Amy Levy, a poet and novelist who wrote works on lesbian and feminist themes and was the first Jewish woman enrolled at Cambridge’s Newnham College (and the second at Cambridge), was born in London on this date in 1861. She left Newnham without taking her exams when her first volume of poems was published. Among her circle of friends were Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, Oscar Wilde, and Vernon Lee, a fiction writer and literary critic with whom Levy fell in love and dedicated some of her poetry. Levy wrote essays about secular Jewish identity and challenged the traditional Jewish community’s treatment of women: “The assertion even of comparative freedom on the part of a Jewess often means the severance of the closest ties, both of ‘family and of race’,” she wrote. Her first novel, Romance of a Shop, told of four sisters who defy convention to open a photography business and live independently when their father dies. Her second novel, Reuben Sachs, told of social striving within the Anglo-Jewish community, and was sharply criticized for allegedly reinforcing Jewish stereotypes. Its reception plunged her into a depression, one of many that plagued her throughout life, and she committed suicide eight months after its publication, just shy of her 28th birthday.
“Amy Levy lived during the fervent debates about social Darwinism, eugenics, gender and ethnic identity, and theories of free love. As an emancipated, non-practising but self-identified Anglo-Jewish New Woman, she found it difficult to conform to the norms and gender relations dominant among Anglo-Jewry. She was critical about materialism, philistinism and self-complacency of emancipated British Jews.” —Dr. Andrzej Diniejko, Victorianweb.org