Amongst the classic works of queer literature displayed in Senate House Library’s Queer Between the Covers exhibition – including texts by Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Radclyffe Hall - is a small book entitled A Minor Poet and Other Verse (T. Fisher Unwin, 1884).
This slim volume is the first poetry book by Amy Levy, a writer who today is perhaps best known for her novels of Jewish London life, such as 1888’s Reuben Sachs: A Sketch. She was, however, also an essayist, short story writer and poet whose work was supported by Oscar Wilde, who published some of her writing whilst editor of The Woman’s World. Wilde also wrote an obituary for her short life, after she committed suicide at the age of 27.
‘This poet-heart went pit-a-pat’
The title A Minor Poet suggests a reading of either self-deprecation or a reflection of the way in which female poets were deemed in regard to the overwhelmingly male literary canon. Amy Levy was not only a woman but also Jewish and many of her poems were expressions of non-heteronormative love. A combination, as Joseph Bristow (p. 80) suggests, that meant “the ‘minor’ distinction was the result of structural exclusions from a literary establishment that esteemed gentile orthodoxies, heterosexual desire, and the male sex”.
Unlike Michael Field (Katharine Bradley & Edith Cooper) alongside whom Levy is often referred – and in our exhibition is displayed – she elected not to write under a pseudonym. Levy’s poems, such as To Lallie (extract below) suggest a male poetic voice but, being written by one woman to another, can also be read as declarations of lesbian love:
This poet-heart went pit-a-pat;
I bowed and smiled and raised my hat;
You nodded - faintly
‘The General Clubbability of Women’
Levy is often referred to as a ‘New Woman’ writer, a member of that band of women whose writing addressed the developing move towards gender equality between men and women. She was friends with many other writers and fell (unrequitedly) in love with Vernon Lee – they both have works promoted on the pictured T. Fisher Unwin advert; the only women on the list.
Levy studied at Newnham College, Cambridge, and in 1888 wrote an essay about the importance to women of clubs. In Women and Club Life she states “the desire among women for a corporate life, for a wider human fellowship, a richer social opportunity…has assumed the definite shape of a practical demand” (Levy, p. 532); something Flint calls “the general clubbability of women” (p. 689)
Bristow, Goody & Flint, in their articles on Levy, all note the importance of spaces for women to meet together away from the family home and domestic life. Included in these were “women’s colleges, boarding houses, and clubs” (Goody, p. 465). Our copy of A Minor Poet was originally part of the library at Bedford College for Women, which later merged into Royal Holloway, University of London. It pleases me to know that the book found a home there, in the kind of space so enjoyed by Amy Levy.
Bristow, J. (1999). ‘All out of tune in this world’s instrument’; the ‘minor’ poetry of Amy Levy. Journal of Victorian Culture. Spring 1999, 4(1), pp.76-103.
Flint, K. (2009). The “hour of pink twilight”; lesbian poetics and queer encounters on the Fin-de-siècle street. Victorian Studies. 51(4), pp.687-712.
Goody, A. (2006). Murder in Mile End: Amy Levy, Jewishness, and the city. Victorian Literature and Culture. 34(2), Fin-de-siècle Literary Culture and Women Poets, pp.461-479
Levy, A. (1888). Women and Club Life. In: New, M. (ed., 1993) The complete novels and selected writings of Amy Levy, 1861-1889. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.