“My Dear Niece”: The Life of Esther Isaacson Pissarro (Part II)

Amy Levy

In order to get a better understanding of Esther Isaacson’s world, I turned to the Victorian writer Amy Levy (1861-1889) to look at both her life and her writings. It would not be surprising if Amy Levy and Esther Isaacson had crossed paths—they were almost the same age, the same class, and both lived in similar areas of London. They were both Jewish, and London’s middle-class Jewish community was not so large. Amy’s parents, Lewis and Isabelle Levy, were cousins, and from a family that had settled in Britain in the 18th century. Her father was an export merchant and then stockbroker. Amy’s mother was occupied raising seven children. For both the Isaacson and Levy family, finances were sometimes delicate; a financial downturn forced the Levy family to move from their grand home in Regent’s Park to a more modest home in Bloomsbury in 1885. Amy received an excellent education, first at Brighton High School for Girls, where she thrived, and then to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she was the first Jewish female student. Upon leaving Cambridge in 1881, Amy wanted to be a New Woman and try to support herself through her writings. In addition to poems and essays, Amy Levy published two novels Romance of a Shop and Reuben Sachs, both written in 1888. The latter was a cause célèbre in Jewish society and Esther would certainly have heard of it, if not read it.

Levy was a different character to Esther Isaacson—she suffered from overwhelming bouts of depression and committed suicide at the age of 27. She also developed a heightened consciousness of being Jewish in Britain, to the extent of feeling physically unattractive and undesirable. Some of Levy’s feelings might have arisen due to the awkward social position that London’s middle-class Jews occupied at the end of the 19th century. As previously noted, they had just achieved certain milestones, such as the Jew Relief Act in 1858, and the Rothschilds attainment of positions in government. But starting in 1881, a Tsarist pogrom brought a mass migration of destitute Eastern European Jews to the East End of London. The newcomers were culturally different to British Jews, who had tried to assimilate into British society, and the situation provoked alarm among those who worried that the new wave of immigration would bring an upturn in anti-Semitism, which it did.

Amy Levy’s two disparate novels help to give a fuller picture of Esther Isaacson’s Victorian London. Romance of a Shop is Levy’s ‘New Women’ novel. Published in April of 1888, it could be described as an English Little Women. It tells the story of the four Lorimer sisters, who had already lost their mother, and are then forced to fend for themselves when their father dies leaving them only a modest inheritance. The sisters contemplate the ways that they might support themselves. One of them says: ‘The question remains, what can we do? There is teaching, of course. We might find places as governesses; but we should be at a great disadvantage without certificates or training of any sort’. Before their father’s death, the family had enjoyed photography as a serious hobby, so the cleverest sister, Gertrude, proposes that they open a photography studio. Her sister Lucy says: ‘Think of all the dull little ways by which women, ladies, are generally reduced to earning their living! But a business—that is so different. It is progressive; a creature capable of growth; the very qualities in which women’s work is dreadfully lacking’. The sisters’ well-to-do friends and family are aghast at their plans and try to dissuade them, but they commit to the plan with determination.

Ladies taking the Omnibus in Victorian London

The sisters find a property at 20B Upper Baker Street, above a chemist, which they turn into a joint photography studio and home.  We see the life they lead in this region of London: the variety of neighbours in Marylebone, walks in Regent’s Park, and the art galleries of New Bond Street. We see their world as they work hard at becoming expert in their profession. The business is gradually profitable, but even so, the sisters find that they are no longer members of the class into which they were born. In their previous world, reputation mattered enormously, but their newly-lowered class status gives them a certain freedom. Gertrude especially enjoys her new liberty: ‘One bright morning towards the end of January, Gertrude came careering up the street on the summit of a tall, green omnibus, her hair blowing gaily in the breeze, her ill-gloved hands clasped about a bulky note-book’.  At the end of the novel, one of the sisters dies of tuberculosis, but the three remaining sisters all marry for love, even frumpy Gertrude, who had attracted the attention of a widowed Lord. But the studio would continue: ‘The photography, however, has not been crowded out by domestic duties’.

Reuben Sachs, published in January 1889, is also set in contemporary west London, but is otherwise a very different novel. It is darkly satiric and takes place almost entirely in a prosperous Jewish society where advantage in careers, politics, and marriage matters most. The two central characters are Reuben Sachs, a young barrister, and Judith Quixano, a beautiful young woman living with well-to-do relations because her parents have limited means. Judith is of Sephardic ancestry, which, like royalty, is shown to grant her certain advantages. There is an unspoken romance between the pair, but Reuben is highly ambitious and aims to win a seat in Parliament and knows that he will have to marry for money and connections. Reuben’s sister says of Judith, ‘She has no money. Very likely she won’t marry at all’. Judith and Reuben are not cousins, but are linked through family ties:

‘There had always been between them a fiction of cousinship, which had made possible what is rare all the world over, but rarer than ever in the Jewish community—an intimacy between young people of opposite sexes. […] Their friendship, unusual enough in a society which retains, in relation to women at least, so many traces of orientalism, had sprung up at first unnoticed in the intimacy of family life. It was not till the last year or two that it had attracted any serious attention’.

In the end, Reuben chooses his career over love, and Judith marries a man she does not love rather than remain single.

