The Sorrow of a Shop: Mademoiselle Stephanie’s Secret

In the late 19th century mental health was not a widely accepted part of society. Most treatments for mental health consisted of being sent to a hospital where people lived in awful conditions (NHS Choices). Unfortunately, there were few other outlets for people struggling with mental health. For the people of the time who were struggling with finances their possibilities for mental health treatment were likely smaller if their mental health was even considered at all. The problems of the lower class are explored in Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop where the four main characters run a shop due to their money problems. For most of The Romance of a Shop, there is a neglect of mental health that was typical for the late 19th century, however, the minor character, Mademoiselle Stephanie exhibits how financial instability plays a role in mental health.

In The Romance of a Shop, Mademoiselle Stephanie hides the struggle she has with her mental health. Mademoiselle Stephanie is a Frenchwoman who inhabited the first floor of the building where the four sisters worked. In her first appearance, she is described as a gleeful woman who greets with a boisterous “Bon jour!” (Levy 86). This description makes her out to be a cheerful woman yet she is also described as being “sallow” (Levy 86). According to the OED the word “sallow” is often “characterized by a yellowish or pale brown color considered unhealthy-looking” (OED). So despite Stephanie’s happy attitude, this word choice shows that something is going on under the surface to make her have a “sallow” appearance.  This description also foreshadows the event that occurs the next time that the Frenchwoman is mentioned. 

Mademoiselle Stephanie’s financial instability plays a part in her mental health issues and this leads her to do something that is almost deadly. The sisters become disturbed after hearing a lot of noise coming from where Mademoiselle Stephanie lives and later Frank tells them this: “I have merely come to tell you that nothing terrible has happened. It seems that the poor Frenchwoman below has been in money difficulties, and has been trying to put an end to herself” (Levy 93). In his own telling of the events that occurred, Frank undermines the severity of Mademoiselle Stephanie’s suicide attempt by telling the sisters that nothing terrible has happened. Although he later shows that he has been crying there is an overall casual nature to the event showing how much pain like this was meant to be concealed. 

After this occurrence, Mademoiselle Stephanie reverts back to her happy attitude and puts on a brave face although she is still suffering. When Gertrude later sees the Frenchwoman she is back to the chipper person that she used to be and this disturbed Gertrude given what she knows, “The woman’s mincing, sallow face, with its unabashed smiles, sickened her” (Levy 95). The words “mincing” and “unabashed” contribute to the description of Stephanie from before as they describe her as someone who is happy. However, Gertrude knows she is suffering and the “sallow” aspect of Stephanie’s face is more prominent in a way that clashes with the happiness she pretends to have. After this, the Frenchwoman disappears and is never heard of again. 

Stephanie was struggling with some mental health issues due to the financial struggle that burdened her, but she had no outlet that could assist in processing this struggle. This explains why she puts on a happy face and smiles through her pain. This instance with Mademoiselle Stephanie embodies what mental illness can be like for some people even in current times since poor people likely have no way to afford mental health treatment and instead must suffer alone. With this novel, Levy begins to acknowledge the lack of mental health treatment in the late 19th century and how there was no room for mental health issues if you were financially unstable. 


Works Cited

“19th Century Mental Health.” NHS Choices, 21 May 2014, Accessed 7 Oct. 2023.

One thought on “The Sorrow of a Shop: Mademoiselle Stephanie’s Secret”

  1. This is a very astute reading of Mademoiselle Stephanie’s struggle, and I appreciate the way that you have underlined the way that Levy entwines her mental health struggle with her financial one. When first reading these scenes, I missed the implication that there could be any meaning behind “sallow”. The entire series of instances is eerie, with the casual dismissal of Stephanie’s struggle, the way that she reverts to pretending nothing is amiss, and the way that she simply disappears from the novel altogether, as you mention. That Gertrude and her sisters are also struggling financially and it is in this way that Levy finds ways to provide commentary on the struggles the lower classes experience, I missed the parallels that Mademoiselle Stephanie experienced financially to the Lorimer sister’s struggles.

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