My books of the year 2021

Twelve of the biographies and memoirs I have enjoyed reading and reviewing in 2021. Thank you for reading the blog this year, and wishing you a very Happy New Year for 2022.

Burning Man: The Ascent of D. H. Lawrence (Bloomsbury, 2021) by Frances Wilson is a picaresque and immersive biography that paints a brilliant cinematographic picture of a decade of D.H. Lawrence’s life, from 1915 to 1925. (I wrote about the book, and Lawrence’s women friends and supporters, in my blogpost here). I also enjoyed re-reading Frances Wilson’s passionate and brilliant early biography, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber), reissued in a beautiful paperback edition earlier this year. It’s timely as Dorothy Wordsworth was born 250 years ago this month, and a recent Guardian editorial celebrated her life and writing as a ‘rare achievement’, not just for inspiring her famous brother’s poems, but as a first-rate nature writer in her own right.

Dorothy Wordsworth was a great walker in her younger days and walked for miles in the Lake District, Scotland and mainland Europe. I enjoyed Windswept: Walking in the footsteps of remarkable women by Annabel Abbs (Two Roads Books) a powerful memoir-biography about how walking in nature changed the lives and inspired the writing of writers including Nan Shepherd, Simone de Beauvoir, Gwen John and the author herself. Another book about women who travelled far from home is Undreamed Shores (Granta) by Frances Larson. ‘They went from the periphery into the unknown’, Larson writes, ‘and I doubt that any of them felt fully at home in England again.’ It’s a compelling group biography tracing the lives of five pioneering anthropologists who were among the first to study anthropology at Oxford University. My TLS review is here. I also loved Emily Midorikawa’s Out of the Shadows: six visionary Victorian women in search of a public voice (Counterpoint Press, 2021), a beautifully written, absorbing group biography that offers new insights into how six enterprising women succeeded in making spiritualism the means of gaining power, money and influence. More on this book, and the American Caroline Jebb’s trenchant views of the Cambridge University spiritualists of the 1870s, in my blogpost here.

Ding Dong! Avon Calling! by Katina Manko (OUP, 2021) is a well-written and perceptive American business history that takes seriously the ambitions and achievements of Avon Inc.’s vast, all-female network of saleswomen from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Avon celebrated these women as entrepreneurs, while systematically excluding them from the company’s senior management. I wrote about it for the 24 September TLS here. I highly recommend Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored In An Economy Built For Men by the Swedish economist Katrine Marçal (Harper Collins). Wittily translated by Alex Fleming, Marçal’s book is a fresh and highly readable account of how women’s brilliant ideas (from the wheelie suitcase to bra technology for spacesuits) have been overlooked through history until men decided to make these ideas their own, at a cost to the world’s economy. Kathleen Dixon Donnelly’s multi-volume series Such Friends: The Literary 1920s presents colourful, diary-like snippets, skilfully woven together, from the daily lives of writers, poets and artists of the Irish Literary Renaissance, the Bloomsbury Group, the Americans in Paris, and the Algonquin Round Table in New York. There are excerpts on her ‘Such Friends’ blog here.

My favourite literary memoir this year was Marina Warner’s evocative Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An Unreliable Memoir (Harper Collins; published as Esmond and Ilia: An Unreliable Memoir in the USA). It’s a richly detailed, sharp and sympathetic memoir, beautifully illustrated by Sophie Herxheimer, that uses treasured mementoes to connect family secrets to Britain’s colonial past, and offers insights into how Warner became a writer. My review is in the 26 March TLS here; I also wrote about Warner’s Cambridge connections in my March blogpost, ‘The Cambridge bookshop’. In November 2021 there was a welcome reissue by Faber of Virginia Cowles’s Looking For Trouble, a wonderfully fresh and vivid memoir of this remarkable, but nowadays little-known, woman war correspondent. A bestseller when it was first published in 1941, Looking For Trouble showcases Cowles’s great courage and ability to write, no matter what dangerous situation she found herself in. She is one of the six women wartime reporters featured in Judith Mackrell’s new group biography Going With The Boys (Pan Macmillan; published in the USA The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II), an entertaining and well-researched book highlighting the lives and work of Martha Gellhorn, Clare Hollingworth, Helen Kirkpatrick, Sigrid Schultz and Lee Miller. Mackrell, a Guardian journalist, is the guest in the latest ‘Lost Ladies of Lit’ podcast, a wonderful series about ‘forgotten’ women writers which I can thoroughly recommend (I was honoured to be a ‘Lost Ladies’ guest myself in April this year, discussing Amy Levy’s Reuben Sachs).

