Biography 24.4 (2001) 953-958
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More than a decade ago, the received wisdom about the Victorian writer Amy Levy ran something like this: The second Jewish woman to enroll at Cambridge, Levy published an impressive amount of poetry, non-fiction articles, and fiction, including three novels, before committing suicide at the age of twenty-seven. Although toward the end of her life she published essays in a Jewish periodical, her major novel, Reuben Sachs, also a product of her later years, contains some ugly anti-Semitic stereotypes.
What interests me today about this crude outline is that the information I have characterized as received wisdom was passed on to me by Linda Hunt (now Beckman) who was applying for research funding to begin a biography of Amy Levy. At her request--since we'd been in a feminist scholars' group together in the early 70s and had met once or twice at professional meetings thereafter--I wrote a letter of recommendation, she got the grant, and the result is a volume that challenges the received wisdom about Levy at every turn.
Beckman brings the facts about Levy's life and mentality to light, carefully distinguishing them from speculation, and reading both life and work through the lenses of social history and critical theory. In so doing, she makes a significant contribution to the modest Amy Levy revival currently taking place among specialists in the period and in women's literature, as well as to interpretations of both the "New Woman" and the Anglo-Jewish subject on the British scene of the 1880s.
What may be of more interest to the student of life writing is the way in which Beckman combines one of the most traditional strategies for the biographies of Victorian literary figures, the "life and letters" format, with insightsdrawn from postmodern theories about gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and identity formation. Metaphors about beds spring to mind. Either "life and letters" is a Procrustean one in which feminism, queer theory, and contemporary notions of subjectivity are brutally crushed, or traditional biography unsafelycohabits with a heap of incongruous trendier partners. Neither model applies, however, for Beckman quietly confronts a series of problems and resolves them by calling upon a range of different approaches that suggest different but not essentially incompatible answers.
The first of these problems is, of course, methodological. What kinds of evidence exist for creating, confirming, or interrogating hypotheses about Levy's short life? As with any writer, the catalogue starts with her literary [End Page 954] output, which in Levy's case includes not only her publications in various genres, but also her correspondence. Levy kept no diary, but her movements and activities during her final year of life are meticulously documented in a gift calendar she received, and her comings and goings are also abundantly recorded in the journals of others. Her work was rather widely reviewed--in ways that give new meaning to the term "mixed reception." And her suicide generated a great deal of comment in the various communities to which she belonged.
One of those communities was the world of literary London, where for a slight, shy, Jewish girl in her twenties, suffering from serious hearing problems, as well as at least intermittently severe depression, Levy had a broad acquaintance. She attended various parties and meetings where Yeats and Shaw were present. Oscar Wilde wrote what amounts to her literary obituary. Olive Schreiner, who near the very end took her away for a long weekend to lighten her mood, called her "the most interesting girl she had met in London," and Vernon Lee brought her at least part way out of the closet.
The larger issue is how to use the diverse materials, written from such different perspectives and in such different registers, to answer questions that are themselves as diverse and contradictory as Levy's own consciousness. It is when Levy's published work...