Victorian Literature Amy Levy
Naomi Hetherington
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0146


Despite her relatively short career, Amy Levy (1861–1889) has gained a singular importance as an Anglo-Jewish, feminist, queer and urban writer. Born into an assimilated Jewish household, she was not religiously observant. Her parents supported their young daughter’s education. In 1879, Levy went up to Newnham, one of the newly opened women’s colleges at Cambridge, where she studied languages. While at Cambridge, she published her first volume of poetry Xantippe and Other Verse (1881). The title poem is a powerful argument for women’s education in the form of a dramatic monologue spoken by Socrates’s wife. On leaving Cambridge, Levy set herself up as a professional writer. She published a further volume of poetry, A Minor Poet and Other Verse (1884), contributed short stories and essays to a number of women’s and society magazines, and undertook translation. Levy used the income she earned from these publications to travel the Continent alone and with friends. In Florence, she fell in love with the novelist and art critic Vernon Lee (Violet Paget). They became friends although Levy’s feelings appear not to have been reciprocated. In London, Levy forged a network of literary and intellectual connections centered on the British Museum Reading Room. They included a number of socialists and social reformers such as Eleanor Marx, Karl Pearson, Olive Schreiner, and Beatrice Potter Webb. In 1888, she began to contribute to Oscar Wilde’s journal Woman’s World. Over the next eighteen months, she published three novels. Reuben Sachs, her best-known novel, is a satire of London’s middle-class Jewish community. Condemned by her co-religionists, it was praised in the mainstream press as a realistic portrait of Jewish life. When Levy killed herself less than a year later, there was much speculation as to her death. Rediscovered by feminist and Jewish critics in the 1980s and 1990s, Levy was initially celebrated for her progressive sexual politics while her depiction of contemporary Anglo-Jewry has continued to spark debate and controversy. Levy’s suicide has also provoked critical speculation about her different marginal identities, her unhappy love life, and her depressive temperament. More recently, scholars have taken seriously the philosophical pessimism of her verse, particularly her final collection A London Plane-Tree (1889), which was published posthumously. The proliferation of scholarship on Levy over the last two decades has drawn together different critical perspectives to provide a more detailed and complex picture of her life and work.

General Overviews

To date there is no introductory or companion volume to Levy. The best overview of her work is the introduction to Hetherington and Valman 2010. Those wanting a more concise introduction to Levy should see the entries listed in the reference works section.

  • Hetherington, Naomi, and Nadia Valman, ed. Amy Levy: Critical Essays. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2010.

    The only collection of essays on Levy’s life and work. Contains a critical introduction giving an outline of Levy’s life and work and a review of scholarship on Levy to date and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary material.

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