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Representing Work

Abstract and Keywords

The arts of the late Victorian and Edwardian period were concerned not to show work as a problem to be solved but as an experience, a key element of life in the mechanized industrial society, as captured cheerfully in the burgeoning subgenre of the ‘shop-girl musical’. But equally, novels and plays focused on the plight of the white-collar worker caught up in and oppressed by larger systems and institutions and the alienating conditions of modern labour. A range of writers like Hardy, Shaw, Wells, and Galsworthy remained unconvinced that modern industry and commerce had necessarily improved social mobility or eroded the traditional power of the property owning classes, while a more ambivalent response to new employment opportunities can be found in the feminist writings of Cicely Hamilton and Elizabeth Baker.

Keywords: labour, feminism, socialism, department store, shop girl

In his vision of a future socialist utopia, Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1887), Edward Bellamy likened society at the end of the nineteenth century to a huge coach, on top of which the favoured few sat, admiring the scenery, while the starving many dragged the tremendous weight through mud and over stones, driven on by desperate hunger.1 This representation of work for the vast majority of the population as inhuman drudgery within a system of absurd and obscene inequality indicated a radical shift in views from only a few decades earlier. Samuel Smiles’s mid-century best-seller Self-Help (1859) prescribed self-control, discipline, determination, application, and, above all, hard graft as the means to advancement in a socially mobile world, while Thomas Carlyle celebrated work as not only the key to self-realization but itself a form of divine worship, no matter how humble or arduous: ‘All work,’ he declared, ‘even cotton spinning, is noble; work alone is noble.’2 These values were fictionally validated in the mid-century bildungsroman, such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850), and Dinah Craik’s John Halifax, Gentleman (1856), just as the failure to submit to the necessary discipline of daily toil proved the undoing of Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede (1859) and Richard Carstairs in Bleak House (1852–3).

The fin de siècle saw the culmination and consolidation of a century-long transition from a predominantly agrarian workforce, combining a range of different occupations and skills with considerable seasonal variation, to a predominantly urban population, reliant on large employers of relatively unskilled labour.3 This shift in working conditions is perhaps most clearly reflected in the coining of the term ‘unemployment’ in the 1880s, a term that had not previously been easily applicable to diverse and mutable patterns of employment. Instead, workers were (p. 464) employed in increasingly large organizations where the division of labour was the ruling principle; as Adam Smith had famously observed of pin-makers, dividing each process into component parts, and allotting each motion to an increasingly specialized individual was seen as the secret of efficient manufacture. Modern workers tended not to sell the products of their labour but the labour itself in the form of repetitive tasks measured in regularized hours, overseen and ordered by managers, whether as factory workers and shop assistants or increasingly within new white-collar jobs as clerks and typists.

This growth of larger diversified systems was greeted by Herbert Spencer in his Principles of Sociology (1876–83) as evidence of social progress, complex commercial organizations being likened to the ‘higher’ echelons of evolution, where increasingly sophisticated organisms developed organs to perform each particular biological function. This model found its apotheosis in the management theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who advocated the reduction of the worker to a precisely directed cog in a machine, as he put it: ‘In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.’4 The obstacles to individual mobility for the increasingly disempowered and specialized worker were clear—a pancreas can hardly be promoted to become a brain—nor is transplantation from one system to another easily achieved, as Forster’s Leonard Bast discovers in Howards End (1910), when, having given up his clerkship at an insurance company, he realizes that once out of his ‘groove’ he is unemployable: ‘I could do one particular branch of insurance in one particular office well enough to command a salary, but that’s all.’5

Literary expressions of concern about the plight of the workers were hardly a fin-de-siècle innovation. Mid-century novels by Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens, and Benjamin Disraeli, among others, had expressed anxiety about the reduction of individuals to ‘hands’, and called for greater communication and understanding between the classes to avoid the looming threat of social violence. John Ruskin, the most prominent and influential mid-century critic of contemporary labour conditions, condemned the demand for precision rather than individual creativity in production which reduced men to mere tools, dividing not just their labour but the workers themselves, who are ‘broken into small fragments and crumbs of men; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail’. The modern worker must polish the points of pins with ‘sand of human soul’, in contrast to the medieval craftsman whose freedom of thought and creativity (p. 465) produced flawed, vivid, and individualized Gothic art and architecture, and whose conditions of production it was the nineteenth century’s duty to recapture.6

Fin-de-siècle and early twentieth-century representations of work tended to mirror Ruskin’s concern with the impoverished spiritual and psychological state of the worker, as against earlier novelists’ concentration on wider apprehensions about social cohesion.7 Denied a sense of individual agency, identity, or fulfilment, and reduced to an insignificant constituent part of a vast machine, many contemporary writers saw modern workers as being alienated not only—in a Marxist sense—from the products of their labour, but from themselves.

