Monday 24 February 2020, 7.30 pm
Reuben Sachs, Amy Levy – Synopsis
This 1888 novel is about a couple who love each other, but his political ambitions demand money and she is poor. “Reuben Sachs” would be a fairly standard late-Victorian novel about the cruelty of the marriage market if it were not imbued with feminist polemic. Amy Levy (1861-89) was sharply critical of the empty lives led by women with nothing to do all day except gossip, play cards and go shopping. The setting is the Anglo-Jewish community in Bayswater, portrayed with a sardonic gaze that shocked contemporary readers. Yet the author’s theme was broader, for she was in part reacting against Daniel Deronda: she believed that George Eliot had romanticised her Jewish characters and that no novelist had yet described the modern Jew with ‘his surprising virtues and no less surprising vices.’Oscar Wilde observed: ‘Its directness, its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make “Reuben Sachs”, in some sort, a classic’.
Julia Neuberger writes in her Preface, ‘This is a novel about women, and Jewish women, about families, and Jewish families, about snobbishness, and Jewish snobbishness’; while in the “Independent on Sunday”, Lisa Allardice said: ‘Sadder but no less sparkling than Miss Pettigrew, “Reuben Sachs” is another forgotten classic by an accomplished female novelist. Amy Levy might be described as a Jewish Jane Austen.’
About the author
Amy Judith Levy (10 November 1861 – 10 September 1889) was a British essayist, poet, and novelist best remembered for her literary gifts; her experience as the first Jewish woman at Cambridge University and as a pioneering woman student at Newham College, Cambridge; her feminist positions; her friendships with others living what came later to be called a “New Woman” life, some of whom were lesbians; and her relationships with both women and men in literary and politically activist circles in London during the 1880s.
Levy was born in Clapham, an affluent district of London, on 10 November 1861, to Lewis and Isobel Levy. She was the second of seven children born into a Jewish family with a “casual attitude toward religious observance” who sometimes attended a Reform synagogue in Upper Berkeley Street. As an adult, Levy continued to identify herself as Jewish and wrote for The Jewish Chronicle.
Levy showed an interest in literature from an early age. At 13, she wrote a criticism of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s feminist work Aurora Leigh; at 14, Levy’s first poem, “Ida Grey: A Story of Woman’s Sacrifice”, was published in the journal Pelican. Her family was supportive of women’s education and encouraged Amy’s literary interests; in 1876, she was sent to Brighton and Hove High School and later studied at Newham College, Cambridge. Levy was the first Jewish student at Newnham when she arrived in 1879 but left before her final year without taking her exams.
Her circle of friends included Clementina Black, Ellen Wordsworth Darwin, Dollie Radford, Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl Marx) and Olive Schreiner. While travelling in Florence in 1886, Levy met Vernon Lee, a fiction writer and literary theorist six years her senior, and fell in love with her. Both women went on to explore the themes of sapphic love in their works. Lee inspired Levy’s poem “To Vernon Lee”.