Amy Levy and Ellen Wordsworth Darwin

darwin-ellenThe critic Lisa Allardice has described Amy Levy’s Reuben Sachs (1888) ‘another forgotten classic by an accomplished female novelist. Amy Levy might be described as a Jewish Jane Austen.’ I was delighted to be invited to discuss Levy’s novel on Kim Askew and Amy Fowler’s excellent ‘Lost Ladies of Lit’ podcast in April 2021. This is a blogpost about Levy’s friendship with her former Newnham College Cambridge tutor.

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? 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 this 1903 photo of Ellen, reproduced courtesy of Newnham College Cambridge, above); certainly she had her passionate nature and almost austere truthfulness. 

In 1879 Amy Levy was just 17 when she became the first Jewish woman to study at Newnham College Cambridge. Ellen Wordsworth Crofts, as she was then, was 23 and the college’s first resident lecturer in English Literature and History, having studied at Newnham from 1874-77. Levy was a hardworking student and an ambitious young poet, and the two women found a common bond in their shared love of literature. Ellen was the great-niece of the poet William Wordsworth, while another uncle, Henry Sidgwick, was a Cambridge philosopher and one of the founders of Newnham. She was working on a book about Elizabethan and 17th-century lyric poetry when she met Amy, who had published an accomplished essay on Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh when she was 13.

Although she enjoyed 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 found it difficult to join in the other young women’s late-night cocoa parties and outings. Ellen was sympathetic and serious-minded and one of the few people that Amy could turn to as a friend. 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. She perhaps 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). It is also possible that she was undergoing a phase of serious depression. 

But Ellen and Amy’s friendship continued after Amy left Cambridge, and they might have met in Switzerland in the summer of 1883, when both women were on holiday there. Ellen had just become engaged to be married to the botanist Francis Darwin, who had moved to Cambridge after his father Charles Darwin’s death in 1882. 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 and became a stepmother to Frank’s young son Bernard. Their daughter Frances was born three years later, in 1886. Amy’s literary career began to flourish, and her poetry, short stories and articles were published in the Jewish Chronicle, while Oscar Wilde, then editor of the journal ‘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 divided her time between Europe and the British Library in London, where she befriended Eleanor Marx and Beatrice Webb (née Potter). 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. Her first novel The Romance of a Shop (1888) was selling well: it ‘aims at the young person’, she wrote, 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 see Ellen in 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 rather patronizing pro-Semitic descriptions in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876).

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 (in Daniel Deronda the Jewish family’s baby ‘carries on her teething intelligently’).

At first Levy 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 one of the few to be perceptive about Levy’s true mental state. Her work and socializing had provided a distraction from her lifelong struggle with depression, but her promising literary career was not enough to protect her from loneliness and despair and in September 1889 she took her own life. A few months later, 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 admits (with the characteristic honesty Levy admired), but she describes its power as ‘the personal struggle for life and joy continually beaten back’, and compares the poetry to Emily Brontë’s: ‘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 which might have been about the last, truly happy day they spent together in Switzerland.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 19 April 2021. 

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′.

‘The Other Eglantyne’, by Carolyn Ferguson

I’m delighted that Carolyn Ferguson has contributed a second blogpost, linked to her Masters’ Wives quilt post last month. Her article below introduces us to one of the women who may have contributed to, and certainly influenced, this important Cambridge textile from 1892. Eglantyne Louisa ‘Tye’ Jebb (1845-1925) is less famous than her namesake daughter, the founder of Save the Children Eglantyne Jebb (1876-1928), but Carolyn Ferguson makes the case that her contribution to the Arts and Crafts movement should be better known.

Screenshot-2020-04-24-at-21.44.22-300x297

Copper weathervane in the form of a cockerel from the chapel of Mill Road cemetery. Photograph credit: Peter Nixon, reproduced by kind permission of the Museum of Cambridge.

In August 1874 Caroline Slemmer and Richard Jebb went from Cambridge to Shropshire for their wedding. She described their arrival as ‘just like the novels we read of English life … none of the places in novels are near the station and no more was ours’[1]. There was a cart to take the boxes and a carriage with liveried coachman and footman to take the couple through miles of romantic countryside to an avenue of trees which lead to ‘The Lyth’, the home of Richard’s sister Eglantine Louisa and her husband Arthur Jebb. This then was Caroline’s introduction to the wider Jebb family. This post looks at the work of Eglantyne Louisa Jebb, Caroline’s sister-in-law, whose important influence in the world of Arts and Crafts largely goes unnoticed.

Eglantyne Louisa Jebb (1845-1925), known to her family as ‘Tye’ or ‘Tiny’ was an Irishwoman from Killiney who had married a distant cousin Arthur Trevor Jebb. She was no Victorian ‘angel in the house’, preferring to indulge her passions for poetry and painting and delegate the running of the household to her Newnham-educated and efficient sister-in-law, Louisa. ‘Tye’ would shock people by being unconventional and sit on the floor in front of the fire reading the paper or painting at the kitchen table amid the servants. So in this respect she would have been a bit like Caroline who was told off by her husband for informality early on in their marriage. The Jebb family were comfortably off but not rich – an old established family of gentleman farmers rather than landed gentry. Arthur at first practised at the Bar but from 1874 the family estate in Shropshire was his to run. Farming was not easy in the early years and Arthur was apt to complain about the laundry bills; one servant in particular had sent 70 handkerchiefs and as many aprons to the laundry in a 90 day period.

