The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy
Before last year, I had never heard of The Romance of a Shop or its author, Amy Levy. However, it was included in the reading list for one of my MA modules and since then this book has quickly become one of my favourite Victorian novels. Despite having read it a while ago, I wanted to take some time to write about this novel not just because it is a book I love writing about, but because it is a book which deserves more recognition than it currently receives in literary discussion.
The first of Amy Levy’s two novels, The Romance of a Shop is an engaging narrative that is both dramatic and moving: it follows the four Lorimer sisters who, after the death of their father, find themselves without means to support themselves financially. With two of the sisters having been trained in the new technology of photography, the girls make the bold decision to leave their countryside life and move to London in order to start their own business: G&L Lorimer: The Photographic Studio. The novel documents their struggles as they try to make a name for themselves in the male-dominated world of art business, defying the wishes of their friends and moving against the position assigned to them by society.
Although, as the title would seem to suggest, the girls’ romantic lives play a part in the narrative, the heart of the novel is the relationships between the sisters themselves and their mutual support in the maintaining of the shop. Through this focus on the sisterly relationships, Levy is able to explore in some depth the implications of the Lorimers’ decision to find their own way in the emerging business class of London. The sisters support each other through the struggles of being small business owners in the world of art and photography, as well as defending each other when they face criticism from the society around them about the very fact that they are financially supporting themselves. As someone who has a soft spot for well-written sibling interactions, this was an aspect of the novel that was always going to appeal to me.
The emphasis on the differing reactions and personalities of the sisters is both the strongest and most frustrating part of the novel. For characters such as Gertrude and Lucy, the characters Levy is asking the reader to identify most with throughout the narrative, it is fascinating to see the differences in how the business is approached. For Gertrude, whose idea it was to set up a photography studio, the business remains a necessity in order for her family to survive. Towards the end of the novel, it almost seems a burden to her, representative of sacrifices she has had to make in order to take care of her sisters. Lucy, meanwhile, is able throughout the novel to balance her photography with her domestic life, and is therefore the only sister to continue with photography after the need for the business is over.
In contrast to this, the characterisations of Fanny and Phyllis are frustrating. To a certain extent, this is a deliberate choice: Fanny is not intended to be someone the reader relates to, but someone they pity. My frustration with Phyllis’ character, however, is an unfortunate result of the storyline she is presented with. From early on in the narrative, it is clear that Phyllis is going to land herself in trouble: whilst Gertrude and Lucy both challenge the normal characterisations of female characters, Phyllis seems to fit a bit too well into the stereotype of the beautiful, naive, and restless younger sister who will be punished for her moral mistakes. Nevertheless, the climax and fallout of her story is still one of the most emotional parts of the novel.
Overall, this is a book I would recommend to anyone: it is not a difficult read, and Levy’s writing is engaging, entertaining, and carefully paced. However, it should have a particular appeal for anyone who enjoys the work of Victorian writers, and especially the work of Victorian novelists such as the Brontës, L.M.Alcott, and Elizabeth Gaskell.