The Woman Who Dared: A Biography of Amy Levy.
In Devotion, the 1946 Hollywood biopic about the Brontes, audiences are treated to the spectacle of Emily and Charlotte vying for the affections of the Rev. Arthur Nicholls, and then to the sight of Emily, the loser in this romantic triangle, willingly giving up on life--quite literally embracing death, which comes to her personified as a Byronic Corsair-figure on horseback. This scenario is, of course, preposterous. Nonetheless, it satisfies some readers' need to believe that when a woman writes fiction, she must not be inventing anything. If, like Emily Bronte, she has depicted passion and disappointment, then she must have had a failed affair--a heterosexual one, at that. And if, moreover, she dies young, then the ultimate cause must be heartbreak. Women are, after all, weak creatures; they are more likely to succumb to disease, whether mental or physical, whenever a man rejects them.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar may have thought that they were laying to rest such canards when, more than thirty years ago, they used The Madwoman in the Attic to recast Victorian women authors as imaginative, wild, powerful, and murderous. But old assumptions, it seems, neither die nor fade away. Thus, Christine Pullen's beautifully written new biography of Amy Levy (1861-89)--the British Jewish novelist, poet, short-story writer, and journalist--is marred throughout by its author's determination to prove that Levy was hopelessly in love with the mathematician and proponent of eugenics, Karl Pearson (1857-1956), and that his engagement to another woman was what drove Levy to suicide at age twenty-seven. Earlier scholars, such as Linda Hunt Beckman, have dealt with Pearson in a single sentence or two, placing him in Levy's "advanced" social circle, but otherwise viewing him as of no importance to her story. Pullen, however, is convinced that he holds the key not only to Levy's final and fatal bout of depression, but to a number of Levy's poems and works of fiction, and she combs through these for portraits of Pearson, while portraying him as an unregenerate cad and Levy as his victim.
Was Pearson really the center of Levy's emotional and creative existence? The absence of any corroborative documentation, Pullen asserts, is the result of a campaign by Levy's bourgeois Jewish family, which sought to protect her reputation by destroying all incriminating material following her death. Pullen feels confident, however, in holding up the year 1885 as the "turning point" of Levy's life. This was "the defining moment" when Levy realized that Pearson did not want her, even as a member of his breakaway radical discussion group, "The Men and Women's Club," and that this "cruel betrayal" revealed the "feet of clay" of her "idol" (98). Such a conclusion does not stop Pullen from deciding, nevertheless, that there was also a second turning point. Fully four years later--four years in which Levy had almost no contact with Pearson--Levy allegedly learned that Pearson was planning to marry someone else. According to Pullen, this news about Pearson precipitated Levy's suicide, not the drubbing she had just endured from the Jewish community over her novel about the frustrations of young middle-class English Jewish intellectuals, Reuben Sachs: A Sketch (1888), or her own frustrations as a Cambridge University-educated woman whose family prevented her from working as a teacher, required her to live at home indefinitely under parental supervision, and packed her off to the country for rest cures, when she displayed symptoms of mental distress. Breaking with earlier critics, who have read the very strong (and still intact) record of Levy's attachment to the lesbian writer "Vernon Lee" (Violet Paget), as well as the homoerotic content of Levy's poetry, as grounds for viewing her as tormented more by unfulfilled same-sex desire than by its heterosexual equivalent, Pullen assures us, "But the only concrete evidence that she harboured romantic feeling towards her own sex is her openly acknowledged schoolgirl crush on Edith Creak which, taken by itself, means nothing. In fact the issue of her sexuality is not at all clear-cut because, viewed from the perspective of the twenty-first century, it is difficult for us to understand just how innocent young Victorian women were" (31).Whether or not Karl Pearson was Levy's obsession, he is certainly Pullen's.
For those who can look past this vexed question of Levy's "secret," The Woman Who Dared offers a wealth of provocative and original readings of Levy's writings, from her three books of verse to her surprisingly hard-edged novel about a group of impoverished middle-class sisters who must support themselves as professional photographers, The Romance of a Shop (1888). Pullen is especially brilliant in highlighting social Darwinism as a major component of Levy's philosophy and as the determining factor in how she weighed the merits of her fictional characters, as well as her own prospects in life. The same phenomenon can be observed--though it is too often ignored--across the whole spectrum of Levy's contemporaries, especially among the so-called "New Women." (It is clearly present, for instance, in works such as Ella Hepworth Dixon's 1894 feminist novel, The Story of a Modern Woman, which both acknowledges and protests against social Darwinist perspectives.) Pullen, of course, attributes this to the expected source: "Darwinist terminology was pervading her [Levy's] writing, both personal and professional--a development that was undoubtedly attributable to Pearson's influence" in 1884 (85). But a more likely source was Levy's reading of Olive Schreiner's bestselling novel, The Story of an African Farm (1883), which sorted its characters on strictly Darwinian lines, allowing the hardy, adaptable, and selfish ones to survive, while sending the softhearted idealists to early graves.
Most admirably, Christine Pullen gives full weight to the insurmountable social difficulties that Amy Levy herself faced as an idealist and a pioneer, especially as the first Jewish woman undergraduate at Cambridge. Levy's challenges grew, rather than diminished, when she later entered the intellectual milieu of radical London in which feminists, socialists, and artists mingled, for all these acquaintances were both aware of and influenced by new pseudo-scientific theories that affirmed the so-called racial inferiority of Jews and reinforced anti-Semitism. That Levy was a "Woman Who Dared" is indisputable, but Pullen uses her estimable talents as a researcher, as well as her eloquence as a writer, to make readers feel at every turn the toll that such daring took on one who led the way.
Margaret D. Stetz
University of Delaware
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|Author:||Stetz, Margaret D.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
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