Out on the eastern most edge of Islington, on the border with Hackney, is an area known as Mildmay and, within it, the last resting place of the ashes of a notable young poet, novelist and essayist: her name was Amy Levy.
Today, if you wish to discover where she is located, you will have to take a journey to an abandoned Jewish Cemetery off the Balls Pond Road and – for now – look through the iron gates to the many large tombs and memorials beyond. I say ‘for now’ because plans are afoot to enable this historic and secluded burial ground, Grade II listed in 2020, to be made available to the public to visit once more. It is owned by West London Synagogue, opened in 1840/3 with many notable Jewish people being interred there, and remained in use until 1951. And although well-known at the time, Amy Levy and her work have only recently come to the attention of modern readers.
Born in London in 1861 into a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family, hers was a unique and important voice in literature and politics during her short life, which ended in a tragic suicide by the age of 27. She was not only the second Jewish woman to be admitted to Cambridge but also wrote on the rights of Jewish women. Oscar Wilde was an early champion of her work in fiction, praising its ‘sincerity, directness and melancholy’ as well as her command of the writer’s craft in her second novel, ‘Reuben Sachs’, where there was ‘an absence of any single superfluous word.’ By the time she died, Amy Levy had also published volumes of poetry, most famously ‘A London Plane Tree and other verse’ in 1890, depicting her love of the city.
Wilde, writing her obituary, stated that ‘To write thus at six-and twenty is given to very few.’ Let’s hope that visits to this corner of Islington, where a statue has only recently been erected to pay tribute to the phenomenal gifts of another pioneering writer, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, brings knowledge of Amy Levy’s talent and powerful insights to an even wider audience!
If you want to know more, please contact Jo Hannah