Friday, April 03, 2009

The Romance of a Shop

Last Friday, while I was googling George Gissing, I came across a reference to a writer I'd never before heard mentioned: Amy Levy.

She'd published a novel in 1888 about a family of sisters who open a photography shop, beating Gissing's The Odd Women, a novel about sisters required to make a living outside marriage, by five years.

Intrigued further by her description on Amazon as a second-tier George Eliot, I felt fortunate that the library had a one-volume set of her complete novels --particularly after mentioning her to the Victorian lit professor who came in to look at microfilm that afternoon and learning that he'd never heard of her either.

"Amy Levy was born in Clapham in 1861 and died by charcoal gas inhalation in 1889, two months before her twenty-eighth birthday. In taking her own life, she not only raised numerous questions about the despairs of an educated Jewish woman in late Victorian England but also put an end to a promising literary career. In her twenty-seven years she had been the first Jewish woman admitted to Newnham College, Cambridge; had published three short novels and three slim collections of poetry; and had become a contributor to several major literary magazines, including Temple Bar and The Gentleman's Magazine, as well as to the 'leading and almost universally read weekly newspaper among British Jews,' The Jewish Chronicle. Oscar Wilde's obituary notice in Woman's World (which he founded in 1888, and to which Levy contributed poems, short stories, and essays) took particular notice of this promise cut short. . . ." begins the introduction written by the volume's editor Melvyn New.

The Romance of a Shop does indeed give evidence of promise cut short. Orphaned sisters left "quite poor" following the death of their debt-ridden father set up a photography business rather than do what's expected of women of the time--become governesses or travel to India to find husbands or allow themselves to be taken in by a more prosperous relative or friend. The Lorimers themselves often reminded me of Alcott's March girls, Levy's tone stays light with slangy dialogue and a tendency to merely suggest how straitened the family's conditions are while focusing on the relationships the girls develop with the men with whom their shops brings them in contact.

I'll read another Levy novel most definitely.


  1. What a great discovery. I'm going to see if I can track down her books in one of my libraries. Thanks for drawing her to my attention.

  2. I've yet to read Gissing, but I've wanted to for a while. My library has a one volume--complete novels and selected writings of Amy Levy-will have to go look for it on the shelf.

  3. Caroline10:49 PM

    Amy Levy's name sounded familiar, so I checked, and it turns out that Persephone have reissued her novel Reuben Sachs: it's number 23 on their list. Shouldn't be too hard to get hold of - unfortunately for my bank account! Thanks for pointing me in Levy's direction - or should I read Gissing first?

  4. There's more depth and weight to Gissing. Read both, but read Levy when you want something with a light touch.

    I'm glad to know Persephone's reissued one of Levy's novels!

  5. How interesting, I've never heard of her. I'll have to check this book out. Thanks for sharing your discovery!

  6. I've never heard of her either, but she sounds like a writer I'd like to get acquainted with very soon. Although, I still need to read my copy of "Middlemarch." =D Thanks for bringing her to my attention!

  7. Adding this one to my TBR pile. I admired much about The Odd Women even wrote a paper about it in grad school. Sounds like this would have made a nice companion volume to it.

  8. Fascinating, I'll definitely check he rout.


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