Amy Levy: her life, her poetry and the era of the new woman

Pullen, Christine (2000) Amy Levy: her life, her poetry and the era of the new woman. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This study explores the links between the life and the poetry of the late-Victorian feminist and writer Amy Levy. Despite a resurgence of interest in Levy's writing, until the present time there has been a paucity of scholarly research into her biography. Levy's life coincided with the period when the movement for female emancipation was gaining momentum, and her adult years witnessed the emergence of the late-Victorian cultural icon known as the New Woman. Previous studies have primarily focused upon the New Woman as she was represented in late nineteenth-century discourse. My study aims to redress this balance by demonstrating that the fictional New Woman of the 1890s had many real-life precursors and counterparts - of whom Levy was one. The primary objective of the thesis is to challenge received opinion about Levy's life and poetry. The previous dearth of information about her personal history has led to the construction of the image of an isolated individual pursuing an exclusively personal agenda. In reality, she was an active member of a circle of pioneering intellectuals and political activists who were at the cutting edge of 'modern' thought. Contemporary studies have identified Levy as a lesbian, and this view of her sexuality has had a profound influence upon recent critical analysis of her verse. My study argues that this judgement about her sexual orientation is fundamentally flawed, and that her approach to personal relationships was determined by social exclusion rather than sexual difference. An aspect of Levy's poetry that has generally been overlooked is its engagement with eugenic discourse. The core element of my biography is an extended analysis of Levy's relationship with Karl Pearson, the eugenic theorist and mathematician. As far as I am aware, this aspect of her life has not been recognised in any other study. My thesis argues that Levy's relationship with Pearson not only locates her at the centre of the ongoing late nineteenth-century dialectic on sex and the woman question, but also offers a radical new insight into her writing. As this synopsis suggests, my thesis invites a reappraisal of Levy as a woman and as a poet. At a time when increasing attention is being focused upon the newly recovered canon of Victorian women's poetry, I argue that the hitter personal struggle for survival which created the tension between hope and despair in Levy's verse, contributes to a deeper understanding of the real life history behind the cultural construct known as the New Women at the fin de siecle.

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