Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy


A black and white photographic portrait of Amy Levy

Amy Levy, January 1889

Photograph: Luigi Montabone [Public Domain]

Amy Levy was born in London in 1861 into a middle-class Jewish family. From an early age she showed a phenomenal talent for writing of all kinds, writing essays and publishing poems in her early teens. She was the second Jewish woman to study at Cambridge University, and among the first women students at Newnham College, where she began to develop close friendships with a range of progressive and radical women, including Eleanor Marx, Clemantina Black, and Olive Schreiner. 

After having published several volumes of poetry, she met the writer Vernon Lee in Italy in 1886, and quickly fell in love with her, and the theme of thwarted or impossible love—at a time when such love was severely discriminated against—would haunt her subsequent writing. In 1888 she published two novels, The Romance of a Shop and Reuben Sachs—both now celebrated as distinctive and radical literary achievements. Levy suffered with depression for most of her life, and a year after the publication of Reuben Sachs, struggling with romantic difficulties and a worsening deafness, she died by suicide at her parent’s home. In her twenty-eight years she produced a diverse and challenging body of work, and showcased expertise across many different kinds of writing.

This excerpt bridges the novel’s penultimate and final chapters, and describes the ‘great family party’ gathered to celebrate Judith Quixano’s engagement to Bertie Lee-Harrison, their wedding, and its consequences for Judith. Those three words and their relationships with each other—‘great’, ‘family’, and ‘party’; ‘great family’, ‘family party’—are worth keeping in mind, as they underpin much of the novel’s questioning of community and identity. This is particularly important here, as Judith is part of London’s Jewish community, and Bertie a recent convert. To complicate things further, Judith is still in love with Reuben Sachs, another Jew, to whom she wishes she could be married. Hence the ‘inrushing sense of exile’ with which the excerpt concludes, and the repeated appeals to a ‘people’ to which she no longer relates in precisely the same way: note the transformation of ‘Judith Quixano’ (a name indicative of Sephardi Jewish origin) to ‘Mrs Lee-Harrison’ (a distinctly non-Jewish name). The novel as a whole provokes a questioning of what it might mean to ‘relate’ to other people who share a background or family; it makes us consider the ways in which other people, ‘outsiders’ of sorts, might integrate into communities; it makes us consider also the differences between the family one is born into (the blood-line of successive generations), and the family one creates when one marries (the alliance between two ‘blood-lines’).

Published in 1888, Reuben Sachs: A Sketch is on one level a response to what Levy felt to be the unreasonable and fetishistic romanticisation of Jews in novels like George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876). This made the novel somewhat controversial at the time of publication; Levy’s contemporaries thought the caricaturing of some Jewish characters was taken too far, and some reviews suggested that some of the satire verged on antisemitism. Yet, as a Jew herself, Levy used fiction, and this novel in particular, to ask powerful questions about what it might mean to belong to a community in the first place. If this part of the novel angered her contemporaries, it can provide us today with a fresh and challenging perspective on the problems and possibilities of different kinds of identity. 

Despite the controversy, the novel did have its admirers at the time. For Oscar Wilde, Reuben Sachs was, ‘in some sort, a classic’. He praised the ‘directness’ of the novel, the ‘absence of any single superfluous word’, and it’s easy to see why. Paragraphs are often made up of one or two clear and uncomplicated sentences: ‘He flung out into the night’; ‘Esther sat a little apart, watching the lovers.’ These sentences often identify little more than a subject, object, and verb, and make the reading experience feel quick and compact. It is important to note, however, that this brevity does not always equate with ‘directness’. This is a novel preoccupied with questions about community, belonging, associations, and exile. Choices of syntax (the structure of sentences) and paragraphing carefully express these themes through the compact and yet disjointed telling of the story. Spaces and silences are working hard in this text. Do these ‘scraps’ of paragraphs always fit together clearly? Is it always easy to understand what’s happening? Do these fragments of descriptions reflect in any way the social fragmentation Judith feels? To notice how even the smallest parts of this novel relate to its broadest questions is to begin to appreciate Levy’s intensely original achievement.

—Joseph Hankinson


Reuben Sachs


This excerpt is taken from the close of the novel: Judith Quixano is now engaged to Bertie Lee-Harrison, but she is still in love with Reuben Sachs.


Chapter Nineteen

…This life’s end, and this love-bliss have been
        lost here. Doubt you whether
This she felt, as looking at me, mine and her souls
        rushed together?
                    Browning, Christina

Esther sat a little apart, watching the lovers.
    “Does she think he is a cardboard man to play with, or an umbrella to take shelter under?” she reflected. “A lover may be a shadowy creature, but husbands are made of flesh and blood. Doesn’t she see already that he is as obstinate as a mule, and as whimsical as a goat?”
    And she repeated the phrase to herself well pleased with it.
    It was Sunday, the day following that of the election. A great family party had dined in Kensington Palace Gardens, and now were awaiting Reuben in the primrose-coloured drawing-room.
    Judith, side by side with Bertie, was listening amiably to a fluent account of his adventures in Asia Minor, in which he dwelt a great deal on his state of mind and state of health at the time; while Rose played scraps of music for the benefit of Jack Quixano, who had a taste for comic opera.
    Judith was in such a state of tension as scarcely to be conscious of pain. Her duties as fiancée were clearly marked out; anything was better than those days of chaos, of upheaval, which had preceded her engagement.
    Esther’s favourite phrase, that marriage was an opiate, had occurred to her more than once during the past week. 
    “I sat up all night long, and read every word of it. I was determined to make up my mind once and for all,” Bertie was saying.
    Rose, at the piano, put her hand on her hip and hummed a scrap from a music-hall song, while Jack whistled an accompaniment:

“Stop the cab,
Stop the cab,
Woh, woh, woh!”

