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Amy Levy: Critical Essays, edited by Naomi Hetherington and Nadia Valman. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010.  241 pp.  $28.95.

 

At least part of the reason for the recent resurgence of interest in Amy Levy, the Victorian novelist, poet, and social critic, is that “Levy seems to offer contemporary British and American feminist criticism an image of many of the things it would still like to find valuable in itself” (p. 47). Levy was a trailblazer, as the first Jewish woman to attend Newnham College, Cambridge, a fearless social critic, arguing against the materialist and conformist values of her own middle-class Jewish community, and honest in her representations of her sexuality. Yet like many figures from the past that seem to embody desirable contemporary values, Levy’s intellectual legacy also contains elements that are more difficult to embrace, such as her borrowings from the eugenicist and antisemitic discourses then current within British society. This tension has previously resulted in some distorted scholarly representations of her arguments, but the essays presented here are too rigorous for such a result. The project that runs throughout this volume is to bring out the Levy that was, rather than the one that others have thought or hoped her to be. In the process, the complexities of this individual and of her age are laid out before the reader in an extremely satisfying manner. 

A great strength of this volume, and the reason why it deserves to find an audience beyond scholars who specialize in Levy’s work, is the care the contributors take to bring the broader historical context into their discussion. The first four essays each do this in different ways, beginning with Elizabeth Evans’s close reading of Levy’s first novel, The Romance of the Shop (1888). Here Evans interweaves Levy’s theme of respectability and women’s public work with the broader historiography on shopgirls in the later nineteenth century, demonstrating how Levy’s novel is more affirmative of women’s public involvement than its very conventional ending has led other critics to conclude.

The separation of Levy’s actual arguments from what has been projected onto them is continued in Emma Francis’s chapter “Why Wasn’t Amy Levy More of a Socialist?” Francis first analyzes how the “fantasy of Levy as bona fide working class” came about in the twentieth century, and afterward recounts the difficulty all Victorian writers seem to have had with depicting a “full, autonomous, and dignified subjectivity for the working-class woman” (pp. 48, 54). After noting the shortcomings of both Levy’s and Clementina Black’s novels in this respect, Francis contrasts their fictional works to the depiction of working-class women in Black’s social investigative writings. Most effectively, Francis compares Black’s descriptions of factory girls with Levy’s representations of women and work, in a way that complements the previous chapter by Evans without repeating its insights. This process, of adding layers of related argument, chapter by chapter, in order to underscore the complexity of Levy’s views, is something that occurs regularly within this edited collection. 

Levy was most known in her own day for her 1888 novel Reuben Sachs, in which her feminist critique of contemporary middle-class Jewish life was presented most forcefully, and several essays in the collection take on the analysis of this work and its related controversies. After giving the reader a good sense of Levy’s narrative, Nadia Valman demonstrates how the novel’s structure mirrored that of 1830s and ’40s Evangelical Christian novels focused on the conversion of Jewish women to Christianity. It was a form that highlighted the particular problems of Jewish women, but one that also drew on an outsider’s critique of Jewish religion and culture. Naomi Hetherington explores the criticism leveled at Levy within the Jewish community by those who accused her of providing a disparaging view of Jewish life to a large and potentially adversarial audience. Yet Hetherington shows that even Levy’s harsh critics, such as the novelist Israel Zangwill, were strongly influenced by her work, and eventually came to see her not as “fouling her own nest,” but rather as “point[-ing] out that the nest was foul and must be cleaned out” (p. 193).

Not all of the chapters have such potential to successfully appeal to a wide audience as those discussed above. Those that attempt to prove something less specific about Levy’s work, or that rely more overtly on theoretical frameworks to bridge the distance between Levy’s writing and the cultural context, have less appeal for the non-specialist. This is the case in Susan David Bernstein’s “Mongrel Words,” in which the author analyzes the use of “Jewish vulgarity” in Levy’s writing, and how it was deployed differently depending on the intended audience. While the discussion has merit, we get less of a sense of Levy’s own work in this chapter, and the conclusions offered, including that “Levy’s depictions of Jewish vulgarity, taken together, reorient readers to consider the range, intricacy, and perceptions underpinning such ‘appalling lapses of taste,’” seem ambiguous when compared to the standards set by other chapters (p. 151). Similarly, in Alex Goody’s “Passing in the City,” the author suggests that the concept of passing “can also be used to explore the profoundly ambivalent emotions and subjectivities of Amy Levy’s late poetry” (p. 157). The chapter fulfills this stated goal, although the reader never quite gets a clear enough understanding of the content of the poems under discussion, so that the analysis at times feels more asserted than demonstrated.

Many of the essays in this volume were first presented at a colloquium on the work of Amy Levy held at the University of Southampton in 2002, and are primarily written by professors of English from a range of universities in the United States and Britain. It is rare that such an edited collection of essays exceeds the sum of its parts to the degree that this volume does, and it deserves to find a wide audience among those who seek to better understand the culture of Victorian Britain.

Charles Upchurch

Florida State University