Amy Levy: A “Jewish Jane Austen”

When I was studying abroad in London this past Spring, I frequently visited the small bookstore Persephone Books, an independent bookseller known for reprinting texts written by neglected women writers of the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century. On one of my escapades, I stumbled across Amy Levy’s Reuben Sachs, and remember reading an inscription next to the text that Amy Levy could be best be described as a “Jewish Jane Austen,” (which was among one of the many factors which prompted me to purchase the novel). In my attempt to re-read Levy’s novel in an academic setting, I am again astounded by the way in which she describes the positions of women in Victorian society, and her social commentary on women’s status compares quite nicely to Dickens’ in his development of the women present in his novel. While Dickens is critical of the ways in which the upper and lower classes interact with one another, Levy (so far) seems to be critical of the ways in which women are limited by their circumstances, and I find this most prevalent in her description of Israel Leuniger’s sister: 

“She was disappointed in her life, but she made the best of it; loving her husband, though unable to sympathize with him; planning, working unremittingly for her six children; extracting the utmost benefit from the narrowest of means; a capable person who did her duty according to her own lights” (Levy 74). 

This description, among many others of Levy’s exposes the rudimentary experiences that many women of this period endure: lacklustre marriages and burdensome children. Funnily enough, when I first read this description, I immediately thought of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay, but now as I think about Levy in comparison to Dickens, I’m almost willing to consider that this may have been the shortcomings of Mrs. Joe. While she loved her husband, Mrs. Joe was most certainly not sympathetic of his position as a blacksmith and is evidently resentful of the maternal chore that she is tasked with when raising Pip as one of her own, or as Dickens might call it, raising Pip by hand. 

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