Representing work not as a problem to be solved but as an experience, a crucial element of life in a mechanized industrial society, was a concern across the arts from the 1880s to the 1920s. The angular muscle blocks and lines of aerodynamic distortion in Umberto Boccioni’s sculptures Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) and Spiral Expansion of Muscles in Action (1914) gave perfect physical expression to the Futurists’ fascination with dynamic motion and the human body as machine, expressing in three dimensions the pervading theoretical and literary concern with the interchanges between scientifically systematized bodies and animated machines.8

But such representations risked re-enacting the very distortions and diminutions they portrayed as against the worker’s own experience of such processes. Early film was similarly entranced by the spectacle of work, but until expressionist techniques were developed to render the camera’s eye subjective, the spectacle remained external (as in Louis Lumière’s early footage of workers leaving his factory) and potentially superficial: so Lumière’s ‘Demolition of a Wall’ (1896) shows workers destroying a wall with heavy pick-axe blows, only for the footage to be reversed and the wall magically resurrected, the blows transformed into weightless ballet. Many of the narratives of early cinema performed a similar resurrection, bringing to the screen early Victorian melodramas about the value of hard work as the key to happiness and social inclusion—as in R. W. Paul’s Buy Your Own Cherries (1904), a temperance film in which the worker abandons idleness and liquor for honest graft and the loving embrace of his family.

It was the naturalist novel that offered the most effective means of representing both the material and environmental conditions of working life and the inner (p. 466) experience of those doing the work. The period 1880 to 1920 saw a proliferation of fiction centred on the lives of working people, from clerks and typists, to painters, sailors, builders, journalists, and photographers.9 The shopworker was, however, a particular favourite, serving to exemplify a range of issues surrounding the changing conditions of modern employment. The last decades of the nineteenth century heralded the growth of the department store, the systematizing of retail into huge organizations, subsuming what had previously been the business of individualized and diverse shops into one vast building, within which also dwelt an army of workers, part of whose payment commonly included board and lodging in the company’s dormitories. One strikingly optimistic fictional representation was Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (1883), which offered a Spencerian evolutionary vision of the department store as ‘la réalisation moderne d’un palais du rêve’ (the modern realization of a dream-palace), transformed under the joint guidance of its manager Mouret and Denise, an assistant who has endured its workers’ Darwinian struggle for survival, into an ideal employer. Its workers are no longer ‘un grain de mil sous une meule puissante’ (a grain under a powerful millstone), but are instead recognized as the enduring metal of the machine itself, kept strong by every benefit from maternity leave and long-term contracts, to medical care, a library, grammar lessons, and fencing. 10 But this sophisticated machine is, of course, ultimately designed simply to stimulate an irresistible desire, regardless of need or utility, leaving the female customer ‘dépouillée, violée … avec la volupté assouvie et la sourde honte d’un désir contenté au fond d’un hôtel louche’ (stripped, violated … with the sated senses and the dull shame of a desire satisfied in a shady hotel).11