Last, but certainly not least, is Constance Ruzich’s International Poetry of The First World War (Bloomsbury Academic; forthcoming in paperback in April 2022). As I noted in my previous blogpost, it’s an anthology that draws together a diverse range of often overlooked poetic voices, revealing a more complex picture of the First World War and its aftermath. I particularly valued the careful research that went into the biographical notes accompanying each poem, revealing the personal stories of women and men, combatants and noncombatants and those for and against the war. There is more on Ruzich’s blog ‘Behind Their Lines’, here: and it would be wonderful if, in future years, there might be a film or play about the early jazz musician, bandleader and war hero, Lieut. James Rees Europe, pictured below.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 28 December 2021

‘Forgotten’ writers

I’m delighted to be a guest this week on the excellent ‘Lost Ladies of Lit’ book podcast hosted by Kim Askew and Amy Helmes. It’s a podcast about books, creativity, the writing life, and forgotten classics by women writers: recently I enjoyed their episodes on Marjorie Hillis, Martha Gellhorn and the Irish novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford. I was fascinated to discover that Hungerford’s Victorian bestseller Molly Bawn is name-checked in James Joyce’s Ulysses – and there is lots more to discover on the website here. Episodes are available on Apple podcasts, or via the website.

Kim and Amy invited me to talk about Amy Levy’s novel Reuben Sachs (1888) which attracted controversy when it was first published. Levy aimed to emulate her heroes Daudet and Zola, and say something original about affluent Jewish culture in Victorian Britain. ‘Its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and, above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make it, in some sort, a classic,’ Oscar Wilde said. ‘To write thus at six-and-twenty is given to very few.’ But the novel was widely criticized (along with its dangerous ‘New Woman’ author) and after her death Levy’s novels were ‘forgotten’ – that is, quietly dropped from the canon, as many Victorian women writers were.

Today I have updated my blogpost about Levy’s friendship with her former Cambridge tutor, Ellen Wordsworth Darwin. Both women were uncompromising in their pursuit of truth, and both struggled with depression, which Darwin herself described as ‘the personal struggle for life and joy continually beaten back’.

Amy Levy and Ellen Wordsworth Darwin

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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

Amy Levy

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′.

A club of their own

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‘The female club must be regarded as no isolated and ludicrous phenomenon, but as the natural outcome of the spirit of an age which demands excellence in work from women no less than from men’ Amy Levy. (I am delighted that my entry on ‘ The Ladies Dining Society’ is now included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ).

They called it the Ladies Dining Society, a name that sounds rather quaint and privileged now. But it was an act of rebelliousness all the same. In 1890, when the club began, Cambridge was  still very much a male society with its few female students living in colleges outside the town. University wives were expected to be gracious hosts and guests at dinner parties and provide polite conversation, but they were excluded from their husbands’ college high tables and the intellectual discussions that went on there.

It was a time when professional women’s associations and clubs had begun to spring up around Britain. In May 1890 the first Ladies’ Literary Dinner for women writers took place at the Criterion Restaurant in Piccadilly, London. Later renamed the Women Writers’ Dinner, it was so successful that it became an annual event.

In Cambridge, two of the university wives, Louise Creighton and Kathleen Lyttelton, both published writers, decided to form a dining and discussion club of their own. They invited a select group of between ten and twelve of their women friends to join, and agreed to take it in turn to host the occasion, provide dinner and choose a suitable topic for discussion.

They were, in the words of the economist John Maynard Keynes, ‘a remarkable group’. Most were married to professors or college masters, but all  were pioneers and achievers in their own right. Mary Paley Marshall was one of the first women students at Cambridge, and its first woman lecturer in economics. Eleanor Sidgwick became principal of Newnham college, Mary Ward was a suffragist and playwright, and Kathleen Lyttelton was the first editor to publish Virginia Woolf’s work. Ida Darwin was a leading figure in the twentieth-century fight for improved mental health care, while her American sister-in-law Maud Darwin campaigned for the introduction of women police officers in Britain. Maud’s aunt, the irrepressible Lady Caroline Jebb, was immortalised in Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece.

I will explore more of their stories in future posts. The dining society continued until the outbreak of the First World War, for almost 25 years providing a network of friendship and a space for debate, where these women’s voices would be heard.

Further reading: Marshall, Mary Paley What I remember (CUP 1947); The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women’s Writing ed. Linda H Peterson (CUP 2015); Linda Hughes ‘A Club of Their Own: The “Literary Ladies,” New Women Writers, and Fin-de-Siècle Authorship’ (Victorian Literature and Culture Vol. 35, Issue 1, March 2007, pp. 233-260

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘A club of their own’, (September 8, 2016) https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)