By the 1880s things were easier and their brood of six children, four daughters and two sons, were growing  ; Eglantyne was then able to champion more formally Women’s rights and Women’s work. Dreamy and artistic she might have been, but this did not prevent the emergence of the philanthropic ideals and missionary zeal that were common to many women in the late Victorian period. As a result of arranging to give a local lad lessons in woodcarving, she had realised the importance of maintaining local craft practices, giving people skills and marketing the produce of the labours. So in the last half of 1882 the Cottage Arts Association, Shropshire was born. Eglantyne appears to have been the founder and mainstay of this particular association although similar organisations were springing up round the country. She clearly found the experience fulfilling, for on Christmas Eve she confided to her diary that 1882 had been ‘the most wonderful year of my life. A lifetime of experience crowded into six months’. A few years later, in 1885, Cottage Arts moved under the umbrella of the Home Arts and Industries Association (HAIA) which promoted historical home arts and crafts throughout England, Scotland and Ireland until the advent of WW1. Eglantyne is credited with being one of the founders of this nationwide network of craft classes and organisations along with Mary Seton Watts. She publicised the Association in The Magazine of Art (1885) and the first volume of Woman’s World (1888) .[2] Interestingly this latter article appeared under Oscar Wilde’s editorial reign; he too was a champion of the Arts and Crafts movement. Little did Eglantyne know how influential her initial work in helping to promote classes in rural crafts was to become; by 1890 there were more than 450 classes running throughout the UK. The Association that she helped to begin was a forerunner to the Arts and Crafts movement run by William Morris.

In 1904 The Art Workers Quarterly described HAIA as ‘ a society for teaching the working classes handicrafts such as wood carving, inlaying, metal repoussé , basket weaving, leather work, book binding, and for encouraging these and others such as lace, embroidery, spinning, weaving, pottery etc, by means of an annual exhibition’; the first exhibition took place in 1885 and it proved so popular that the Royal Albert Hall was used as a venue from 1888. It is not clear where the initial ‘craft’ emphasis lay, as the legacy seems largely to be objects made from wood and metal, but the 1880s was a fertile time for ladies of a certain class to get involved in philanthropy and needlework organisations. An 1883 list of work societies (to promote needlework, sell work and give jobs to the distressed) by ‘Dorinda’  quotes 31 such societies round the UK[3]. There are obvious complications with this type of model for as Janice Helland  says ‘it revolves around the troubled relationship between philanthropy and its lower-class subjects, the complicated nature of beneficence, and commonly held opinions about the differences between the Arts and Crafts Movement and home arts’.[4] There seem to have been a large number of ‘ do-gooders’ among the leaders (rather than practising artists/craftswomen) and this may well have been why Eglantyne stepped back from active involvement. Her role in the Association was comparatively short lived as family pressures made her withdraw publicly in 1886 . From accounts ‘Tye’ seemed to have suffered nervous exhaustion but it could just have been that the nationwide craft was just too complicated for her to continue. She was though involved in the important craft exhibitions of 1885 and 1886. No records of these exhibitions have been found but a contemporaneous article on the 1900 exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall is critical of the carving, metal work and furniture but extols the virtues of the hand weaving and stitched items. It is unclear whether these crafts were exhibited from Tye’s classes.

EJ flower block top right

It is however pertinent that the work of women is applauded, as many of the blocks of the Masters’ Wives quilt seem to have Arts and Crafts leanings. We do not know if this particular quilt was Tye’s idea, as the precise paths which give rise to embroidered signature quilts are unknown. I like to think that the still unknown ‘EJ’ was her monogram (see red flower block above, bottom right) and that in December 1891 her Cambridge sister-in-law Caroline Jebb might have asked for her assistance, knowing how talented and enthusiastic craftswoman Tye was. There were also further Cambridge connections as an HAIA metal work class, the Newton Class, was being run in Cambridge the city by John Williams (the ‘Copper weathervane in the form of a cockerel’, pictured above, and held in the Museum of Cambridge, is typical of this style). It is known that the class regularly featured at the HAIA exhibitions; and in a review of 1896 the Studio wrote: ‘The Newton (Cambridge) metal work included a fine panel of peacocks, part of a scheme for a complete decoration of a fireplace.[5] In 1901 Tye and her daughter Eglantyne moved to Cambridge to be near her brother Richard and his wife Caroline. By that time Tye was a widow and the children were largely off her hands; in time all four daughters were to become significant in their own right. Eglantyne and Dorothy co-founded the Save the Children Fund in 1919, Emily (Em) her eldest daughter was involved in Irish independence and wrote books, while Louisa (Lill) became the founder of the first Women’s Land Army in WW1.[6]

However we must not forget the achievements of Eglantyne Louisa ‘Tye’ Jebb, their mother. She was certainly an accomplished teacher, organiser, philanthropist, artist and likely to have been a creative sewer too!

© Carolyn Ferguson 22 May 2020 (all rights reserved)

1892

SOURCES

‘Copper weathervane in the form of a cockerel’, photographed by Peter Nixon, reproduced by kind permission of the Museum of Cambridge. https://www.museumofcambridge.org.uk/

‘Capturing Cambridge’ website: https://capturingcambridge.org/mill-road-area/mill-road/mill-road-cemetery/

[1]Mary Reed Bobbit, With Dearest Love to all: The Letters and Life of Lady Jebb, (Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 1960), p 94.

[2] Eglantyne Louisa Jebb, ‘The Home Arts and Industries Association’, The Magazine of Art, 1885, p 294-298; Eglantyne Louisa Jebb, ‘The Home Arts and Industries Association’, Woman’s World, Vol 1, p 418-422.

[3] https://pdf.library.soton.ac.uk/WSA_open_access/00394502.pdf

[4] Janice Helland (2012) “Good Work and Clever Design”: Early Exhibitions of the Home Arts and Industries Association, The Journal of Modern Craft, 5:3, 275-293

[5] http://www.artsandcraftsmetalwork.co.uk/page14.htm

[6] Clare Mulley The Woman who Saved the Children (Oneworld Publications, 2009), p. 195.