    The hall-door banged to with some violence.
    The voices of Lionel and Sidney were heard upraised without:
    “Vote for Sachs! Vote for Sachs, the people’s friend!”
    Then came the sound of another voice—
    “My head was like a live coal, and my feet were as cold as stones…” went on Bertie.
    Judith looked sympathetic, and her heart leaped suddenly within her: it had not yet unlearnt the trick of leaping at the sound of Reuben’s voice. Lionel flung open the door and capered into the room.
    Behind him came Reuben Sachs.
    Judith knew nothing more till she and Reuben were standing face to face, holding one another’s hands.
    Whatever had happened before, whatever happened afterwards, she will remember to the day of her death that in that one moment, at least, they understood one another.
    No need for question, for answer, for explanation of motives and feelings.
    It was all as clear as daylight, in that strange, brief interminable moment which to the onlookers showed nothing more than a pale, tired-looking gentleman offering his congratulations on her engagement to a flushed, bright-eyed lady.
    Even that sharp battery of eyes could discover nothing more than this.
    It was not long before the hall-door closed again upon Reuben.
    He flung out into the night.
    “Good God, good God!” he said to himself. Not till he had actually seen her had he been able to realize what had happened; to understand what manner of change had come into his life; to see what might have been, and what was.
    He had so many things to tell her, which might never now be told. The blind, choking rage of a baffled creature came over him; he sped on, stifled, through the darkness.
    Judith, sitting dazed and smiling in the gaslight, said over and over again in her heart:
    “Oh my poor Reuben, my poor, poor Reuben!”
    At the piano Rose and Jack sang in chorus:

“For he’s going to marry, Yum Yum,
Yum Yum.
Your anger pray bury,
For all will be merry,
I think you had better succumb,


* * *


    At the beginning of January there was a wedding at the synagogue in Upper Berkeley Street which excited unusual interest.
    The beautiful bride in her white silk dress was greatly admired. She was very pale, certainly, and in her wide-open eyes an acute observer might have read an expression of something like terror; but acute observers, fortunately, are few and far between. The bridegroom, to all appearance, enjoyed himself immensely, going through the whole pageant with great exactness, smashing the wine-glass vigorously with his little foot, and sipping the wine daintily from the silver cup. 
    Old Solomon Sachs, whose own daughters had been married in the drawing-room at Portland Place, but who had no prejudice against the new fashion of weddings in the synagogue, occupied a prominent place near the ark, surrounded by his family.
    Reuben Sachs stood close to Leopold Leuniger, a little in the background. His face was absolutely expressionless, unless weariness may be allowed to count as expression. He wanted yet a year or two of thirty, and already he was beginning to lose his look of youth. Leo, it must be owned, paid little attention to the ceremony. His eyes roved constantly to where the bridegroom’s family, the Lee-Harrisons and the Norwoods, stood together in a rather chilly group; to where, in particular, Lady Geraldine Sydenham, in her unassertive, unaccentuated costume, leaned lightly against a porphyry column.
    Bertie’s people had accepted the situation with philosophy, and were really fond of Judith, but they found her family, especially in its collateral branches, uncongenial, if not worse.
    On the outskirts of this group hovered Montague Cohen, absolutely rigid with importance. Near him Adelaide tossed her head in its smart new bonnet from side to side, her sallow face and diamond earrings flashing this way and that throughout the ceremony. 
    She knew that such restlessness was not good manners, but for the life of her she could not resist the temptation of seeing all that was to be seen.
    Poor Mrs. Quixano, proud, but vaguely distressed, stood near her husband; while Jack, the picture of nimble smartness, ushered every one into their places and made himself generally useful.
    The wedding was followed by a reception; and afterwards, amid showers of rice from Lionel and Sidney, the newly-married pair set out en route for Italy.



