Reuben Sachs, Amy Levy (1888)

A few weeks ago, I went to Persephone Books in London. If you have never heard about this wonderful little publishing house/ bookshop, let me tell you a bit more : this London-based publisher publishes almost exclusively women’s works. Most of them have actually been forgotten and Persephone gives them a new life so that they can be loved again. As a consequence, you won’t find many contemporary works but mostly stories from the 20s-50s. That being said, at their wonderful little shop on Lamb’s Conduit Street, they also sell art books and some novels that they picked and which beautifully complement the tone and spirit of their work. But since they’re mainly a publishing house, you are likely to find them in your local bookshop or library – or you can order online, of course.

Anyway, I went there and picked a couple of books including Amy Levy’s Reuben Sachs. I did not know anything about this book, apart from the description of Levy as of ‘a Jewish Jane Austen’. I was really curious to read that book because it is a Victorian story about a man, written by a woman and that’s exactly the sort of things I want to work on in the future.

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Reuben Sachs is a young man who’s been struggling with handling stress lately and he has been prescribed a stay abroad by his doctor. When the novel begins, he is back in London and ready to lead a successful career in politics. His whole family is introduced as he comes back and meets with them – his mother, his sister, his cousins, etc. And then, Judith Quixano whom we soon understand Reuben is in love with. She loves him too, but she is very sensible and knows she’s far too poor for him, who needs a wealthy wife in order to succeed in his career.

It sounds pretty basic for a Victorian novel, right? But trust me, it is everything BUT basic.

I found it very hard at first to understand what was the author’s point of view, because the narrator rarely states an opinion clearly. But after reading the very last line, it all made sense: this is a book about the complexity of identity, and all the paradoxes that come with it.

Levy, writing at the end of the 19th century, had in mind racial theories that are no longer acceptable today. She describes Reuben’s figure and movements as typical of his race in a rather unflattering way, but somehow places him on a pedestal. To me, he appears as the wise one through most of the novel. It turns out that he was not entirely, because he sacrificed his happiness for money and got punished for that (I’m staying as vague as possible in order to not spoil the ending – but it must still be easy to guess, though!). However, the reader cannot help but to look up to him as every other family member does in the story. You almost have to admire his devotion. This dedication can be found in most characters here, be it work-related or family-wise. Surprisingly enough, it is not so obvious as regards religion – apart from Solomon and Mr Quixano, none of the characters seems very concerned as to why they believe in this particular orthodoxy. Leo and Esther are a bit more critical, especially the former who seems to be a free spirit in this family: he doesn’t live in London because he studies in Cambridge in order to be a musician. Obviously, his family does not really agree with this goal, but he is still arguably free since he’s away from them. He prefers Cambridge to London, which he hates. On the contrary, Reuben is dearly attached to his hometown and we can understand so from the very first lines : ‘he was back again: back to the old, full, strenuous life which was so dear to him: to the din and rush and struggle of the London which he loved with a passion that had something of poetry in it’. Somehow, the city is also rather harmful to Reuben and we can’t really know for sure whether Levy praises life in London or not.

This paradoxical side to the novel is omnipresent, especially when it comes to religion, and I’m still not sure what to think. Most characters accept their religion without much questioning, as I previously mentioned, but they make a point to live by the rules and traditions that come with it. This novel comes as a response to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda where the Jewish community is romanticised – Levy directly criticises this book in her novel. Here, we seem to have a realistic portrait of the community, it is certainly not perfect (Levy has been accused of antisemitism because of how she describes her people) but it feels truthful. What is confusing is the internal fight that seemed to have taken control of the author: she is Jewish and that’s a part of her personality and culture in which she grew up, but she’s a woman, and quite a feminist, so she can’t really stand the way her religion has to look down on women ‘“Blessed art Thou, O Lord my God, who hast not made me a woman.”  No prayer goes up from the synagogue with greater fervour than this.‘. She is for a more modern vision of it all, she considers herself as Anglo-Jewish, but turning to the English society somehow means to turn her back on where she comes from… it is a vicious circle that seems to have no end in Reuben Sachs.

Speaking about the title, this novel should really be called Reuben Sachs and Judith Quixano. The novel follows Judith for the most part, although it always has something to do with Reuben. Judith is beautiful, sensible and humble; she basically is the perfect Victorian woman. But there is not much else to say about her. The only really interesting thing she does is to turn to poetry when she is utterly desperate. She realises how important it is, even though she does not understand it.

Although on the whole the book was a nice little read, I found the style to be a bit too much: too pompous and not exactly fitting the tone of what was told. It didn’t prevent me from crying like a baby and using up half a dozen of tissues at the end, but it seriously prevented my enjoyment for most of my reading. In the end, I think that the most interesting facet of Reuben Sachs is Amy Levy: a genuinely interesting person, through whom it is nice to ponder on identity and religion, especially in a time of change like that of the 19th century, but I wouldn’t absolutely recommend to read it since it feels way longer than it actually is.

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