The Romance of a Shop … this wonderful title accompanied by a beautiful cover and an intriguing synopsis persuaded me to buy this book written by Amy Levy (1861-1889), an author I’d never heard of before. I read a marvelous Broadview edition which includes a short bio of the author who committed suicide at age 27, various collected articles on several aspects of Victorian society, poetry and a short story by Levy and 19th century reviews ofThe Romance of a Shop. This is a book about the “New Woman,” a topic also covered in George Gissing’s splendid novel, The Odd Women, a simply fantastic novel that made my best-of list in 2013. Amy Levy’s novel won’t be making the 2014 list for reasons I’ll explain, but this was an interesting book which convinced me to read the author’s other novel Rueben Sachs.
Gissing’s The Odd Women concerns six sisters left destitute following the death of their father. We see how they are forced into menial employment as governesses of families just above their social sphere, and in these positions, they’re overworked and underpaid. One sister works in a shop and it’s a work-till-you-drop sort of situation which she bails from at the first opportunity. She lands in a miserable marriage that’s just another type of drudgery–even if it is gilded around the edges. The Odd Women is a bold novel which addresses sexual desire, the disparity between male and female sexual freedom, the practicality of ‘free unions’ in a society rife with gender inequality, and the power balance in marriage. The book questions whether or not women can thrive as wives, or if a career as a single woman is a preferable and healthier choice. As a result, the female characters in Gissing’s masterpiece are faced with tough choices. Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop isn’t as bold or as subversive a novel as The Odd Women. The informative introduction from Susan David Bernstein describes Levy’s novel as important: “borderland fiction, inscribing a space between traditional and progressive representations of women.”
There are four Lorimer sisters in The Romance of a Shop, and the novel opens following the death of their father, a London photographer. With all bills settled, and the furniture sold, they are left with just 500 pounds between them. Fanny, the eldest daughter at thirty, is the result of Mr. Lorimer’s first marriage, and thanks to a legacy from her mother she has just 50 pounds a year to live on which she is happy to share with her 3 half sisters. In Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street, fifty pounds a year bought a life in a garret for Edwin Reardon.
Relatives propose breaking up the four girls and sending two of them out to live with an uncle in India while the remaining two have been offered a home with the family friends, the Devonshires. The four young women want to remain together and 23-year-old Gertrude, the most interesting of the sisters, and by no coincidence, the most intelligent, proposes that they move and open their own photography studio. It’s a bold plan, and while Lucy is solidly behind the plan, Fanny, who is the dullest of the bunch is appalled. Here’s Gertrude making her argument:
“No, I have another plan to propose to you all. There is one thing, at least, that we can all do.”
“We can all make photographs, except Fan,” said Phyllis, in a doubtful voice.
“Exactly!” cried Gertrude, growing excited, and walking across to the middle of the room: “we can make photographs! We have had this studio, with every proper arrangement for light and other things, so that we are not mere amateurs. Why not turn to account the only thing we can do, and start as professional photographers? We should all keep together. It would be a risk, but if we failed we should be very little worse off than before. I know what Lucy thinks of it, already. What have you others to say to it?”
“Oh, Gertrude, need it come to that–to open a shop?” cried Fanny aghast.
Levy positions her argument of ideals vs reality by creating the wonderfully ironic title. There’s nothing romantic at all about running a shop, but there are lots of grim realities–bill-paying, attracting customers, competition, long hours, and above all, a future that, if one is successful, brings only more of the same. Is there romance here? Yes, the first whiff of romance is seen in the sisters’ collective imagination of becoming pioneers, independent women pursuing careers instead of marriage. Fanny, the oldest and the most conventional sister is, according to Lucy, “behind the age.” And this is true in more ways than one–not only is Fanny appalled by the behaviour of her sisters who have decided to be independent career women, but she’s also left behind in the terms of her own life. Years before, Fanny had a suitor but he had no money and sailed off to Australia to make his fortune. Gertrude and Lucy are the pragmatists, and 17 year-old Phyllis, the family beauty, is impractical, frivolous and romantic. There’s lots of flurry and excitement as the sisters make their plans, and the fact that this is a decision made from necessity and desperation is shoved aside until the business opens…..
More in part II