Sexuality and Population: Female Agency in The Romance of a Shop

The Sexuality and Population debate is conspicuous in the plot of the novel The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy. As the novel expands, the story remains mostly in relation to the main components of the debate, as outlined by Grant Allen and Havelock Ellis. The purpose of female empowerment, however, is motivated by social eugenics for a better population in the historical debate, and is fueled by basic female agency in the novel. Nevertheless, both intentions yield the positive results of more well-rounded offspring through eugenics. Levy shows the positive effects of eugenics with half of the Lorimer sisters: Gertrude and Lucy both have the privilege of birthing children, whom we can predict have a bright future ahead with Lucy’s “excellent training” and Gertrude’s child, who will inherit “his father’s scientific tastes, or the literary tendencies of his mother” (193). Meanwhile, the half of the Lorimer sisters who do not scrutinize their suitors end up fruitless or deceased. While Allen and Ellis maintain that women should be educated and encouraged to assume moral responsibility for their sexuality to promote social eugenics, Levy’s novel encapsulates this argument by developing half of the Lorimer sisters as independent women, with the end goal of pairing them with modern, successful husbands, in contrast with patriarchal husbands.

Ellis’ discourse entails that women should “assume her own moral responsibility,” because “not what goes into the womb but what comes out of it concerns society.” He argues that when women are granted full jurisdiction over their power of creation and not confined under patriarchal rules, women can pursue their best mate to produce wholesome children. This logic appears plainly in Romance of a Shop as Gertrude and Lucy rely solely on and for themselves to marry with their best choice in husband, not just the first man who shows interest. The result is these sisters producing predictably intelligent, robust offspring who will benefit society, just as their parents have. As for Grant’s argument, education and physical fitness are portrayed as keys to the ultimate woman. The ideal woman is thus created, who will complete the cycle and in turn choose a man who helps her produce children free of defects. When woman becomes enlightened in the mind, becomes logical, and maintains a healthy body, she will be capable of choosing the man who best compliments her physically as well as mentally. The idea is to not leave mate choice up to chance: an improved woman will naturally choose a better man who will not leave her with defected children. The (physically and mentally) weak example shown in the novel is clearly Phyllis, who becomes depressed and unable to take care of her health after her experience with Darrell, leading to her death. The implication is that this woman, who is still portrayed as a child herself, would not be able to create any sort of prosperous offspring of her own, especially not with Darrell. Both Allen and Ellis’ debates are woven into the novel in many different elements to produce an overall argument for eugenics.

Romance of a Shop’s character system brings the Sexuality and Population debate to life by dividing the characters into two distinct sides to represent the sentiments towards women of the time, and eventually, to show which side is more prosperous in the long run. The first side consists of characters such as Aunt Caroline, Darrell, Marsh, and Russel. These individuals still function within the patriarchal system, as shown when Aunt Caroline vehemently objects to the girls’ idea of running their own shop, Darrell plainly opposes granting respect towards the independent Gertrude, Marsh is unable to function within the household of headstrong women, and Russel only sees Lucy’s value as a woman in terms of her becoming his caretaker and not his equal. The other side of characters includes Gertrude, Lucy, Watergate, and Frank. We understand these individuals as proponents of female agency within the historical debate, and implicitly, social eugenics. These individuals reveal their progressiveness throughout the novel as Gertrude becomes the main beacon of support for her sisters instead of wishing for a man to come marry her to solve their problems, Lucy rejects suitors such as Russel and Fred who prove to be incapable and old fashioned, Watergate aids the Lorimer sisters yet also recognizes them as self-sufficient young women, and Frank marries Lucy for her mind and sovereignty instead of her looks. This group of individuals reveals themselves to be supportive of the futuristic woman who becomes evolved enough to choose the best mate for herself, and eventually future offspring. By crafting these two groups into the pinnacles of each perspective in the historical debate, Levy clearly shows how the independent woman is more successful in the end, as she unites with a more wholesome husband and nurtures children set to thrive in the world.

