This is the story of four sisters in London, left orphaned at the death of their father. With an inheritance of only £600 between them, they decide to open a photography studio to support themselves. Two of the four, Gertrude and Lucy Lorrimer, are already skilled amateurs, having turned the house's conservatory into a studio. The oldest sister, Fanny, is really a half-sister to the other three. Much more conventional, she agrees to the plan only reluctantly, though she does pledge her own independent income of £50 to their support. The youngest sister, Phyllis, has been rather spoiled by the others, who want to spare her any heavy work.
I learned about this 1888 novel from Jane at Beyond Eden Rock (actually from a review on her old blog, Fleur in Her World). Several elements of the story put this onto my reading list. I am partial to stories about orphans having to make their way in the world. I love those about women opening their own businesses, particularly with Victorian women stepping out of traditional roles. And I am fascinated with the history of photography, and with old photos (it's one of the things I love about working in archives). I immediately thought of the pioneering Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and the Broadview edition of the novel that I read mentions her in the supplemental material.
All of these elements come to play in the novel, which I found fascinating. I liked the sisters, and I wanted them to succeed. Amy Levy goes into detail about how they find a location for their work, as well as a place to live, and about how they organize their business. They have to contend with some opposition from an aunt, as well as Fanny's concerns about propriety. They struggle at first, and they lose some old friends, though their dear friend Constance Devonshire stays true. I was reminded here of Louisa May Alcott's stories, particularly An Old-Fashioned Girl, where Polly finds a supportive community of young women, working like herself. Levy also shows how the Lorrimers' business grows through different types of commissions, including photos for artists to work from, and pictures of the dead. As the notes explain, this was a regular event in Victorian life. I have seen photos of the dead, in coffins and out, in archives where I've worked, as well as in books. I find them disturbing, but I can understand how they must have brought comfort, in an age before the plethora of photos that we have today to document a loved one's life.
With these commissions, the sisters are introduced to London's art scene. The beautiful Phyllis makes quite an impression, and the well-known painter Sidney Darrell asks her to pose for him. (Fanny goes along as chaperone.) Meanwhile, they have also met Frank Jermyn, an illustrator for the London papers, and Lord Watergate, a respected amateur scientist (who wants Gertrude to make some slides for his lectures, another commission). Unfortunately Phyllis has developed bright eyes, high color, and a bad cough - and we all know what that means in a Victorian novel. She is also bored, with too much time on her hands, only helping occasionally in the studio, and therefore too susceptible to Sidney Darrell.
Amy Levy brings the sisters through their adventures to a neat and fairly happy ending (well, three-quarters of a happy ending). I was shocked to read in the introduction that she herself committed suicide (in her family home) at age 27, just a year after this novel was published. For me, that cast a shadow over the story that she told here. I learned that she published only two other novels, both in the year of her death. I'm interested to read more of her work, particularly her last novel, Miss Meredith. My Broadview edition includes some of her journalism, including a very interesting article on women's clubs; selections of her poetry; and a (very) short story. I appreciated the supplemental information, such as contemporary reviews of the novel, and excerpts from an 1857 article on photography. I was also interested to learn from the introduction that Amy Levy was the first Jewish woman to attend Newnham College; a photograph of her with her fellow women students is included.
Several people, Claire, Simon, and Barb among them, have started another Century of Books reading project this year. Meanwhile, my own Mid-Century of Books has sadly languished - I stopped even noting the years of the books I was reading. Now, however, I can add another year! Maybe I'll manage to finish a decade or two this year.