Jane has always always been such a great source of lesser known hidden gems, that I can always rely on her to lead me to books which I would have missed, but in missing them, it would have been a crying shame! She has introduced me to Margaret Kennedy, Hélène Gestern and Margery Sharp and so many others that I can barely begin to enumerate and therefore it was only natural that when she posted about this very little know The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy, i would add it to my TBR and wait for a right opportunity to explore more! It was however good 2 years before I could actually get my hands on it and get the time to read it and when I finally finished it, it seemed apt that it should be part of my Women Classic Literature Reading Event!
The Romance of a Shop is set in Victorian England and the novels opens with the death of Mr. Lorimer who has left his estate sadly tangled with mounting debts all of which would have to be paid by the sale of his house and the belongings. This leaves the Lorimer sisters, daughter of the late Mr. Lorimer, Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis extremely poor. They have the option of residing with friends and relatives in ones and twos and go to India as part of fishing fleet in search of eligible husbands, all of which mean separation from each other and dependence on someone else for their welfare! They resolve against all such schemes and under the leadership of Gertrude (the artist and the creative sister) and Lucy ( the clever and pragmatic sister), they decide to open a photography shop, much to the consternation and horror of their noble relations. This is 1880s England and girls from well-to-do gentle background do not become shop girls, even if it is their own shop! Despite all the oppositions, the sisters who had been amateur photographers for a long time, decide to pursue their aims and to that effect find small accommodations at Upper Baker Street, where the ground floor would serve as their workshop and the upper floors as their apartments.Chang in economic situation, brings in new changes in their lives as the sisters cope with making the ends meet and gain a respectable foothold in the new age of artists and writers. While most of their old friends abandon them, some stick through the Lorimers including the Devonshires, Constance the daughter being a particular friend of Gertrude and Fred, her brother who besides having a sympathetic heart for all the sister, also holds a secret love for Lucy. Soon their old friendships are tested and mixed up with new relations as the Lorimer girls from new circles – Frank Jermyn, an artist who lives across and provides some commission work for the sisters and who becomes a part of their inner circle; Lord Watergate, a brilliant scientist with whom they become acquainted when the he wishes them to take a picture of his dead wife and Sidney Darrell, a member of the Royal Academy, who also commissions some work and makes Gertrude extremely uncomfortable.As the sisters adapt to the new social circle and have to change their traditional mores of interactions, they have to look inside themselves for what they truly want and what they really wish to achieve, especially when threatened by storms that promises to shake the very foundations on which their lives have been built on!
This is not one of the best novels that I have read, the plot while it flows, seems at places to meander and sometimes, there is no logic for sudden actions. The end ties up the lose ends far too easily and the writing seems at times a cross between a Jane Austenish social manner book meets Virginia Woolf. But then why consider it a classic? Because despite all these flaws, it is. The novel published in 1880 clearly calls for empowerment of the women, especially economic empowerment and stands against all masculine mores of “women needing to be looked after”. In the four sisters, we find the perfect examples of modern women , Wikipedia tell me that this concept was called “New Women” – women who were not delicate darlings, who fainted at the very sound of a harsh voice (even Fanny who seems to have been created to form a parody to her non-traditionalist sisters, has more strength of character than what was usually given credo to women of that era!), but rather strong independent women, who were not afraid of hardwork, of keeping their own house and yet managing to maintain a certain about of intellectual culture! The sisters are far from perfect, and at times can come across as selfish in their own needs, but they are constantly striving the better themselves and their lot and when the world comes crashing, instead of finding solace male arms, they band together find strength and battle their demons head on! Considering Ms. Levy wrote about these characters nearly 140 years ago, the modern reader will find much to identify with and that in some significant feat! The society of London is also very well portrayed in the novel and there are characters and events which encourage and provide platform for the girls to explore their talent and build their business, there is enough gossip and malicious whispering to make the portray real and ring in the true nature of the socio-econiomic paradigm of late Victorian England. At the heart of it all, it is a great story. There is wit and a sense of mirth though the book, even at some it darkest passages and the reader is involved and concerned regarding the fate of Lorimers until it plays out to the very end, most to the satisfaction of all. The epilogue is a wonderful touch giving an insight into the lives that carry on and leaves you feeling safe after being hailed by a multitude of storms! Ms. Levy wrote a marvelous work with such promise, and it seems such a shame, that she would die, two years after this book’s publication!