Guest blog: The Tragedy of Amy Levy

Our latest offering is a guest blog post from Mary Chapman, a KCL graduate who will shortly begin her PhD at Leeds. Her doctoral thesis will focus on the impact of gendered psychological medicine on urban women, 1845-1900, and in this post she gives us a fascinating account of just one of these women: author Amy Levy.

Urbanisation increased dramatically during the mid-to-late 19th century, and modernity became synonymous with the swelling cities. To many, this evoked a growing anxiety; old traditions and morality were being thrown off in favour of new codes, new laws, and new ways of living that destabilized Victorian society. These changes were inextricably linked to urban centres, where sprawling populations and poor conditions highlighted the need for reform and fostered progressive communities. This was especially the case amongst women, many of whom found that, in cities, they could lead lives outside of the domestic sphere. However, these independent, working women posed a threat to established gender roles, and so – it was thought – to their very biology.

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Gustave Dore, Over London by Rail (1872)

The topic of modernity and its influence on sanity was the focus of much discussion amongst late-Victorian mind doctors. Eminent physicians such as Henry Maudsley, John Bucknill, and Daniel Tuke believed that the uncertainty and competition intrinsic to metropolitan life increased the likelihood of mental illness. Bucknill and Tuke, in their influential Manual of Psychological Medicine, argued that ‘civilisation, with its attendant knowledge and education, creates social conditions […] which of necessity involve risks (to employ no stronger term) which otherwise would not have existed’. They saw mental disease as the pathological result of the undue application of the brain to tasks outside of its usual capacity.

In neglecting their ‘natural’ role as wives and mothers, women were forcing their bodies and minds to work towards entirely unsuitable goals. Doctors feared that this would lead to exhaustion, disease, or worse: madness. The physical changes inherent in female biology were thought to cause mental imbalance if not properly managed; any energy expended in pursuits other than the domestic could result in tragedy. Modern life, by its very nature, presented many dangers to female psychology.

The suicide of Amy Levy in September 1889, at age 27, appeared to be just such a case. Levy, a young woman writer very much a part of the London literati community, suffered from depressive episodes throughout much of her adult life. When in the capital she resided at the family home in Endsleigh Gardens, and socialised with a mixed set of social reformers, artists, and writers. Educated to university level, Jewish, and single (her sexual preference was for women, but she struggled to form lasting attachments), Levy identified as a woman on the fringes of conventional society. Living on the margins of many communities, she must have felt at a loss to know how to belong.

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Amy Levy

Indeed, much of her poetry is filled with longing, and a sense of being bereft from life itself. Her last collection of poems, entitled A London Plane Tree and Other Verse, connects this feeling with city life. Levy takes great delight in people-watching; in Ballade of an Omnibus she describes the pleasure of ‘the scene whereof I cannot tire […] the city pageant, early and late.’ Yet she is unable to feel a part of the crowd, suffering private, internal anguish: ‘I would give anything to stay/the little wheel that turns in my brain.’ (A March Day in London) London nurtures her anxiety, until she cannot tell whether it is herself or the city that is out of sorts- ‘what is it ails the place?’ (London in July)

Levy’s writings, along with her heart-wrenching letters to friends like New Woman Clementina Black, suggest that she was suffering from some form of depression. In a note written in the year of her death, she cries ‘O Clemmy, Clemmy, is everybody’s life like this? I ought to have made something out of mine, but it’s too late […] [I am] dragging round all day, crying half the night.’ Levy appears to have felt a strong relationship between her unhappiness and her life in London, writing despairingly to Black, ‘I wish I were never coming back [to London] but I am in for another 60 years.’ She was at her most cheerful when travelling on the Continent with friends, and although she returned to a loving family and busy social network in the capital, the strain of modern life – with its demands on her writing, and the tax on her energy levels by the rota of parties and calls – was exhausting. Above all, London brought into sharp relief her sense of disconnection from other people.

However, Levy’s depression was categorised in a very different way by her contemporaries. Gossip about her suicide, as Judith Wilson notes, was ‘constructed in the terms of the time’. Her death caused a minor sensation amongst the intellectual set in London, and many notices ran in the papers speculating about the circumstances. Her peers blamed her lifestyle and heritage, or situated her within a romantic, literary tradition of over-sensitive, nervous youth. Most of all, she was seen as a beautiful, lonely – and therefore vulnerable and tragic – woman. As Bucknill and Tuke had warned, Levy had, it seemed to some commentators, run a risk that in the end proved too great. She had fallen a ‘victim [to] the pressures of emancipation’.

-Mary Chapman

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