Sex, sisters and work

Mary Robinson's The Natural Daughter and Amy Levy's The Romance of a Shop

Stephanie Russo*, Lee O'Brien

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


In the 1790s, the writings of female philosophers such as Mary Wollstonecraft inaugurated the “rights of woman” debate, while in the 1890s, the New Woman emerged as a social and literary force. However, the fictions of these periods are seldom read alongside each other; the periodisation of literary studies has meant comparisons between these fictions of rupture and crisis have seldom been drawn out. This paper reads Mary Robinson’s The Natural Daughter (1799) alongside Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop (1888), arguing that Robinson anticipates the concerns of the New Woman novelists. Robinson’s exploration of the relationship between women and work presents work as a salve for bad marriages, but neither Levy nor Robinson can quite resolve the problem of female sexuality. In Levy’s novel, the sexually experienced woman is punished by death, while for Robinson’s heroines, entry into the public world of work inevitably carries with it connotations of sexual transgression. The Natural Daughter and The Romance of a Shop reveals continuity across a century of women’s writing: a persistent anxiety about the opportunities afforded to women beyond marriage in these twin periods of possibility that is by no means resolved in the fiction of the New Women.
Original languageEnglish
JournalWomen's Writing
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 9 Oct 2019



  • 1790s
  • Amy Levy
  • marriage
  • Mary Robinson
  • New women fiction
  • sexuality
  • sisters
  • work

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