No such optimism characterized British writers’ depiction of the modern shop or the workers’ position in it. In Wells’s Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul (1905), for example, Mr Shalford, the proprietor of the Folkestone Drapery Bazaar, fancies himself a provincial Mouret. With his constant cry of ‘System! System everywhere. Fishency’, he remains complacently unaware of the errand boys fighting in the cellars or an assistant dozing at his counter. Shalford’s arrival prompts the assistant to fold damask ‘exactly like an automaton that is suddenly set going’.12 Indentured as (p. 467) an apprentice at fourteen, Kipps’s life is one of tedium, exhaustion, and futile absurdity. Shalford has ‘set himself assiduously to get as much out of Kipps and to put as little into him as he could’, while the assistant has learnt how to measure and fold material, repeat phrases, and ‘practise a servile obedience to a large number of people’. Despite Shalford’s vaunted efficiency, Kipps endures endless, unnecessary hours of rolling, folding, and measuring of goods ‘because of the cheapness of the genteeler sorts of labour and the dearness of forethought in the world’. Earning salaries too meagre to permit of saving, the workers are, as one puts it, ‘in a blessed drainpipe, and we’ve got to crawl along it till we die’.13 Nor is there any space for Mouret’s creative artistry in arranging and selling goods; in Wells’s The History of Mr Polly (1910), an ebullient shop assistant is inspired to dress a window with a tumbled profusion of fluffy towels and eye-catching labels, and is swiftly fired for a mad attempt to wrest control of ‘my window’ from his outraged manager.14

Au Bonheur des Dames is a bildungsroman, not of Mouret or Denise, but of the store itself, whose formation and rise give the novel its central structure. Wells’s shop-assistant tales have no such coherent form; there is no central agency driving them, whether human or evolutionary. As modern workers, Kipps and Polly cannot control their destinies and do not aspire to do so, but rather are buffeted by accident and whim, producing the fractured, episodic narrative of the naturalist novel. Kipps rises to fortune, falls, and recovers through no agency of his own, inheriting and losing wealth by chance, himself subject to the conditioning forces of class etiquette, which demand he purchase unwanted goods to establish his social position. The perspective, however, is resolutely that of the worker who sells the goods and the servant behind the scenes, not the aspiring bourgeois customer. In Mr Polly, for example, the narrative notes one shop worker’s ‘superhuman’ generosity in staying to help his colleagues when he might have gone home, which ‘No one who has not worked for endless days of interminable hours, with scarce a gleam of rest or liberty between the toil and the sleep, can understand how superhuman’.15 The double negative leaves the reader who has not experienced such labour doubly excluded from claiming knowledge of either the suffering or the heroism of such workers. Kipps and his sweetheart Ann find their newfound wealth obliges them to purchase a mansion rather than the modest home they would prefer, but Ann does redesign the plans so no servant need carry water up endless stairs as she once did.

Though Wells’s novels do not allow the middle-class reader a complacent sense of vicariously knowing the exhaustion and tedium of those who service them, at least such a reader is allowed an equal distance from the customer whose self-indulgent dawdling prolongs the heavy hours of the shop workers, or from the mistress who pries into her maid’s private life. In the theatre, however, the audience’s (p. 468) perspective is inescapably that of the external viewer, its gaze falling equally upon the shop worker and the other goods on display. The late Victorian stage was dominated by dramas of upper-class life, set in luxurious drawing rooms and ballrooms, offering the manufacturers of high-class goods and fashion a valuable opportunity to advertise their wares through set and costumes.16 The new genre of musical comedy made even more explicit the stage’s role as shop window for the audience as consumer of both the shop girl and her wares. J. W. Dam’s The Shop Girl (1894) set the fashion, opening with a joyous chorus of male and female assistants in the Royal Stores:

  • This noble institution of financial evolution
  • Is the glory of our British trade.
  • It’s the wonder of our nation as a mighty aggregation
  • Of all objects grown or made.
  • Every product of the planet since geology began it
  • In our mile on mile of floors
  • From a cat to a cucumber if you only have a number
  • We will sell you at the Royal Stores.17

In the exuberantly unreal world of musical comedy, the department store is, like Zola’s Bonheur, a triumph of commercial and natural evolution and an ideal employer. The eponymous shop girl, Bessie Brent, happily evades all the store’s rules, running rings round her floor manager and finally securing marriage to a rich aristocrat, while her equally nubile colleagues entertain customers on stage and in the auditorium, their good looks supposedly attesting to the benign working conditions of both shop and theatre.