It was the beginning of May, a bright, balmy evening, and the London season was in full swing.
    The trees in Kensington Gardens wore yet that delicate brilliance of early spring, which, a passing glory all the world over, is in London the glory of an hour.
    Under the trees children were playing and calling; out beyond in the road a ceaseless stream of cabs, carriages, carts, and omnibuses rolled by.
    The broad back of the Prince Consort, gold beneath his golden canopy, shone forth with unusual splendour; the marble groups beneath stood out clearly against the soft background of pale blue sky.
    And in the air—the London air—lingered something of the freshness of evening and of spring, mixed though it was with the odour of dinners in preparation, and with that of the bad tobacco which rose every now and then from the tops of the crowded road-cars rolling by.
    The windows of a flat in the Albert Hall Mansions opposite were open, and a lady who was standing by one of them could smell the characteristic London odour, and could hear the sound of the children’s voices, the rolling and turning of the wheels, and the shuffle and tramp of footsteps on the pavement below. She stood there a moment, one bare, beautiful hand and arm resting on the back of an adjacent couch, her eyes mechanically fixed on the glistening gilt cross surmounting the Albert Memorial, then she turned away suddenly, the thick, rich folds of her white silk dress trailing heavily behind her. The room across which she moved was small, but bright, and fitted up with the varied and elaborate luxury of a modern fashionable drawing-room. Among the articles of bric à brac, costly, interesting, or merely bizarre which adorned it, were an antique silver Hanucah lamp and a spice box, such as the Jews make use of in certain religious services, of the same metal.
    Judith Lee-Harrison, for it was she, went over to the mantelpiece and consulted a little carriage-clock which stood upon it.
    It was barely three months since her marriage, though to judge from the great, if undefinable change which had passed over her, it might have been the same number of years.
    Her beauty indeed had ripened and deepened, so that it would have been impossible for the least observant person to pass it by, and the little over emphasis of fashion which had hitherto marred the perfect distinction of her appearance, had vanished.
    “Mrs. Lee-Harrison would be a beauty if she cared about it,” is the verdict of the world to which she had been introduced little more than a month ago.
    But it was sufficiently evident that Mrs. Lee-Harrison did not care.
    There was something almost austere in the pose of the head and figure, the lines of the mouth, the look in the wonderful eyes. 
    Those eyes, to a close observer indeed told that Judith had learnt many things, had grown strangely wise these last three months.
    Yes, she knew now more clearly what before she had only dimly and instinctively felt: the nature and extent of the wrong which had been perpetrated; which had been dealt her; which she in her turn had dealt herself and another person.
    She stood idly by the mantelpiece, staring at the mass of invitation cards stuck into the mirror above it.
    One of them told that lady Kemys would be at home that night in Grosvenor Place at nine o’clock. It was to be a political party, and like all such gatherings would begin early, for which reason she had dressed before dinner.
    She took the card from its place and read it over. Reuben would be there of course.
    Well, they would shake hands perhaps; she, for one, would be very amiable; they might even talk about the weather; and would he ask her to have an ice?
    She put back the card indifferently; it mattered so little.
    She had been home a month from Italy, and, as it happened, she and Reuben had not met yet.
    The Lee-Harrisons had dined duly in Kensington Palace Gardens, but Reuben had been unavoidably detained that night at the house.
    He had called on her some weeks ago, and she had been out.
    But rumours of him had reached her. He had addressed his constituents with great éclat in the recess, and was already beginning to attract attention from the leader of his party.
    As for more intimate matters, there were reports current connecting his name with Caroline Cardozo, with Miss Lee-Harrison, and with a chorus girl at the Gaiety.
    Some people said he was only waiting for old Solomon’s death to marry the chorus girl.
    The last month, which had been full of new experiences, of social events for Judith, seemed curiously long as she stood there looking back on it.
    It came over her that she was in a fair way to drift off completely from her own people; they and she were borne on dividing currents. 
    A sudden longing for the old faces, the old ties and associations came over her as she stood there; a strange fit of home-sickness, and inrushing sense of exile.
    Her people—oh, her people!—to be back once more among them! When all was said, she had been so happy there.
    A servant entered with a letter.


Some themes and questions to consider 

  • Love, marriage, and the differences between them.

  • What do you make of the emphasis on private feelings versus public appearances?

  • Think more about narration: how do we actually know what’s going on in a text?

Full text

The full text of Reuben Sachs is available through the Internet Archive’s Open Library.


Reuben Sachs and nineteenth-century British Judaism

This resource by Frederick Roden on Victorian Web discusses Reuben Sachs within the context of Judaism and conversion in nineteenth-century Britain.

Judaism in Britain in the nineteenth century

This resource from Victorian Web discusses the wider context or ‘Nineteenth-Century Judaism in Britain’.

The Tragedy of Amy Levy

This blog from the Oxford project Diseases of Modern Life discusses Amy Levy’s suicide.

Amy Levy: Critical Essays

This collection, edited by Naomi Hetherington and Nadia Valman (2010) can be accessed via Google Books preview, and is reviewed by Cynthia Scheinberg here.

Great Writers Inspire

George Eliot, writer of Daniel Deronda, a contemporary novel about a Jewish character written by a non-Jewish writer, can be read about on Great Writers Inspire.

About the Contributor

Dr Joseph Hankinson is Career Development Lecturer in English at Jesus College, teaching literature from the nineteenth century to the present day. His research focuses on questions of kinship, sociality, and belonging across Atlantic literary culture. His first book Relational Worlds: Kojo Laing, Robert Browning, and Affiliative Literature will be published in 2022.