Amy Levy was born in London on November 10 1861, the second of seven children in a middle-class Jewish family. Levy attended Brighton High School for Girls, a school founded by women’s rights advocates that would be a catalyst for Levy’s outspoken, feminist views. While there, she wrote “Xantippe,” a dramatic monologue from the perspective of Socrates’s wife.
In 1879 Levy became the second Jewish woman to enroll in Cambridge University and the first Jewish woman to enroll at Newnham College. However, she left two years later when she published her first poetry collection, Xantippe and Other Verses (E. Johnson), at the age of twenty.
Levy then spent the next three years traveling, going back and forth between Germany and Switzerland and London. While in England, she stayed at her family home in Bloomsbury, though she led an independent life. Levy also frequented the British Museum Reading Room, where a group of emancipated women met daily. The group included Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl Marx; the novelist Olive Shreiner; and sociologist, economist, and social reformer Beatrice Webb. Afflicted with clinical depression, Levy spent her twenties battling the disease, though she still continued to publish her poems, essays, and stories in magazines.
In 1884 Levy published her second collection, A Minor Poet and Other Verse (T. Fisher Unwin), which was full of markedly melancholic poems. In 1886 Levy went to Florence to write a series of articles about the city for The Jewish Chronicle. There she met and befriended writer Violet Page (Vernon Lee), as well as her circle of friends, including the poet Dorothy Blomfield, with whom she would develop a romantic relationship.
By 1888, Levy had written several more essays and stories, as well as two novels: Romance of a Shop (Cupples and Hurd) and Reuben Sachs, A Sketch (Macmillan), a satire about the affluent Jewish community in England. The novel was controversial for its ironic use of anti-Semitic generalizations, which was mistakenly perceived by many as an attack on the Anglo-Jewish community.
In the winter of 1889, Levy wrote a third novel, Miss Meredith (Hodder and Stoughton), but she was deeply affected by the derision she was receiving from the press and Jewish community for Reuben Sachs. Levy was also quickly growing deaf. Thrown into another depression, Levy retreated to her parents’ home, where she worked on her third and final poetry collection, A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse (T. Fisher Unwin, 1889).
On September 10, 1889, at the age of twenty-seven, Levy committed suicide. Oscar Wilde was among those who praised Levy’s work and defended her controversial novels; in her obituary notice, he wrote, “Miss Levy’s novels The Romance of a Shop and Reuben Sachs were both published last year. The first is a bright and clever story, full of sparkling touches; the second is a novel that probably no other writer could have produced. Its directness, its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make it, in some sort, a classic. … To write thus at six-and-twenty is given to very few.”
A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse (T. Fisher Unwin, 1889)
A Minor Poet and Other Verse (T. Fisher Unwin, 1884)
Xantippe and Other Verses (E. Johnson, 1881)
Miss Meredith (Hodder and Stoughton, 1889)
Reuben Sachs, A Sketch (Macmillan, 1888)
Romance of a Shop (Cupples and Hurd, 1888)