As the ‘shop-girl musical’ became a genre in itself, with titles such as The Girl from Kays (1902) and The Girl Behind the Counter (1906), a number of playwrights challenged their idealized representation of shop workers by offering a more realistic view of life behind the counter. Harley Granville-Barker’s The Madras House (1910) and Elizabeth Baker’s Miss Tassey (1910), for example, show the cribbed and confined lives of assistants for whom the living-in system was a form of indentured slavery, every aspect of their lives controlled and exploited to produce the glamour and abundance of the shop floor. The most successful of such corrective dramas was Cicely Hamilton’s Diana of Dobson’s (1908), a rewrite of Cinderella in which a shop assistant marries an aristocrat, but only once he has tried and failed to earn an independent living, as a result of which he realizes that he need not find a wealthy spouse as his annual income of £600 is ample for both himself and Diana. The play opens in the living-in dormitory in Dobson’s, where exhausted shop girls struggle to bed (p. 469) while discussing the circumscribed and joyless lives they lead working fourteen hours a day for £13 per annum plus board and lodging.

Hamilton did not, however, allow the audience a complacent sense of intimacy with the overworked employees. Instead the play uneasily reminded them of their position as privileged voyeurs of the intimate rituals of those who were usually arrayed for their benefit. As the women took off the false hair, ribbons, and collars which constituted their professionally attractive uniforms, the conventionally erotic revelation of the striptease was inverted as the assistants listlessly removed their costumes to reveal the underfed and overworked women beneath. Reviewers reflected the discomfort of this display: a critic in the Stage condemned the scene as ‘wanting in taste’ while noting, with an inescapable suspicion of disappointment, that ‘these different stages of undress do not happen to be made pretty’. The Pall Mall Gazette’s reviewer pruriently warned that nothing more was revealed than ‘a gleaming shoulder – a pink vest – a peering foot’.18 When Diana receives a windfall inheritance of £300 and buys herself a glorious month in which she can experience all the luxury and attention that her position as a worker denies her, the play moves to the more conventional theatrical milieu of upper-class opulence, but the audience is not allowed to forget the first-act vision of the labour on which such affluence is based. Diana, in the guise of a rich widow, refuses a proposal of marriage from Sir Jabez Grinley—not, as he supposes, because he worked his way up from the lowly position of office boy to become the owner‐proprietor of Dobson’s, but because she refuses to join him in ‘grind[ing] a fortune out of underpaid work-girls’.19 It is Diana’s awareness of the labour value rather than the market value of Sir Jabez’s goods which makes them too costly in human terms for her to buy them.

The contrast between the commercialized glamour of the counters and the deprivation of the living-in shop worker effectively challenged employers’ claims that their control over workers’ lives was rooted in a paternalist concern for their welfare and morals. There was a blurred line between exploiting the sexual allure of young women to attract customers—with the concomitant sacking of those past their sexual prime, like the ageing shop assistant who commits suicide rather than face the inevitable poverty which awaits her in Baker’s Miss Tassey—and actual prostitution, a line which became particularly blurred when workers’ wages were often set so low that many women were forced into casual prostitution to supplement them. It is this ambiguity that George Gissing ironically exploits in his account of the long hours, poor diet, and pitiful wages of female shop workers in his 1893 novel The Odd Women, when he comments caustically of Monica Madden’s employers that ‘so generous and confiding were they, that to each young person they allowed a latchkey. The air of Walworth Road is pure and invigorating about midnight; why should the (p. 470) reposeful ramble be hurried by consideration for weary domestics?’ The emptiness of any pretence at benevolence is clear, whether or not Monica’s employers are knowingly complicit in the sale of sexual services to supplement meagre wages.20

The driving force was, of course, not paternalism but capitalism, as employers competed to extract maximum work for minimum wages, while selling the product as profitably as possible—the margin of profit being greatly increased by the surplus value added to the goods by the glamour of their commercial setting and by their symbolic power as markers of class and status. This was the essential logic conditioning the full panoply of occupations and professions, from highest to lowest, which, in the view of a host of writers, sidelined all concerns with quality, art, social benefit, or individual fulfilment in the name of profit alone. The most polemical critique of this equation was probably offered by Robert Tressell’s seminal socialist novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which was completed in 1910 and first published in severely abridged form in 1914. Depicting in detail the arduous, precarious, and poverty-haunted lives of a group of house painters, Tressell highlights the injustices and absurdities of a system where managers and employers—with pantomime-villain names like Sweater, Grinder, Didlum, Starvem, and Slyme—compete to undercut other firms, reducing their prices by forcing the painters to cut corners, adulterate paint, and hide flaws to secure the highest payment for the shoddiest and cheapest product. The capitalist marketplace is not an engine for improvement in Tressell’s analysis, but rather an absurd and self-perpetuating system which drives ever downwards both the quality of goods and the conditions of the workers.