The Sexuality and Population debate also guides the formation of the two ideal women in the novel, Gertrude and Lucy. These sisters not only portray themselves as free women, but show their rational judgement in choice of husband. Though Gertrude initially declines Watergate’s proposal, we can see he is truly a noble, loyal man who is worthy of Gertrude when he comes again to offer her love. Lucy knows she can escape her economic situation by accepting the proposal of either Russel or Fred, but declines because she is not attracted to either of them. She eventually finds true happiness with a man of her choice, Frank, which she would not have achieved if she had taken one of her first two offers. Gertrude and Lucy seem to observe Ellis’ theory that “It is the concern of the woman herself, and not of society not of any individual, to determine the conditions under which the child shall be conceived.” Neither woman abides to the societal expectations forced upon her, unlike Phyllis and Fanny, and neither woman feels pressure to get married to solve financial woes. The “conditions” outlined by Ellis are entirely determined by Gertrude and Lucy in their own circumstances, which classifies them as the sacred mothers described in Ellis’ discourse.

The Sexuality and Population debate also develops the plot of the novel by juxtaposing the two genders, in terms of seeking a mate. For example, men such as Fred, Russel, Darrell, and Marsh seem to take shots in the dark in choosing their mates. They believe that any woman they propose to would be greatly honored by their offer and accept it. Fred and Russel are genuinely perplexed at their rejection, Marsh only came to claim Fanny because his current wife died, and Darrell clearly only values Phyllis at a physical level. Meanwhile, the females of the novel struggle to find marriageable men and when one is found, such as Frank, he is desired by more than one woman. The sisters (Gertrude and Lucy) again seem to be observing Allen’s words regarding the future of women aiding eugenics, “You will inevitably find their education has emancipated them.” (255) The sisters have already been freed by their education and training; they are already more free than other women of the time, for example, Aunt Caroline and Conny, who conform to women’s expectations. This freedom breeds the sisters’ full jurisdiction in picking their mates and because of it, they pick their most compatible mates and birth children like themselves. Because much more emphasis is placed on the women in the novel to choose husbands due to the discrepancy between the number of marriageable men and marriageable women, we see the historical debate taking place as Gertrude and Lucy wait for their optimal choice in husband to propose.

Lastly, the Sexuality and Population debate shapes narration overall by placing Gertrude as the third person narrator. For example, if the novel was limited to Fanny’s or Phyllis’ perspectives, the audience would not be exposed to Gertrude’s agenda, which relays Allen and Ellis’ basic thoughts that female agency is required to improve a population. In particular, her progressive thoughts align directly with Ellis’ views regarding women’s jurisdiction over their acts, and how they should not concern the whole community, just the woman. Yet Gertrude notes the irony of this as she laments, “She was paying the penalty, which her sex always pays one way or another, for her struggles for strength and independence” (pg 191). After Watergate leaving her, for the only time in the book, she sounds rueful of her feminine agency. Yet this sorrow functions in the whole of the plot as Watergate returns and sees her distress, he realizes she yearns to accept his love. By displaying the innermost thoughts of the most progressive, independent, and ideal woman (as described by Allen and Ellis), Levy is able to advocate for eugenics throughout the novel.

Although it seems as if the purpose of Levy’s novel is to show how the sisters are economically and socially independent, she ultimately pairs the two most headstrong women with husbands. Yet this conclusion operates with the Sexuality and Population debate: Gertrude and Lucy are recognized by their husbands to be intelligent, independent women, unlike the typical marriage dynamic of the time, such as the Marshes. These ideal and capable women have successful children, and drastically, the most different sister from the futuristic woman becomes deceased. Romance of a Shop entwines affirmative ideologies from the Sexuality and Population debate to reveal how female agency is a crucial component in building a stronger society.

Works Cited

Levy, Amy. The Romance of a Shop. Broadview, 2006.

