Book Review: “Reuben Sachs” (1888) by Amy Levy

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Reuben Sachs is the second Persephone Books work to be featured on this website and I was very excited to get my hands on it. Social satire written by a young Victorian woman? Yes please! Oscar Wilde himself had nothing but praise for the book:

Its directness, its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and, above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make it, in some sort, a classic. Like all [Levy's] best work it is sad, but the sadness is by no means morbid. The strong undertone of moral earnestness, never preached, gives a stability and force to the vivid portraiture, and prevents the satiric touches from degenerating into mere malice. Truly, the book is an achievement.

I am not quite as impressed. To me, Reuben Sachs is absolutely fascinating in theory, but lacks a certain something in its execution.

The most interesting thing about this novel is its author, Amy Levy. Easily.

Exhibit A: She was Jewish. Levy was born into an upper middle-class Jewish family in South London, but had mixed feelings about her heritage. She identified as Anglo-Jewish and often felt marginalised in bohemian and feminist circles because of her identity, but on the other hand, she was very critical of the Anglo-Jewish community and often had trouble conforming to its norms. As a result, she was accused of anti-Semitism by many reviewers of her work. I’ll come back to this later.

Exhibit B: She was educated. Levy was the second ever Jewish woman to enroll at Cambridge University and even though she left before completing her degree, she kept engaging in intellectual debates all her life.

Exhibit C: She was a feminist. Levy craved independence, so she decided to travel the Continent and earn a living as a writer. When she had returned to London, she threw herself into the London bohemian community. She went to theatres and art galleries unchaperoned (gasp!) and met regularly with a group of other outspoken New Women.

Exhibit D: She was a lesbian. Many articles will tell you that Levy’s sexuality is “a point of discussion amongst scholars,” but as far as I can tell, most of that is homophobic and sexist nonsense. Just because you can’t find proof that she was ever in a relationship with a woman doesn’t mean she wasn’t gay, guys. I’d say the pile of love poems she wrote for other women is all the evidence we need. You’re embarrassing yourself. Stop it.

Exhibit E: She struggled with both physical and mental illnesses all her life. Levy suffered from depression from a very early age and always felt like an outsider in Victorian England (see A-D). She hated the way she looked and healthwise, her body was letting her down as well: she was plagued by eye infections, excruciating neuralgia (a stabbing pain that occurs along a damaged nerve), and was even starting to go deaf at the age of twenty-seven. A few months before her twenty-eighth birthday, she committed suicide.

Yeah.

I know.

Like its author, Reuben Sachs sounds very intriguing on paper (ha!). It tells the story of Reuben Sachs and Judith Quixano – they fall in love, struggle with their families’ expectations and personal ambitions, exchange longing looks across crowded rooms… All the familiar ingredients of a tragic nineteenth-century marriage plot. However, Levy gives the courtship an abrupt and dark ending, allowing for no fairytale escapism. You see, Reuben Sachs was her answer to another monstrously popular novel with Jewish protagonists: George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. Where Eliot’s characters are noble and their religion heavily romanticised, Levy draws from ugly stereotypes to reveal a darker side of the Anglo-Jewish community. Her characters are materialistic, selfish, and at one point outright mock Daniel Deronda for its depiction of their heritage:

‘I wonder,’ cried Rose, throwing herself into the breach, ‘what Mr. Lee-Harrison thought of it all.’
‘I think,’ said Leo, ‘that he was shocked at finding us so little like the people in Daniel Deronda.
‘Did he expect,’ cried Esther, ‘to see our boxes in the hall, ready packed and labelled Palestine?’
‘I have always been touched,’ said Leo, ‘at the immense good faith with which George Eliot carried out that elaborate misconception of hers.’
‘Now Leo is going to begin,’ cried Rose; ‘he never has a good word for his people. He is always running them down.’
‘Horrid bad form,’ said Reuben; ‘beside being altogether a mistake.’
‘Oh, I have nothing to say against us at all,’ answered Leo ironically, ‘except that we are materialists to our fingers’ ends.’

Some reviewers read the novel as a work of Jewish self-loathing, whereas others claim that the narrator is an unreliable outsider and that the generalizations about the Jewish community are not Levy’s own. Even though she was raised by a Jewish family, she seemed to have distanced herself from these roots and now there was a discrepancy between her inherited faith and the circles she moved in later in her life. Levy was both an insider and an outsider, which put her in a difficult position. According to Daniel Moore, she was struggling to negotiate between

three competing facets to her identity: her Jewishness, her Englishness, and her feminist concerns. When defending the rights of Jews she was pitted against her Anglo-Saxon culture; when standing up for women’s rights she was forced to critique the patriarchal Jewish community around her; and if she endorsed the modern English society which seemed to be granting women more freedoms, she would inadvertently be supporting the same culture that was slow to re-evaluate its opinion of her race and religion.

Fascinating!

And yet, only two weeks after reading it, I can remember very little about the actual novel. For me, it came and went without leaving much of an impression. There were some lovely lines about flowers crushed underneath Reuben’s feet, something about Judith’s betrothed behaving like a cultural tourist… And that’s it. It’s not bad, but it is not very memorable either. In the introduction to the Persephone edition, Julia Neuberger argues that Reuben Sachs is more than “a mere social curiosity,” yet I remain sadly unmoved. As a rare look into the Victorian Jewish community, this book is extremely valuable and a riveting object of academic discussion, but on its own, stripped from this cultural context, I am not sure it holds up.

If you have read this book and loved it, please leave a comment below and make your case – because I really want to be won over.


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2 thoughts on “Book Review: “Reuben Sachs” (1888) by Amy Levy

  • July 8, 2016 at 5:41 pm
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    “Some reviewers read the novel as a work of Jewish self-loathing,…”

    Why do I need to know that. I just heard of Amy Levy and intend to read the novel for the first time.

    Jewish self loathing while a problem just like gay self loathing or any type of self loathing, but some great writing can come out of such complicated feelings. Think Philip Roth.

    There is a long tradition in Jewish literature of writers struggling with their Jewishness in a world were Jewish hatred is real and lethal. (The same has been true for gay life.)

    Still, I expect to admire the novel if for no other reason because of the way it was praised by Oscar Wilde. Whether I will also love the book I will know only after I read it.

    Reply
    • July 8, 2016 at 6:00 pm
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      Very true! Some of these reviewers were trying to explain why the novel sometimes paints its Jewish characters in a less than flattering light, but if self loathing were the answer, that would not necessarily mean that this is a detriment to the book itself as a work of art.

      I still wonder if I would have enjoyed this book more if I had read it at a different time, but maybe it’s just not my cup of tea no matter how interesting I find it in theory.

      Reply

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