Even criminality runs on the same essential capitalist principles, producing a similarly self-perpetuating and degraded system, as envisioned by Arthur Morrison in A Child of the Jago (1896), a novel which was greeted as the height of fictional naturalism. The skilled workers of the impoverished East End parish of the Jago practise a range of criminal trades from burglary to ‘cosh-carrying’—the latter being ‘the major industry of the Jago’, involving a ‘craftsman’ armed with a foot-length rod of iron who stuns and robs any stranger lured by his female accomplice, ‘whose duty it was to keep the other artist going in subjects’.21 Morrison ironizes the conventional distinction between honest industry and idle and easy criminality. The criminals of the Jago are a rare exception to the general rule of fictional workers, taking pride in their craft, honed through observation and experience. Their work is skilled and arduous, whereas young Dicky Perrott’s fleeting experience of honest employment as a shopkeeper’s assistant and a rushbag maker proves a ‘fascinating pastime’ and a ‘fresh delight’.22 But Dicky’s fence, Aaron Weech, is the profit-making employer unwilling to lose such an industrious and promising worker, and so he gets Dicky fired from the shop for supposedly plotting robbery, and thus (p. 471) retains the boy’s valuable services as a prolific and skilled pickpocket. The Jago is but the mirror image of the mainstream economy, where women are paid such pitiful rates for matchbox-making that their children must turn to criminality or starve.

The debasing pressure of the marketplace on the individual worker and the products of his/her labour extended to literature itself. As new theatres were built, fed by growing transport networks, and the publishing industry expanded rapidly, encouraged by cheaper paper prices, new printing technologies, and increased literacy rates, many writers fought to secure fairer wages for their labour, campaigning for tighter copyright laws and improved royalty payments. The foundation at the fin de siècle of professional bodies such as the Society of Authors and the Dramatists’ Club, designed to support authors in their negotiation with employers and consumers, ran side-by-side with a series of literary movements rooted in a resistance to the ideology and dominance of the marketplace, from aestheticism and high modernism to early socialism. The writer and artist, according to all these doctrines, was quite specifically not figured as a hard-working wage earner. He/she was instead more likely to take the form of the criminal‐artist celebrated in Wilde’s ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ (1891) for pursuing self-realization with no regard for either law or public opinion—a figure realized on stage in George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906) as Louis Dubedat, an idle, dishonest, scrounging, lying wastrel who commits bigamy, never pays his debts, and paints pictures of enduring beauty.23

The most comprehensive anatomizing of the professional writer’s position in relation to these changing conditions of labour was offered by George Gissing, in bitterly comic and ironic detail, in his 1891 novel New Grub Street. Jasper Milvain, a self-styled ‘literary man of 1882’ epitomizes the new breed of jobbing writers, whose ‘Honest journey-work’ consists of a day starting at 7.30 a.m. and ending around 10 p.m., in the course of which he reads and reviews a volume, writes a gossip column, an essay, and a long opinion piece, earning him approximately ten to twelve guineas for prose which by his own calculation has the literary value ‘of the contents of a mouldy nut’.24 His colleague Whelpdale invents for himself the new occupation of ‘literary adviser’, reading and correcting manuscripts and recommending them to publishers, for like Milvain he recognizes that literature is now a trade and writers must tailor their product to prevailing tastes. Idealists—or those wedded to artistic standards—fall by the wayside: Edwin Reardon’s talent cannot (p. 472) support himself and his ambitious wife as he is unable to churn out multiple volumes of fiction to order; and Harold Biffen spends years of penury crafting a realist novel of real literary merit, but ‘Mr Bailey, Grocer’ is too repulsive and tedious in its accuracy, precision, and subject matter to have any appeal to the general public. Reardon and Biffen both die in despairing poverty, unable to survive in an explicitly Darwinian environment where books and writers must compete not on merit but through their ability to reduce literature to an easily consumed commodity—or in other words to ‘Chit-Chat’, Gissing’s mocking reference to the magazine Tit-Bits which had recently been launched in 1882.25

