Work for Women: Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop

Let me ‘fess up.   I knew nothing about Amy Levy (1861-1889) before I read The Romance of a Shop.   I’d mixed her up with the witty Ada Leverson, the author of the charming trilogy, The Little Ottleys.  But I enjoy novels about women in the workplace, and found Levy’s book entertaining, if very slight.

The four Lorimer sisters are bereft:  their father has died, and they must support themselves. But what can they do?  Gertrude, an aspiring writer, regretfully consigns her scribblings to the trash and hatches a plan.  She discusses careers with her sisters, the charming 20-year-old Lucy, the irrepressible 17-year-old  Phyllis, and their simple half-sister, 30-year-old Fanny, who  has “somewhat the appearance of a large and superannuated baby.”

Fanny seems to have a slight intellectual disability.  She cannot grasp the idea of business and insists naively that Gertrude must become a famous writer.

Gertrude’s face flushed, but she controlled all other signs of the irritation which poor hapless Fan was so wont to excite in her. “I have thought about that, Fanny,” she said; “but I cannot afford to wait and hammer away at the publishers’ doors with a crowd of people more experienced and better trained than myself. No, I have another plan to propose to you all. There is one thing, at least, that we can all do.”

And that one thing they can do is  photography, since they have long had their own home studio and professional equipment. So they rent a  studio and start a photography business in London. They live in an apartment above the shop.  Fanny does the housekeeping.

Amy Levy

I was very interested in Levy’s treatment of their work.  What does Levy tell us about photography? It is a demanding career and a hard life.  They have very few customers, and very little money. One of  their first jobs is to photograph the dead wife of Lord Watergate, and  Gertrude does this alone, to spare her sisters. Later, a neighbor, Frank Jermyn, an artist, befriends the Lorrimers, and introduces them to his artist friends, so they have work photographing studies and paintings.  Unfortunately, one of the artists is the debauched Sidney Darrell, who causes much grief.  Frank, Lord Watergate, and Darrell are important characters.

Does being women get in the way of their career?  After a while, it actually helps them.  They are a novelty.  And their social circle expands.

I wish there were more about work, and less about love. Soon the novel descends into a romantic melodrama.  I had read  that this is a predecessor of George Gissing’s The Odd Women.  It is not.

Oddly, it slightly resembles Louisa Alcott’s Little Women, sans humor. And I am quite sure Levy would have read that girls’ masterpiece, published in 1868.  There are some parallels between the Lorimers and the March sisters.   Gertrude, the writer and more-or-less studio CEO, is rather like Jo, the writer; Lucy is charming and practical, like Meg;  Phyllis is a spoiled Amy with worse manners; and Fanny is a grotesque doppelganger of Beth, who possibly has Aspergers.   Somebody even dies.

Levy, a novelist, poet, and essayist, was the first Jewish woman to attend Newnham, Cambridge. Her best-known novel, Reuben Sachs, was written partly as a response to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, which she considered too romantic.

By the way,  Reuben Sachs has been published by Persephone.  And all of Levy’s books are also available as e-books.

8 thoughts on “Work for Women: Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop

  1. I thought I’d read this, but I hadn’t! I love books about work and shops so it’s a good warning that too much romance creeps in. I really liked Amber Reeves’ “A Lady and Her Husband” as a good, feminist book about work. And one of the Dorothy Whipples, “High Wages” has loads about building up a shop business.

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  2. A paragraph in to your review and I was checking the author’s dates to see if there was a Little Women influence at work so I’m glad you thought so too. I was all set to look this out until you said how little there was about the work aspect. We have had several exhibitions centred around early photography in the gallery where I volunteer and early next year I am due to give a talk on working women in art, most of whom (in our gallery) come from the nineteenth century. I thought it might offer some interesting insights. Never mind!

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    • There’s not much about work, but I certainly would love to attend your talk about art! What a fascinating subject. Yes, I enjoyed the parallels between Romance in a Shop and Little Women more than the actual book.

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  3. Thank you for this. I have a copy of the book and have been wanting to read it. It is so rare that an attempt is made to make the troubles of starting a business, the difficulties and the long stretch of hard work to keep it going are at the center of a book. Always or often there is this slide off into romance as if that is the only story in life that will entertain, that counts. Each profession has its difficulties too. . Oliphant has business women but they succeed far too quickly and the story turns to domestic romance as its center (Hester, Kirsteen) though the business part remains essential for the ending. Protest literature does a little better where the vignettes are kept as recurring episodes, but then story serves a fable and we don’t get enough details. She was a great poet, and, as you probably know, killed herself at a young age.

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    • Ellen, I must read more of her. She was mentioned in “Ladies’ Greek,” a book published this year about women classicists of the 19th century. (Levy dropped out before she finished: lots of anti-Semitism at Cambridge apparently.) She isn’t in same class as Oliphant, but I did enjoy this and want to read more about her. Yes, poor Lev, I’m appalled that she committed suicide. At Victorian Web I read that she was bipolar.

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