07 January 2015

Amy Levy: Blackbird Dying in the Dead of Night

An addendum to the previous post on Grant Allen's Under Sealed Orders. Anyone considering giving the novel a read are warned that there be spoilers. The image above may have already spoiled things, for which I apologize. In my defence, it spoils things in the Grosset & Dunlap edition, too – the plate coming one page before we learn that Blackbird has committed suicide.

The most interesting character in the novel, Blackbird is modelled on poet Amy Levy (1861-1889), herself a suicide. I wrote about this connection in my book Character Parts, so won't go on about it here, except to say that I perhaps oversimplified Allen's views on the New Woman. Blackbird is one of at least three of the movement's members to die in his novels; the most famous being Herminia Barton, heroine of The Woman Who Did (1895). All are depicted as victims of higher education, the female pursuit of which ran contrary to Allen's evolutionist beliefs.

A frail slip of a thing, forever exhausted, Blackbird fairly struggles to stay upright, as this detail from another plate shows.

How vibrant Sacha and Ionê are!

New Women both, what differentiates them from Blackbird is their level of education. It isn't that Sacha, a painter, and Ionê, an adventuress turned writer, aren't educated, rather they have received the proper amount of schooling. Only Blackbird, the most highly educated character in the entire novel, properly understands her misfortune, as she explains in a chapter titled "The Higher Education of Women" :
"It was my people who educated me. You see, they thought I was clever – perhaps I was to start with; and they crammed me with everything on earth a girl could learn. Latin, Greek, modem languages, mathematics, natural science, music, drawing, dancing, till I was stuffed to the throat with them. Je suis jusque là," and she put her hand to her chin with some dim attempt at feminine playfulness. "Like Strasbourg geese," she added slowly in a melancholy after-thought; "it may be good for the brain, but it's precious bad for the body."
Blackbird's single desire is for endless sleep undisturbed by dreams. To this end, she uses her chemistry skills in making poison distilled from laurel leaves provided by an innocent suitor. Amy Levy killed herself by inhaling charcoal fumes.

Allen knew Levy and, as I write in Character Parts (consider that one a plug), exploited her life and death. In his essay "The Girl of the Future", published in The Universal Review eight months after her suicide, he uses her death to argue against higher education for women: "A few hundred pallid little Amy Levy’s sacrificed on the way are as nothing before the face of our fashionable Juggernaut. Newnham has slain its thousands and Girton its tens of thousands."

His verse, "For Amy Levy's Urn", is as smug as it is sympathetic.

The Lower Slopes: Reminiscences of Excursions round the Base of Helicon
London: Bodley Head, 1894
Which is why I'd prefer to end with Amy Levy's own.

The London Plane-Tree and Other Verse
London: Unwin, 1889
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  1. That poem speaks to me. Interesting indeed,

    1. 'Tis, beautiful, is it not. If nothing else, I can thank Allen for introducing me to Amy Levy's work.

  2. The right amount of education is difficult to find sometimes. Was it Steve Martin who said he took just enough philosophy courses to really mess himself up?

    1. Never took so much as one philosophy course myself, John. What's my excuse?

  3. Blackbird's description of her education sounds very like that of John Stuart Mill, so it may not have been women's education- or not women's education only- that Grant Allen (no relation, incidentally) was taking a swipe at.

    1. Could be, Roger. That said, I haven't come across anything in Allen's writing - fiction or otherwise - in which he suggests higher education for men can be a bad thing. On the other hand, one of his highly educated young men, Harry Chichele in The Devil'd Die, turns out to be a psychopath. What made him thus is unexplored.

  4. I'm currently finishing up a Grosset & Dunlap edition published at the same time as this book and UNDER SEALED OPDERS (in fact my edition has a uniform binding as the Allen book) and I was puzzled by the illustrations' placement. Each plate has a page number to note where the line illustrated occurs, but none of those pages are correct. In one case the illustration is placed 49 pages too early. In another over 100 pages too early. As in your case one of the illustrations spoiled the story by revealing a plot twist too early. I wonder if these were offset printed from British editions or merely rebound from unsold/returned seconds. My copy also is littered with typographical and spelling errors. The most distracting part of the book are the myriad inverted quote marks that appear at the start of non-dialogue sections. It was either set by a fumbling novice in a 19th century print shop or someone who didn't care at all.

    1. Interesting. I wonder whether the illustrations where originally published in another edition, John. If so, could it be that some anonymous soul working for Grosset & Dunlap simply neglected to make the changes?

      As far as I can tell, the plates found in my G&D copy first appeared in the 1896 New Amsterdam edition. The page numbers indicated at the end of each caption have been altered to those of the G&D edition.

      To be perfectly fair, the reader already has a sense that Blackbird may have at least attempted suicide - and the caption doesn't actually say that she is dead.

      I should complain more about the cover, I suppose. The image - also used as frontispiece - had me expecting a killing that wouldn't involve young Owen Cazalet, the main character. I kept waiting for it to happen… and then it did.

      Ah, well, at least it did happen - and as depicted! You won't find me complaining the way I did about Margaret Millar's An Air that Kills.