There is a certain cruelty in Reuben Sachs; Levy includes some surprising and unpleasant descriptions of Jews which corresponded with the common anti-Semitic characterisations of the period. The novel caused upset in the Jewish community. Linda Hunt Beckman, in her book Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters (2000) asks: ‘Did it never occur to Levy that a novel by a Jew critiquing Anglo-Jewish life would inevitably generate concern among Jews about the book’s impact on the way the larger culture perceived them?’ (p. 181) Hunt Beckman goes on to quote Meri-Jane Rochelson whose evidence shows that, indeed, ‘writers in the secular press of the day often treated Reuben Sachs as documentary evidence for anti-Semitic views.’ (p. 181) There is also fine writing in the novel. Oscar Wilde wrote an obituary for Amy Levy that was published in the magazine Woman’s World, which he edited. He praised Reuben Sachs, and wrote: ‘the strong undertone of moral earnestness never preached, gives a stability and force to the vivid portraiture, and prevents the satiric touches from degenerating into mere malice’. 

Putting aside the subject of the novel’s possible anti-Semitism, Reuben Sachs gives us another insight into Esther Isaacson’s world because the real narrative focus is not on Reuben, but rather on Judith Quixano, and the highly circumscribed world of a young woman in an aspirational Jewish community. She is clever, though not an intellectual, and she knows that marriage is her only route to any sort of freedom. Judith saw the situation of Reuben’s aunt Rachel, who still lived with her parents: ‘a woman far advanced in middle-life, stitched drearily at some fancy-work by the fire. She was unmarried, and hated the position with the frank hatred of the women of her race, for whom it is a peculiarly unenviable one’. But what of happiness? When Judith allowed herself to think that Reuben would marry her, she could imagine happiness. After she resignedly accepts the proposal of another man, Levy writes: ‘A certain relief had come with the deed. She had opened up for herself a new field of action; she would be reinstated in the eyes of her world, in Reuben’s eyes, in her own’.

Amy Levy’s article for The Jewish Chronicle, 17 September 1886

Levy did not marry. She wrote an article for the Jewish Chronicle of 17 September 1886 entitled ‘Middle-Class Jewish Women of To-Day’, in which she described the difficulties that young Jewish women in London had in meeting potential marriage partners. She broached themes that she would reprise in Reuben Sachs: that Jewish men inhabited the world of business and looked at marriage as transactional; that Jewish women were taught that marriage and motherhood are the pinnacle, yet they were closely guarded by their families. To be unmarried was a miserable lot in which the life of a ‘hale woman of thirty’ was spent in ‘aimless spinsterhood’. Would Esther Isaacson and her sisters have felt the stigma of being unmarried? Had they found it difficult to meet potential husbands? In the end, it was ‘cousinship’ that had permitted Esther and Georges to develop an intimacy that might not otherwise have been allowed.

Whiteley’s Department Store in Westbourne Grove, Victorian London

Finally, in Reuben Sachs, we get a picture of the greater Bayswater area. Judith and her female relations shop at Whiteley’s in Westbourne Grove, one of the original department stores, they ride the omnibus to get around town, younger sisters attend ‘high school’. We see the politics surrounding the choice of synagogue: the wealthy patriarch, Solomon Sachs, attends the Bayswater Synagogue, Judith’s parents, the Quixanos, attend the Synagogue of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews in Bryanston Street, but everyone else, and especially the young people, prefer the West London Reformed Synagogue in Upper Berkeley Street because of its simplified service and music. Synagogue is a place where young men and women (seated separately) can see one another from afar, and perhaps speak after the service. But the real social buzz is caused by balls, which present an exciting opportunity for men and women, and Jews and gentiles to mix.

The Isaacson home in Westbourne Park Road, and the locations in Reuben Sachs

Esther’s life had areas of overlap with the two different worlds seen in Romance of a Shop and Reuben Sachs. She worked as a teacher, which gave her a certain freedom to explore London by day, which she enjoyed enormously. She would use the occasion to draw, by herself or with her pupils. She went to concerts, she stayed with friends. Her father was busy with work and her brothers lived abroad, so there was, perhaps, a good deal of freedom, though Mme Henry seems to have offered a pair of watchful eyes. Esther must have attended synagogue, if not regularly then at least on certain holy days. But which synagogue? From March of 1887 until her death in September of 1893, she lived in Bayswater. Would she also have preferred the West London Reformed Synagogue for its music? Upon her death, Phineas Isaacson went to a synagogue to make arrangements for her funeral but met with resistance because of the circumstances of her marriage. Lucien wrote to Camille: ‘M. Bensusan did not go to the burial, he excused himself saying to Isaacson that he had taken a certain position and that he wanted to stick to it. As for father Isaacson, he was disgusted by the Jews who have been very brusque with him—he went last Saturday to take the necessary steps after the death of poor Esther and someone told him to address himself to such and such person at such and such street and the poor man, upset as he was, asked if someone could write down the address for him, and it seems that the rabbi took this request badly, saying that neither he nor anybody else would write in his house on the Saturday!!’ Camille and Lucien took this behaviour as just one more example of the hypocrisy of all religions. Phineas Isaacson ignored these slights and treated his youngest daughter’s burial with care; Esther was buried in West Ham Jewish Cemetery, near the Rothschild Mausoleum, built in 1866 for Evelina de Rothschild after she’d died in childbirth.

Author’s note: all of Camille Pissarro’s letters were originally in French, as were many of Esther Isaacson’s; all of the translations into English are my own.

Part I and Part III

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

3 thoughts on ““My Dear Niece”: The Life of Esther Isaacson Pissarro (Part II)

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