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.