- Sisterly Bonds and Rewriting Urban Gendered Spheres in Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop
In the opening chapters of Amy Levy’s Romance of a Shop (1888), the four Lorimer sisters—Gertrude, Fanny, Lucy, and Phyllis—hold a vote to determine their future course of action following the death of their father. Taking what Gertrude herself admits is an extraordinary risk, the sisters elect to leave their quiet suburb of Campden Hill for London’s city centre, where they will set up a photography studio and earn their own living (54). To alleviate her sisters’ fears regarding such a bold move, Gertrude points out the obvious benefits: “Why not turn to account the only thing we can do, and start as professional photographers? We should all keep together. It would be a risk, but if we failed we should be very little worse off than before” (54). Her sisters have good reason to be worried, for the late-Victorian city is a place of both possibility and danger. On the one hand, the city offers opportunity for financial self-sufficiency; on the other hand, as their traditional Aunt Caroline Pratt warns, the city is a place where women risk possible “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 chaperons” (72). Yet, as Gertrude’s comment makes clear, there is still something quite compelling about the possibility that women might determine for themselves their lot in life, be it failure or success. There is also something quite appealing in the idea that women might “keep together” as they strive for such self-determination.
Focusing on the sisterly bond, this article builds on a large body of scholarship interested in Levy’s representations of both the New Woman and urban female communities. Ana Vadillo’s recent work in Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism, for example, offers a stunning analysis of Levy’s London Plane-Tree poems and the female flâneuse who drinks in the city’s sights and energy.1 Other critics, such as Deborah Epstein Nord, Kate Flint, and Elizabeth F. Evans, look at the role of female bonds in Levy’s city fiction and poetry. Nord’s Walking the Victorian Streets positions Levy as part of a “loosely organized community or network of other unmarried women” who recognize the cityscape as an opportunity to escape the confines of domesticity and traditional gender roles (181).2 In “‘We Are Photographers, Not Mountebanks!’” Evans [End Page 77] pays particular attention to how the Lorimer sisters’ collaborative work in the photography studio at Twenty B Upper Baker Street establishes a safe space for the women in an otherwise unfriendly terrain.3 Flint’s “Hour of Pink Twilight,” by contrast, shifts the conversation from sexual danger to possibility; she reads Levy’s novel as an example of the late-Victorian fascination with liminal urban spaces wherein women might enjoy fleeting and even erotically charged encounters with other women.4
Like previous critics, we too are interested in the city as a liminal space in which women might form new relationships while balancing work and pleasure. However, departing from this body of criticism, we argue that the sisters’ domestic bonds are central to, or guarantee, their access to the city and its pleasures. Influenced by Kathy Alexis Psomiades’s work in “Heterosexual Exchange and Other Victorian Fictions,” we focus on how social structures such as kinship influence women’s access to the marketplace. Like Psomiades, we ground our study of female bonds in feminist theory, specifically Gayle Rubin’s foundational essay “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” In this touchstone work, Rubin convincingly argues that social kinship systems, including the patrilineal descent of property, predate capitalism and predetermine a woman’s relationship with her own body—both its work and its pleasure. “To explain women’s usefulness to capitalism is one thing,” Rubin asserts, but “to argue that this usefulness explains the genesis of the oppression of women is quite another. It is precisely at this...