Havelock Ellis, from Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Sex in Relation to Society, 1910

From Grant Allen, “The Girl of the Future,” The Universal Review 7 (1890): 49-64

The Victorian fin de siècle “New Woman” a Middle-Class Phenomenon

Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop demonstrates the Victorian era “new woman” arises primary from a growing Victorian middle class, exploring the plights of such an intersectional position, filled with contradictions and unprecedented difficulties stemming from such an economic, social and gendered fin de siècle position. While class dynamics ultimately create the new woman, these same class dynamics combine to work against her.

It’s clear the women each embody aspects of the Victorian era new woman, representative of the fracture of multifaceted ideals the new woman is meant to embody. “The New Woman as a category was by no means stable… complex, and by no means free of contradictions.” (Ledger 23). Yet, all the women’s journey begins out of middle-class economic necessity after their father’s death, choosing independence, tying into the class conflict and plight of the working middle-class woman of the fin de siècle. Levy paints the crisis of Victorianism at the fin de siècle conflict as rooted in economics. “Both labor and woman are seeking to throw off the slavery arising from economic dependence; both are demanding…education shall be free; both desire equality and opportunity.” (Ledger 39). Indeed, Gertrude describes her ideal society to Lord Watergate “a society not of class, caste, or family – but of picked individuals.” (115).

So, naturally middle-class is unsurprised by the appearance of the new woman because it is the middle-class that produced her. “Like most people of their class, they had seen too much of the ups and downs of life to be astonished at anything…these ladies playing at photographers and house decorators was only one more scene in the varied and curious drama of life which it was their lot to witness.” (60). The new middle-class embodies the ideals of the new woman, freedom and pursuit of happiness, viewing her as the next societal progressive step. This working-class outlook contrasts the Lorimers’ aunt Caroline, who’s upper-class education keeps her in the traditional feminine role of a bygone era. The upper class sees poverty as the “greatest calamity.” (102). For the new woman, constraint is more to be feared, even if freedom means risk and enterprise.

The women living together exemplifies another class conflict – on one hand they’re communal, even Marxist in their shared photography work, yet they function as a capitalist enterprise, (facing sexism) always under pressure to succeed just to stay afloat. Reminders of economic fragility of middle-class women holds an inextricable part in women’s emancipation. “In short, there is for us only the working-class movement.” (Ledger 39).

Aunt Caroline, silly denizen of old conservative Victorian ideals seems absurd to the modern middle-class Lorimers. Caroline reminds the Lorimers the horrors which could befall them if their business fails, absurdly suggesting they search for a husband in India. The women triumphantly prove her wrong, but the reality of such fears holding true is present in the Lorimers’ neighbor the dressmaker who could not pay her bills, and the governesses story, a young Irish woman forced to leave Ireland due to economic hardship, fates which could have easily befallen the sisters if they had less luck or tenacity. “Only a plank was between them and the pitiless, fathomless ocean.” (95). For the middle-class new woman, bringing ruin upon herself is a serious economic possibility.

Besides the difficulties of financial liberation, accusations of decadence are now applied to the middle class new woman. Phyllis is the synecdoche for this concept, a “sexual decadent.” (Ledger 23). Phyllis sickness can be read as the degeneration of the beautiful, once strong and fertile human race, and her near sexual eloping with Daryll is out of some combination of boredom, indulgence and vanity, as Wildean as it gets. However, all the sisters reference the arts, poems, plays, and literature, inviting pushback against new woman’s desire for education because such works signal degeneration. Indulgence in photography itself is seen as vain and decadent. The intermingling of the middle-class sisters and upper-class Lord Watergate transmits decadence. Yet unlike in Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” in which the upper-class Dorian Gray occupies protects him from accusations of decadence, the middle-class the Lorimers inhabit has no similar caste shelter. While the Victorian middle-class may have birthed the new woman, her progenitor would offer little help; she would have to fight tooth and nail to survive in her own dominion.

Works Cited

Levy, Amy. “The Romance of a Shop.” Black Apollo Press, 2006.

Ledger, Sally, McCracken, Scott. “Cultural Politics at the Fin de Siècle.” Cambridge University Press, 1995