At a time when women were fighting for access to the professions, and not only for the right to work but to be recognized as workers, the self-respect, economic independence, and sexual freedom which came with earning one’s own living were not to be taken lightly, no matter what hardships were involved in their acquisition. If self-made men were hard to find, self-made women abounded. St John Hankin’s The Last of the De Mullins (1908) and Elizabeth Baker’s Edith (1912), for example, are comic dramas in which resourceful businesswomen blow slower-witted men off their complacent feet in a whirlwind of energy and common sense. Arnold Bennett’s novel The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) similarly charts Sophia Baines’s recovery from penniless isolation in a Paris brothel to become owner‐manager of a luxurious hotel, courtesy of hard graft and a fine eye for a bargain, both honed through her youthful employment in the family drapery shop. A host of plays, from Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (1893) to Inez Bensusan’s The Apple (1909) and H. M. Harwood’s Honour Thy Father (1912), offered angry testimony to the exploitation and sexual vulnerability of women denied training or access to decently paid professions and trades, and forced to endure sexual harassment, sweated labour, and wages so low as to leave women no choices but prostitution or destitution.26

When sufficiently well paid to provide economic independence, however, the pleasures of female employment were to be celebrated—so, in Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop (1888), the titular ‘romance’ does not denote the sisters’ emotional adventures, but rather their successful establishment of a photographic business. Indeed, women’s greatest hardship in the view of both male and female writers was to be denied the right to work, held hostage to the middle-class family’s social status, and kept in hours of enforced idleness, as in Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son (1912), where it is not only the family business but the family itself which is identified as the ‘Moloch’ to whose social status the daughter’s life is (p. 473) sacrificed, cut off from the meaningful productivity and fulfilment of the working women around her.27

Dorothy Richardson’s thirteen-volume (or chapters, as she preferred to call them) autobiographical novel, Pilgrimage (1915–38), perfectly exemplifies the complexity and ambivalence of many literary representations of women’s work, while being one of the first works to use experimental modernist techniques to depict the heroine’s direct experience of work and how it impacts upon her ever-shifting and developing sense of identity. Miriam Henderson is, like the sisters in Gissing’s The Odd Women or Harwood’s Honour Thy Father, a middle-class girl thrown unprepared into the job market by family misfortune. Miriam moves through a range of posts, from schoolteacher in Germany and North London, to private governess and then secretary to a dental surgery, the disruptions and transitions of her life portrayed through the myriad flickering impressions of her mind—each ‘waking incongruously other thoughts, and plaiting incessantly the many-coloured and innumerable threads of life’, as Virginia Woolf noted admiringly of the novel.28 Free from the naturalist novel’s anthropologically observant eye and voice, Pilgrimage’s series of abrupt shifts, meditations, and immediate sensations matches Miriam’s own preference for liminality. Admired by a novice for her professionalism, Miriam finds herself ‘pondering uneasily over her own dislike of appearing as a successful teacher’, and later finds freedom instead in the ‘borderland’ of London north of the Euston Road.29

Just as Richardson’s novel deliberately eschewed both romance and ‘the current masculine realism’, so Miriam’s employment in a dental surgery, where she also takes lunch with the family of one of the surgeons, both bridges and evades the supposedly separate spheres of domesticity and professional employment. So Miriam contrasts herself with her friends Mag and Jan, office workers who humorously report their insistence that the city workers do not spit or swear in return for being granted the honour in their dingy warehouse of a ‘bright petunia-clad feminine presence’. Miriam, by contrast, ‘was somehow between two worlds, neither quite sheltered, nor quite free’.30 In one chapter of fractured, fluctuating narrative Richardson reproduces the rushed, overlapping tasks which fill Miriam’s day as secretary, from cleaning instruments to adding accounts—work which can shift in an instant from ‘quiet continuous companionship’ to ‘a prison claiming (p. 474) her by the bonds of the loathsome duties she had learned’, when a dentist addresses her in the ‘brusque casual tone’ he sometimes used to ‘the boys downstairs, or to cabmen’.31 Similarly crucial are the material conditions of Miriam’s employment: it is the vital five shillings added to her wage of £1 a week which enable her to add bicycle hire for a holiday and to supplement her essential diet of an egg and a roll in an ABC cafe.32

