The Lorimer sisters forced to earn their own living or accept the charity of relatives opt for the former and open their photography shop with painfully high hopes.
Think of all the dull 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.
This speech is made by Gertrude to her sister, Lucy, and at this point the photography shop is still in the planning stages. We could say that Gertrude is optimistic, but with Lucy and Phyllis , there’s a more romanticized view which becomes contagious:
“And I,” cried Phyllis, her great eyes shining, “I would walk up and down outside, like that man in the High Street, who tells me every day what a beautiful picture I should make!”
“Our photographs would be so good and our manners so charming that our fame would travel from one end of the earth to the other!” added Lucy, with a sudden abandonment of her grave and didactic manner.
“We would take afternoon tea in the studio on Sunday, to which everybody would flock; duchesses, cabinet ministers, and Mr. Irving. We should become the fashion, make colossal fortunes, and ultimately marry dukes!” finished off Gertrude.
The Romance of a Shop is faulted for its ending–the wrap-up of the fates of our 4 sisters. Would I fault the novel?… Yes, but I’m not the only one, and this criticism is addressed in the intro which includes a comment from author Deborah Epstein Nord (Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City) who argues that the last chapters revert to “a shoddy Pride and Prejudice with all four sisters searching for an appropriate mate.” Also quoted is Deborah Parsons’ argument (Streetwalking the Metropolis; Women, the City and Modernity) that “Levy backs down from the implied female radicalism” with a conventional conclusion for the sisters. The author of the Broadview edition, Susan David Bernstein addresses those criticisms with her interpretation of the conclusion.
I was initially disappointed by the novel’s conclusion as the plot slid into romance, new and old as well adding the looming threat of a slippery seducer. Still, I think that Levy might well be adding realism here by creating characters who opt for marriage as the practical choice, and in the quote above, we see that clearly marriage is in the minds of these sisters. Levy planted the seed for the reader to see very early in the novel, so should we be so surprised when that is what occurs? There’s another later moment when Gertrude, left to her own melancholy thoughts, admits that in all likelihood, at least a couple of her sisters will marry and move on. We could even argue, as noted in the earlier quote, that the sisters see their photography business as paving the way for an introduction into the best of society and a way of making them more desirable and eligible. For this reader, a far worse flaw than the conventional ending was the drama involving Lucy. It seemed contrived solely for the element of suspense.
The Broadview edition clocks in at 278 pages, but the novel itself is about half that. This is an instance when I would have preferred one of those Victorian triple-deckers as The Romance of a Shop is thin on character development. Sister Fanny, for example, is barely glimpsed except as a housekeeping figure, and added scenes of the sisters actually at work, instead of the recounted details, would have enhanced the plot. Gertrude is the most interesting sister, and the scenes that yield her thoughts, and the scenes involving Gertrude and Mr. Darrell are the most interesting in the book. Mr. Darrell wants Phyllis to sit as a model for a painting. He dislikes Gertrude and sees her as a frumpy “dragon-sister to be got round.” Here’s a stunning moment between Gertrude and Darrell:
She glanced up as she spoke, and met, almost with open defiance, the heavy grey eyes of the man opposite. From these she perceived the irony to have faded; she read nothing there but a cold dislike.
It was an old, old story the fierce yet silent opposition between these two people; an inevitable antipathy; a strife of type and type, of class and class, rather than of individuals: the strife of a woman who demands respect, with the man who refuses to grant it.
Amy Levy “modeled the Lorimers on her friends the Black sisters,“(Clementina Black was a suffragette, author and a trade union organizer who fought for equal pay for women). At one point, Levy slips in the statement that customers “seemed to think the sex of the photographers a ground for greater cheapness in the photographs.” There’s an authenticity here in the attention paid to detail to the lodgings, and the glimpse of the professional woman’s perspective in London of the times is unique.
Another fascinating aspect of the novel is the vulnerability of these sisters now that they are running a shop. Most of their old friends drop them, and Aunt Caroline is scandalized by their behaviour. Their work forces them out into the world; they have to mingle, and sometimes go alone to studios owned and operated by men.
We have taken life up from a different standpoint, begun it on different bases. We are poor people, and we are learning to find out the pleasures of the poor, to approach happiness from another side. We have none of the conventional social opportunities for instance, but are we therefore to sacrifice all social enjoyment? … we have our living to earn, no less than our lives to live, and in neither case can we afford to be the slaves of custom. Our friends must trust us or leave us; must rely on our self-respect and your judgment. Convention apart, are not judgment and self-respect what we most rely on in our relations with people, under any circumstances whatever?