Book review: Amy Levy’s Fate: Death and the Statistician

The Women Who Dared: A Biography of Amy Levy, by Christine Pullen, Kingston upon Thames: Kingston University Press, 2010, 241 pp., illustrated, ₤20 (paperback), ISBN 978 1 899999 43 9
Reviewed by Theodore M. Porter, University of California, Los Angeles

The narrative trajectory of this biography begins and ends with the suicide of the writer Amy Levy at the age of 27 on 9 September 1889.  That tragic end gives direction to Christine Pullen’s wide-ranging study of Levy and her work, while haunting it.  Self-destruction is a famously elusive quarry, not just for friends and family, but also for biographers.  Emile Durkheim’s sociological investigation, well-known still to scholars, is the thin tip of a dense iceberg of mostly-forgotten writings from Levy’s era.  Suicide was a key topos for the emerging social sciences, which preferred to examine it statistically, so dim were the prospects of explaining the irrational acts of individuals.  A biographer, writing more than a century later, faces much greater impediments, since Levy’s life is only very imperfectly documented by original sources.  While her suicide heightened the interest of contemporaries, it also summoned to action the forces of repression.  The book was made possible by a trove of recently-uncovered documents, which, however, Levy’s heirs censored to conceal whatever seemed not respectable, including almost everything that might shed light on the sources of her despair.

Pullen, undaunted, has a solution, supported by much indirect evidence, that Levy’s sad end owed to a one-sided love relationship with Karl Pearson.  Known to history mainly for scientific and statistical work he carried out beginning a few years after her death and as a pioneer and noted scientific advocates of eugenics, Pearson appears in the 1880s as a notable polymath.  He wrote expertly on the cultural history of Germany up to the Reformation, German philosophy and literature, socialism, and the “woman’s question,” all held loosely together along with graphical geometry and ether physics under the rubric of his distinctive philosophy of science.[1] Scholars, including the present reviewer, have not until now noticed a significant connection between Pearson and Levy.  And for good reason: her name does not even appear in the index to the massive and well-catalogued Pearson archive.  Pullen, an imaginative and indefatigable researcher, has found just one letter by Pearson that mentions Levy by name, plus two in which Levy speaks of Pearson.  So meager a record seems hard to reconcile with any notion that Levy’s suicide may have owed to Pearson’s indifference or callousness.  In the Wonderland of Victorian documentation, however, silences may point to deeper significance.  Not only Levy’s and Pearson’s friends and family, but whole circles of acquaintances who would have been in the know and whose stakes were comparatively small, refrain from mentioning Pearson’s name in connection with Levy’s troubles.  This includes letters written before her suicide that would never have been touched by either family.  How can the biographer distinguish what would be too compromising from what never happened?

Pullen makes a convincing case that here the fire exceeds the smoke.  Both Levy and Pearson studied at Cambridge University, she having gone up to Newnham College in fall 1879, the same year he finished at King’s, and their circles of friends overlapped extensively.   By the end of 1883, both were participating as members in “A Men and Women’s Club,” whose fragmentary history Pullen has gone some way toward recovering.  By contrast, “The Men and Women’s Club,” established through Pearson’s initiative in June 1885 over the ruins of its predecessor, was much better documented at the time, and has inspired an extensive historiography.  In the summer of 1884, Levy and Pearson traveled separately to the Black Forest, she to Titisee with a group of friends, and he to the tiny village of Saig, his regular summer destination from 1881 until he married in 1889.  A walk of perhaps 45 minutes separates the two spots, and one day toward the end of July Pearson led Levy and a friend to Saig for a visit.  Levy’s description of this occasion in two letters home, about ten sentences in total, is the only undisguised discussion of their acquaintanceship that we have.  It reveals that she anticipated his visit with pleasure and tells of the teasing of this (for the moment) confirmed bachelor for entertaining these beautiful women of Titisee.

All evidence of any love interest is indirect.  Pullen relies heavily on events and persons described in Levy’s fiction, such as poem about her stay in 1883 at the Hotel Sonnenberg near Lake Lucerne.  The verse includes two stanzas about “Our Poet,” a Shelleyan figure who reads to Levy and her friend from Faust and discourses at length on Schopenhauer.  The specificity of other elements of the poem, including the precise location at which it is set, licenses Pullen to construe it as poésie à clef, and Our Poet as Karl Pearson.  His qualifications include prior literary efforts, a demonstrated disposition to hold forth, and an enthusiastic appreciation of Goethe.  Still, so literal a decoding is highly speculative.  She does not suggest that he ever reciprocated Levy’s love, and we know that by this time he disdained Switzerland as a tourist trap.  Invited in 1882 to present a lecture on German philosophy for a Cambridge series on “Moral Teachers of the Present Day,” Pearson had rejected the suggestion of Schopenhauer, choosing instead to introduce the Austrian poet Robert Hamerling.  “Philosophy (sad Schopenhauer’s)” worked for Levy by rhyming with the hours they were whiling away, and also with the pessimistic direction of the concluding stanzas.  Inevitably, poetry and (historical) truth occupy a different plane, and translation between them is difficult without more specific evidence.