By contrast, it was not the internal impressions of the working woman but the concrete externals which were realized in the journalism and literature of the suffragists’ campaign for the vote, where women’s status as wage earners and taxpayers became a central plank, and the staging of women’s work formed the core of a series of suffrage dramas. The most popular of these was Evelyn Glover’s A Chat with Mrs Chicky (1912), in which Mrs Houlbrook tries to persuade her brother’s charwoman to sign her anti-suffragist petition. Mrs Chicky, however, continues to work around the seated lady, sweeping the floor, washing and scouring the hearth, and folding dust sheets, while humorously undermining the anti-suffragist’s arguments with her apparently innocent comments. When Mrs Houlbrook declares that men’s and women’s work belongs to separate spheres and neither should interfere with the other, Mrs Chicky observes that male MPs are constantly legislating on the ‘women’s sphere’ of domestic and childcare issues, while rights to legitimate children are assigned exclusively to the father. But it is Mrs Chicky’s ceaseless work that most effectively renders absurd the middle-class woman’s unthinking platitudes:

MRS HOULBROOK: Can’t you see that the right to vote really depends on physical force—strength, you know—and that women haven’t got that? (MRS CHICKY finding MRS HOULBROOK in her way gets up and pushes her, chair and all, a foot or so centre with perfect ease.)33

The very mundanity of Mrs Chicky’s occupations, everyday actions never usually put on stage but now comically made the focus of the audience’s but not the anti-suffragist’s attentions, makes humorous and political capital of the labour that is so easily overlooked.

For all the heightened literary awareness of the position of the modern worker, there was widespread scepticism at the notion of turning back the clock to recapture some lost idyll of creative labour. The repeated figuring of the industrial machine as Moloch, the primitive god of Tophet to whom human sacrifice was made—a vision given its most vivid expression in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis—reverses the evolutionary narrative of social progress by reducing the processes of (p. 475) new technology to an atavistic throwback, while its pessimistic looping back undermines any faith in the notion of a Ruskinian pre-industrial past.

Thomas Hardy, a writer deeply embedded in the rhythms and textures of agricultural labour, undermined the premises behind any such nostalgic visions: there is little to choose between the ‘joyless monotony’ and ‘automatic regularity’ of Tess’s manual labour, digging up frozen swedes or slicing turnips to feed them into a hand-turned masher, and her ceaseless feeding of the new steam-driven thresher, the ‘creature from Tophet’.34 Similarly, Jude Fawley’s ambitions to become a bishop may be a symptom of ‘the modern vice of unrest’, as he loses sight of the equal dignity and worth of stonemasonry in his obsessive aspiration to study at Christminster. But Hardy specifically rejects Ruskin’s idealizing of the Gothic as a site of self-expressive vision and craft: as the narrator of Jude the Obscure (1895) notes, the ‘old poetry’ of the colleges’ ancient buildings was simply the ‘modern prose’ of ‘precision, mathematical straightness, smoothness, exactitude’ worn down by time to produce the ‘jagged curves, disdain of precision, irregularity’—the medieval worker was equally subject to a dehumanizing demand for perfection.35

D. H. Lawrence, the novelist of this period perhaps most deeply and urgently concerned with the problems of work and selfhood, similarly combined an increasing disgust with modern industry and a scepticism for nostalgic remedies. Lawrence’s mature novels are saturated by the textures, rhythms, and experiences of working life, and chart a transition in his attitudes to systematized labour. In Sons and Lovers (1913), the blue coal-dust scars on Walter Morel’s body mark the history of his dangerous and difficult occupation as a miner, work which brings him dignity, community, and status, while the mine itself blends with the landscape, in his son Paul’s eyes, as ‘something alive almost—a big creature’, with its trucks ‘standing waiting, like a string of beasts to be fed’.36

In The Rainbow, however, published just two years later in 1915, the pit and the towns that serve it are likened by Ursula Brangwen to ‘some gruesome dream, some ugly, dead, amorphous mood become concrete’, the colliers themselves ‘like spectres’.37 Submission to working in the mines means complete subservience, reducing home life to a ‘little side-show’ where a man is nothing but ‘a meaningless lump—a standing machine, a machine out of work’.38 Where earlier generations of the Brangwen family seamlessly wove together the rhythms of work and emotion, of outer and inner life, whether calming a hysterical child while feeding cattle or courting a lover while stacking sheaves of corn, Ursula finds that, in order to work as a teacher in a modern school, she must abandon her individual identity and any personal relationship with her pupils, to fulfil ‘the graceless task of compelling (p. 476) many children into one disciplined, mechanical set, reducing the whole set to an automatic state of obedience and attention, and then of commanding their acceptance of various pieces of knowledge’.

