A Death Above the Shop

“’Gerty, you have always been good to me; this last week as well. But that is the worst of you good people: you are as hard as stones. You bring me jelly; you sit up all night with me—but you have never forgiven me. You know that is the truth.’… Gertrude’s head drooped lower and lower over the coverlet; her heart, which had been frozen within her, melted. In an agony of love, of remorse, she stretched out her arms, while her sobs came thick and fast, and gathered the wasted figure to her breast. ‘Oh, Phyllis, oh, my child; who am I to forgive you? Is it a question of forgiveness between us? Oh, Phyllis, my little Phyllis, have you forgotten how I love you?’” (177-178).

This is the last interaction recorded between Phyllis and Gertrude, and it is clearly the narrative conclusion of Phyllis’s life, as the next scene simply dully records Phyllis’ death less than a week later, showing that the death itself is less emotionally resonant than the catharsis of this scene, when Gertrude is finally able to let go of her emotional distance and love her sister before her death.

In a material sense, the event of Phyllis’s death harkens strongly back to the same Victorian trope that was the death of poor Lucy Westenra: being a woman who desired. Even more so than Lucy, Phyllis was sexually promiscuous and planned to commit adultery with the married Sidney Darrell. Even after Gertrude’s intervention, it’s already too late: while Phyllis’ three sisters are all allowed to be happily married, she alone sickens and dies. Phyllis’ question to her sister is rooted in this very social convention that she knows she has transgressed against. Gertrude cannot help but

Of course, nothing can save Phyllis at this point. As much as Gertrude may be beyond forgiving her sister, and as much as she may love her, this book will still be published for a Victorian audience, a society that does not forgive the promiscuity of women. Amy Levy cannot escape this convention, and neither can Phyllis. What Levy can do is challenge that convention with Gertrude’s character. Not only does she forgive her sister, she dismisses the notion of Phyllis needing forgiveness altogether—simply because she loves her. Despite Phyllis’ “sin,” Levy has created a character who is a human being and deserves to be loved no matter her virtue. Phyllis may die, but Gertrude at least knows that she doesn’t deserve to.

2 thoughts on “A Death Above the Shop”

  1. This is a great analysis of how Amy Levy both upholds and subverts the Victorian archetype of the “promiscuous” character dying for their “sin.” It also made me think of the other character who is characterized by flirtatiousness: Frank Jermyn. Before he settled down with Lucy, Frank was known for chatting and dancing with a variety of girls, including Connie, which was viewed with some scrutiny by Gertrude at least. I wonder if it lends support to your argument that Frank is killed in Africa, but then comes back to life, though that raises the question of what makes him different. Why is he able to escape death while Phyllis is not? Is it a gender thing…?

  2. This is a wonderful reading of this scene. “Not only does she forgive her sister, she dismisses the notion of Phyllis needing forgiveness altogether — simply because she loves her” is such a heartwarming statement. I wholeheartedly agree, and I appreciate the nuance of your interpretation, the way that you write how Levy is able to subvert the traditional deathly end for promiscuous female characters. The idea that Levy is able to escape, at least in a minor way, the total trap of the conventional traditional end for characters like Phyllis in the way that Gertrude treats her sister during her dying moments is one that had not occurred to me, but I absolutely love.

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