Another key episode, which she reconstructs from the surviving pages of a letter, works more convincingly for her.  This one took place in1884, soon after Levy’s tour of Saig.  Escaping Titisee to take a room in the Gasthof zum Ochsen, Pearson’s regular residence there, she exulted at having escaped her chaperone and at “living in naked impropriety.”  There is anxiety also. The first night, before a room became available at Ochsen, she was obliged to stay at the home of the priest, and worried about being at his mercy.  While the fragment does not mention Pearson, who had planned for these weeks a trek in the Tyrol with his closest friend from King’s, Pullen concludes he must still have been in town.  Why else but for his magnetic appeal did Levy go there, defying all standards of feminine comportment?  Again the argument is speculative, and I find it hard to be confident that he was present.  Even if not, Levy must have been drawn by his absent presence at this site he so adored.  The very lack of any mention of Levy in Pearson’s correspondence, which he almost always preserved, supports Pullen’s argument that their relationship began soon afterwards to seem problematical.

Was there any impropriety at Ochsen beyond Levy’s going there unchaperoned?  Pullen makes no such suggestion, though she refers darkly to the damage to her reputation, especially in the Jewish society of her upbringing, to the point that she could never have a normal marriage.  Pullen’s most impressive achievement is her detailed reconstruction of the texture of life in the circles within which Levy moved.  In this way she is able to identify and interpret a number of veiled references in letters and obituaries by Levy’s acquaintances, many of whom seem to have known or believed things about her connection to Pearson that could not be openly stated.  Levy’s experience has a curious parallel to that of Olive Schreiner, who, in December 1886, threw herself at Pearson’s feet in what scholars and contemporaries understood as a frenzy of unrequited passion.  Schreiner was Levy’s closest companion in the final weeks of her life, and it was Schreiner who communicated to Levy, not long before her suicide, the unwonted news of Pearson’s engagement.  Pearson seems to have acknowledged his failure to maintain a merely intellectual friendship with Levy when he told Maria Sharpe, his betrothed, why he had imposed on Schreiner the condition of friendship “from man to man.”

Pullen slots him for the villain’s role, referring twice to “Pearson’s betrayal.”  This seems to take in the Ochsen affair, but refers mainly to his opposition to Levy’s membership in the reconstructed Men and Women’s Club.  Even as Levy’s prospects of a conventional marriage were evaporating, for reasons closely connected with him, he excluded her from this more radical experiment in late Victorian feminism.  Pullen repeatedly describes Pearson as the fount of an oppressive Social Darwinism.  Much of this might be seen somewhat differently.  Pearson did not take up Darwinism until 1885, and for women like Levy there were many possible sources.  They did not did not receive it passively as the means of their own subjugation, but deployed it actively as a biological critique of their dependence and as evidence that a radically new role for women was possible.

While the mystery of Levy’s suicide in relation to Pearson makes for fascinating reading, this superbly-researched book gives life to a larger story.  Through its meticulous narration of the dreams and disappointments of individuals, it chronicles a grand effort to throw aside conventions of (what we call) gender.  Skeptics like the hack novelist Grant Allen construed Levy’s suicide as proof that women lacked the resources to compete with men while fulfilling the maternal role that biology demanded.  Pearson in these years set forth shocking proposals to transform the family and relations between the sexes while building a new, scientific socialism.  Charlotte Wilson, like Pearson an admirer of Karl Marx and one of several mediators between his world and that of Levy, saw in such work a noble but tragic experiment.

The best possibilities of the future must be built up of our broken lives, the broken lives of very many of those who first consciously attempt, not merely to theorise about the new ideal of the relations of men & women, but to live it out.  Every Revolution has drowned its own children; do you think that we who are in the forefront of this great period of transition can or ought to escape?”[2]

Theodore M. Porter, Professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, writes mainly on history of the human sciences and of numbers, quantification, and statistics.  His books include Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age; Trust in Numbers: the Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life; and The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900.  His current research concerns the history of insane asylums as sites of the recording and study of human heredity.

[1] See Pearson’s Grammar of Science (London: Walter Scott, 1892).  I emphasized this aspect of Pearson’s career in Theodore M. Porter, Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

[2] Quoted p. 171 from a letter to Pearson, a comment on the trauma of his (temporarily) broken engagement, but also, as Pullen convincingly infers, on Levy’s recent suicide.

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