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The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy

December 26, 2015 13 comments

The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (1888) Not available in French. (Sorry)

The cinema was invented in Lyon by the Lumière brothers. But what made their fortune was actually photography. They were inventors who registered more than 170 patents and in 1881, they created the instantaneous photograph plaque called the Plaques Étiquettes-Bleues. Before this invention, people had to stay still for about five minutes before the photography was taken and the photographer needed to be a specialist capable of handling a complicated process. With the Plaques Étiquettes-Bleues, photography became simple and accessible to amateurs. You only had to slip the Plaque in the camera and you were ready to take a picture. This invention was so revolutionary that it spread within two years after it was marketed and it resulted in the creation of many photography studios.

Levy_Romance2In other words, without the Lumière brothers, The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy wouldn’t be the same. Now imagine what would become of the Bennett sisters if they lived in 1888 and their father died while they were still unmarried. Amy Levy seems to explore this idea.

Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis Lorimer belong to small nobility and are single when their father dies. They discover that they have no fortune left and their family think that the only solution for them is to split, two going to live with friends of the family, the Devonshires,  and the two others being shipped to the part of the family established in India. But Gertrude, the brain of the four, comes with another idea. She has consulted a friend of their father’s and she determined to open a photography studio in London and earn their keep through their trade. Now you see my point about the Lumière brothers.

Lucy supports Gertrude immediately. Phyllis, the youngest one, has no objection but Fanny isn’t so easily convinced.

“Oh, Gertrude, need it come to that—to open a shop?” cried Fanny, aghast. “Fanny, you are behind the age,” said Lucy, hastily. “Don’t you know that it is quite distinguished to keep a shop? That poets sell wall-papers, and first-class honour men sell lamps? That Girton students make bonnets, and are thought none the worse of for doing so?”

Despite the opposition of their aunt, Mrs Spratt, and Fanny’s wariness, the project comes through. Their friends Constance and Fred Devonshire support them as they acquire a former photography studio and start their business.

A few days afterwards the Lorimers found themselves the holders of a lease, terminable at one, three, or seven years, for a studio and upper part of the house, known as 20B, Upper Baker Street.

(I noted that leases are one, three or seven years while in France, it’s three, six or nine years)

The four sisters are very different. Fanny is the old fashioned one, the less able to change her ways and be helpful. She can’t help in the studio, she can’t take care of the house and soon her sisters accept that poor Fanny is more a liability than an asset.

As Lucy had said, Frances Lorimer was behind the age. She was an anachronism, belonging by rights to the period when young ladies played the harp, wore ringlets, and went into hysterics.

Gertrude is the leader. She puts aside her literary ambitions to run the business, take the pictures, go to other studios or private homes to take photos and earn money. She’s not always comfortable with what she’s doing, like going to a man’s house without a chaperone but she knows she can’t be picky. Lucy is her real partner, sharing the workload, the worries about the bills and the customers. Phyllis is the youngest sister. She’s a pretty girl, a bit immature and rather selfish.

So basically, the business in on Gertrude and Lucy’s shoulders. Through their friend Constance, they get acquainted with a young man living across their street. Mr Jermyn hires them to photograph his work, introduces to his friends and acquaintances and soon becomes a familiar fixture of their new life.

They began to get glimpses of a world more varied and interesting than their own, of that world of cultivated, middle-class London, which approached more nearly, perhaps, than any other to Gertrude’s ideal society of picked individuals.

Business picks up, leading to choices and a new way-of-life. What will become of Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis?

You can imagine a bit of their fate if I tell you that in Austen’s world, Gertrude would be Lizzy, that Lucy reminded me of Jane, that Phyllis acted like Kitty and that Fanny would be Mary. Constance sounds like Charlotte.

While I enjoyed following the adventures of the Lorimer sisters and their shop, I missed the sharp analysis of the condition of women provided by Gissing in The Odd Women. Gissing’s novel was published in 1893, only five years after The Romance of a Shop. Levy’s book is unconventional. It pictures women who refuse to become nannies, teachers or governesses. They reject the idea to depend on family and be at the mercy of relatives who would have them at their beck and call because they put a roof above their heads. They take their life into their own hands and start a business. It lacks propriety in their world and sometimes, the daily business hurts their ingrained good manners. But Gertrude doesn’t mope or whine. She takes action. And she does the exact opposite of what is expected of her sex.

The shop part of the book was interesting to follow and I would have liked to read more details about the operations. I’m always interested in how business was made in the 19thC. The romance part was a bit too much for my tastes but it was still an agreeable read. It is as if the writer didn’t dare going as far as having female characters who chose a career and gave up the dream of being a wife. In Levy’s world, getting married is still the most enviable option for a woman. Opening a shop is a necessity but not a choice. In Gissing’s world, he hints that women should have the choice not to marry and have a fulfilling career for themselves.

Thanks to Guy for giving me this novel and you can read his excellent review here for Part 1 and here for Part 2

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