The fathomless ocean on which they had set out with such unknowing fearlessness

Dear Amy,

The Romance of a Shop (1888) is all about framing: depending on the way we turn our lens and the point where we choose to place the romance in the title, the novel can get a slightly different – at times sharp, at times blurred – focus.

The story centres on the Lorimer sisters – Fanny (30), Gertrude (23), Lucy (20), and Phyllis (17) – who are left with very little money after their father’s death. Since they are still unmarried, their options are very limited: they can take up (what was then seen as) menial employment as governesses, or they can accept the charity of friends and relatives and live under their rule. Either way, they must bear to be separated. Two of them can go live with the Devonshire family, and two can be shipped to India to live with an uncle (and, with some luck, find husbands over there).

However, to the dismay of their family, the Lorimer sisters are adamant that they should remain together. Gertrude (the brain of the four) devices a plan to start a photography business and to set up a professional studio in London. The sisters already have the equipment left by their father, and they only need to put to good use the skills they have learned from him.

Despite the fierce opposition of their aunt, Mrs. Caroline Pratt, and Fanny’s concerns about propriety, they rent a studio of their own and start to work as photographers to support themselves. “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?”

In a society that assumed that the professional arena belonged to men and that women should be confined to the domestic sphere, a woman who decides to work is bound to be seen as a trespasser – particularly, if she belongs to a certain family and a certain class, and is therefore seen as having other options (such as accepting someone’s favour, putting oneself at the mercy of relatives, or being sent to India to find a husband…).

To make matters more complicated, the Lorimers are not only trespassing on the gender roles, but also on class boundaries: they are not the usual shop assistants working for someone else, but rather the shop owners themselves. “Think of all the dull little ways in which women, ladies, are generally reduced to earning their living! But a business—that is so different. It is progressive; a creature capable of growth; the very qualities in which women’s work is dreadfully lacking.”

The sisters are carving for themselves an in-between space of freedom of movement and agency that neither the upper middle class nor the working-class women possessed at the time. By setting up as professional photographers, the Lorimers challenge the dichotomy that insisted on branding a woman either as the angel in the house or as the fallen woman. They are neither; they are carving a brand of their own: the Lorimers are New Women.

They live in an apartment above the photography shop, and their business is thriving, but their friends are either amused, scandalized, or have simply abandoned them. Their line of work forces the Lorimers to the limits of what is considered proper for a woman at the time: they must walk the streets unchaperoned; must receive male clients in their shop; and must meet men in public or go alone to studios owned by male artists.

Clementina Maude (Lady Clementine Hawarden), 5 Princes Gardens, c. 1862

The sisters receive different types of commissions (portraits, lecture slides, photographic studies for painters, even photos of dead people…), and, much to their Aunt’s chagrin, are introduced to London’s bohemian scene. “Aunt, how shall I say it for you to understand? We have taken life up from a different standpoint, begun it on different bases. We are poor people, and we are learning to find out the pleasures of the poor, to approach happiness from another side. (…) We have our living to earn, no less than our lives to live, and in neither case can we afford to be the slaves of custom. Our friends must trust us or leave us; must rely on our self-respect and your judgment. Convention apart, are not judgment and self-respect what we most rely on in our relations with people, under any circumstances whatever?

It’s interesting to notice the interplay between morality, class and the ideas on femininity, as well as to notice how much a woman’s financial independency through business seems to be seen by the Victorians (in the character of Mrs. Pratt) as something intertwined with some form of moral or sexual impropriety. To Mrs. Pratt, the photography shop is branded as nonsense, something unwomanly, or even sexually dangerous: “She spoke freely of loss of caste; damage to prospects – vague and delicate possession of the female sex – and of the complicated evils which must necessarily arise from an undertaking so completely devoid of chaperones.”

The highlight of the book for me was the way you used photography to explore the regulating effect of the gaze of others on the sister’s lives: each of the Lorimer sisters is caught in a web of positions between the acts of seeing and being seen. Photography is central to the plot in more than one way: it is the means by which the Lorimers earn their livelihood, as well as the way they can achieve the power to see, by turning the lens around to the ones who are seeing them. Photography earns them a living, and it earns them a perspective as subjects who gaze, and not merely objects that are gazed at.

The smallest exchange of glances never escapes you, nor does the perspective from which a character is seen and sees: Phyllis is constantly looking upon the world from a window above; she is also constantly being seen by others, as if she were a figurine inside a glass dome:“It is a little dull, ain’t it, Gerty, to look at life from a top-floor window?” Lucy, on the other hand, always knows when to draw the curtains: “I wish you wouldn’t do that (…) anyone can see right into the room”, she complains with Phyllis.

In two pivotal scenes, the ability to gaze is represented as a source of power: in the scene where Gertrude first meets her nemesis, Mr. Darrell, she is looking up to him and feels that his glance diminishes and objectifies her: “What was there in this man’s gaze that made her, all at once, feel old and awkward, ridiculous and dowdy; that made her long to snatch up her heavy camera and flee from his presence, never to return?

In another scene, their eyes clash again: “She glanced up as she spoke, and met, almost with open defiance, the heavy grey eyes of the man opposite. From these she perceived the irony to have faded; she read nothing there but a cold dislike. It was an old, old story the fierce yet silent opposition between these two people; an inevitable antipathy; a strife of type and type, of class and class, rather than of individuals: the strife of a woman who demands respect, with the man who refuses to grant it”.

Later, when they meet in a dramatic moment and have a final confrontation, the tables are turned, and Gertrude faces Mr. Darrell “almost with open defiance”: “Gertrude met his glance with eyes that glowed with a passion yet fiercer than his own. Elements, long smouldering, had blazed forth at last. Face to face they stood; face to face, while the silent battle raged between them. Then with a curious elation, a mighty throb of what was almost joy, Gertrude knew that she, not he, the man of whom she had once been afraid, was the stronger of the two. For one brief moment some fierce instinct in her heart rejoiced”. Theirs is a silent but violent battle, and their eyes are their sole weapons.

I wonder whether you read (and was somewhat inspired by) Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868/1869). I could not help but see parallels between the two families: Gertrude, who gives up her writing career to set up the photography business, reminded me of Jo March; Phyllis, the family beauty, is your Amy; Lucy, the pragmatic sister, is your Meg; and, like in Alcott’s book, one of the Lorimer sisters will die.

I cannot quite place the old-fashioned Fanny, though. She cannot possibly be Beth! Fanny is made fun of and often dismissed by the other Lorimer sisters. She has no place among my March sisters: “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.”

And, in a way, the problem with Fanny is also my problem with your Romance of a Shop (1888): it lacks the joy of Alcott’s novel, and takes itself too seriously – so seriously, in fact, that it bows to convention in the end, and does it with a bitter aftertaste.

Given that, by the end, as the plot slid into romance and flirted with the ‘fallen woman’ trope, the book meets a conventional conclusion and ends in marriage, I wonder at the irony we then cannot help but find at the heart of the novel’s title. After all, in a society where marriage is the ultimate goal for a woman, the idea of unmarried women running a business cannot but be a romantic one. And, as with every romantic delusion, it is not meant to last.

Yours truly,

J.


Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Fenced in as she had hitherto been from the grosser realities of life, she was only beginning to realise the meaning of life. Only a plank—a plank between them and the pitiless, fathomless ocean on which they had set out with such unknowing fearlessness; into whose boiling depths hundreds sank daily and disappeared, never to rise again. – Amy Levy, The Romance of a Shop


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