatherings at the newly founded University Women’s Club in London. She was one of the guests at the first ever Women Writers’ Dinner, held at the Criterion Restaurant in Piccadilly in May 1889 and attended by prominent other ‘New Women’ writers Mona Caird and Olive Schreiner. At the end of July 1889 she met the poet W.B. Yeats. ‘She was talkative, good-looking in a way,’ he recalled, ‘and full of the restlessness of the unhappy.’
Yeats was perceptive about Levy’s mental state. Her work and socializing had provided a distraction from her struggles with depression, but it was not enough to protect her from loneliness and despair. Although her literary star was in the ascendant, she could not see an escape from her inner darkness, and in September 1889 she took her own life.
In January 1890 Ellen Darwin reviewed Levy’s posthumously published poetry collection, A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse (1889) in the Cambridge Review. She describes her friend’s ‘eager vital temperament’, and her constant, heroic struggle with ‘the shadow of a great mental depression’. Levy’s poetry’s range might be narrow, Darwin writes (with the characteristic honesty Levy admired), but its power comes from ‘the personal struggle for life and joy continually beaten back’. Ellen Darwin compares Levy’s poetry to that of Emily Brontë: ‘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’. She says nothing in her review about ‘To E.’, the last poem in the collection.
© Ann Kennedy Smith, 19 April 2021. I was delighted to be invited to discuss Reuben Sachs on the excellent ‘Lost Ladies of Lit’ podcast this month: follow the link here.
My thanks to Anne Thomson for her archival assistance, and to Newnham College for permission to reproduce Ellen Darwin’s photograph (Newnham PH/10/4 Chrystal Album no.2). Other sources: For more on Amy Levy, see Linda Hunt Beckman, Amy Levy: her life and letters (Ohio, 2000); Eleanor Fitzsimons’s Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew (Duckworth Overlook, 2015) and ‘A brief introduction to the works of Amy Levy’ on the Victorian Web website (accessed 19 April 2021); Ellen Darwin’s letter to Ida Darwin: Cambridge University Library, Darwin Family Papers Add.9368.1:3543; ‘In Memoriam-Ellen Wordsworth Darwin’ Newnham College Roll Newsletter 1903; Ellen Wordsworth Darwin (Ellen Crofts) Chapters in the history of English literature: from 1509 to the close of the Elizabethan period (London, Rivingtons, 1884); ‘The Poems of Amy Levy’, Cambridge Review, 23 Jan 1890; ‘The Ladies’ Dining Society 1890-1914′.