This is a lovely story of four sisters, set in Victorian London.
They are the daughters of a photographer, and when he dies and leaves them with very limited means they decide that, rather being separated to make their homes with different relations they will use what capital they have to open a shop and follow in his footsteps.
Gerty was twenty-three years old and, though she dreamed of being a writer, she was bright enough and loved her sisters enough to put her own dreams aside so that they could live and work together.
Next came Lucy, who at twenty-years old was both sensitive and sensible. She was also the sister who showed the most skill as a photographer.
Seventeen year-old Phyllis was the youngest and the prettiest of the sisters. Because of that, and because her heath was fragile, she was spoiled and she was incline to be mischievous.
Fanny was half-sister to the other three, and though she dreamed of marriage and a home of her own she knew that at thirty her chance of catching a husband had probably gone. But she willingly offered up the small legacy she had from her mother to help the new household.
I liked all four, and I believed in them. Amy Levy captured their individual characters and the sisterly bonds between them.
Whenever I find four sisters in a novel I’m inclined to draw parallels with Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. In the case of the Lorrimer sisters I saw parallels but I also saw significant points of difference; and I appreciated a nice touch late in the novel that suggested that Amy Levy was acknowledging the influence of the older author.
A photographer friend of their fathers’ made practical suggestions for the sisters’ new venture, as well as giving Lucy practical training. Family friends helped them to find suitable premises, a studio with a flat above, in Baker Street, and helped with the move and introducing potential clients too.
That was what kept them going in the difficult early days, when many potential customers were unwilling to offer work to women, or if they were willing expected to pay left. In time though they made contacts, and their professionalism and the quality of their work helped to establish them in London’s artistic circles.
‘The Romance of a Shop’ illuminates both the joys and the perils that faced independent women in London at the end of the 19th century. I learned a great deal about photography: that there was a fashion for photographing corpses; that artists wanted their work to be photographed; that many doors would be opened to the right photographer.
But there’s more to this book than photography; it balances the concerns of a new women novel with the concerns of a new woman novel very well, and there are as many ups and downs and as many incidents in the emotional lives of the four sisters as there are in their professional lives.
Their relationships with family and old friends change. They will cross paths with a neighbouring newspaper engraver, a widowed peer of the realm, a celebrated but amoral artist …..
This is a short novel, but there’s plenty going on. Amy Levy manages her plot beautifully, and she tells her story well, in pose that is simple, clear and lovely.
I was just a little disappointed that she – and her three sisters – were rather hard on poor Fanny.
The story, and the four sisters, were always engaging though. I loved sharing their emotions and their experiences.
The ending was beautifully judged. The afterword told me what happened next, and it was exactly as I would have wanted.
I can’t say that this is a lost classic; but I can say that it is a lovely little book, and that it has something to say.
Sounds like a nice world to lose yourself in for a few hours!
Yes, it was – just the right balance of substance and entertainment.
I am not familiar with Amy Levy’s work, and I’m glad to learn about this book. It looks like something I’d enjoy.
Wonderful review Jane…perfect read for a Saturday night!! Got it! 🙂
Yes it would be – and you have me thinking that it would make a lovely television drama.
Ooh, this looks excellent – I do like a book that tells me exactly how something was done, too. Is this the same Amy Levy who wrote one of the Persephones?
Yes, it is the same Amy Levy. She wrote three novels, so now I’m looking out for the third.
Sounds lovely Jane!
It is – a very readable book with just enough substance.
A lovely review, I shall have to look out for this book. Thank you
Excellent – I’m not sure if it’s in print but it’s in the public domain.
You have added this to my reading list! I love stories of sisters, particularly if they evoke Little Women. Adding in opening a business – and photography at that – is the proverbial icing on the cake.
Edited to add that I just ordered myself a copy!
Excellent – it sounds like you and this boo are perfectly matched. And if you need a book for 1888 it will fit into your century too.
I like the idea of reading about 4 women trying to be independent in the past. Thank you for introducing me to another unknown novel and author 🙂
That was one of the things that drew me to the book – I think you’d enjoy it too.
I love books about sisters. I don’t have any, so maybe that’s why. This sounds really lovely.
Could be. I love books about sisters too, and I don’t have any either.
Sounds lovely! I didn’t hugely enjoy Reuben Sachs, but this one sounds a delight.
This sounds like a lovely little book to get lost in. I think I would probably make comparisons to Alcott, so it’s good to know the characters/story are far from the same.
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