This is the universal condition of modern employment, equally damaging for the highest and the lowest: in caning a child into submission, Ursula too ‘burnt her sensitive tissue’.39 There is no way back from the heightened consciousness that characterizes Ursula’s educated independence—Ruskinian craftsmanship offers a distraction, not a solution, for her equally baffled father. The root of the corruption lies within, in the self-destructive impulse towards annihilation of individuality in the systems of the state: the colliery-manager Tom Brangwen and his fiancée Winifred Inger find their ‘consummation’ in the colliery where ‘the impure abstraction, the mechanisms of matter’ free them from ‘the clog and degradation of human feeling’ (348). The essential difference is between those who resist, like Ursula who ends the novel with a vision of the colliers casting off their ‘horny covering of disintegration’ and issuing forth in ‘new clean bodies’ to a new way of living, and those like Gerald Crich who takes over his father’s mining business in Women in Love (1920).40 Gerald imposes a Taylorist management system which erases his own agency and will as profoundly as it does the men’s, and leaves him with nothing beyond the slide towards death—and this essential difference, as the later novel insists, is rooted in human relations and sexual identities, of which the larger systems of finance, technology, and class are merely a result.41

The solution lay in the future not the past, whether in Lawrence’s revolution of the spirit, or in the more material revolutions envisaged by a number of socialist writers, who imagined a range of utopias from the agrarian localism of William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) to the state-controlled technologies of Bellamy’s Looking Backwards and Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905), where both labour and its fruits were to be evenly distributed. For most the answer was less visionary and more practical, a choice between individual compromise and escape. Emigration remained a perennial solution to British industrial malaise—just as Elizabeth Gaskell’s factory workers sailed for Canada at the end of Mary Barton (1848), so a clerk escapes the drudgery of long hours and low pay to the frontier life of a farmer in Australia in Elizabeth Baker’s play Chains (1909); a flight not from labour to idleness but rather into more demanding and life-enhancing employment.

Wells’s Mr Polly escapes his imprisonment in the retail trade and finds his ideal employment not in a division but a diversity of labour, as handyman at a riverside pub, responsible for a multifarious list of jobs, Dickensian in its length, ranging from tarring fences and digging potatoes to swabbing out boats and chasing hens.42 (p. 477) Appropriately, perhaps the most optimistic depiction of work as personal fulfilment in this period is by a woman. Elizabeth Baker’s play Partnership (1917) ends with her driven businesswoman Kate engaged to the artistic and relatively lackadaisical Fawcett, from whom she has learnt to temper work with pleasure, retaining her private emotional identity alongside her professional status. The partnership of the title is an ideal marriage of romance and work, artistic creativity and financial acumen. For all the sunny optimism of Baker’s resolution, it is grounded, as are all the works mentioned here, in a recognition of the fundamental human necessities so often denied to workers under modern industrial capitalism: controlled hours, a living wage, gender equality, self-respect, an outlet for creativity, and a balance between life and work.

Further Reading

Anesko, Michael. ‘Friction with the Market’: Henry James and the Profession of Authorship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).Find this resource:

    Bowlby, Rachel. Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing and Zola (New York and London: Methuen, 1985).Find this resource:

      Eltis, Sos. Acts of Desire: Women and Sex on Stage, 1800–1930 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).Find this resource:

        Freedman, Jonathan. Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990).Find this resource:

          Guy, Josephine and Ian Small. Oscar Wilde’s Profession (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).Find this resource:

            Horner, Avril and Angela Keane (eds). Body Matters: Feminism, Textuality, Corporeality (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).Find this resource:

              Keep, Christopher. ‘The Cultural Work of the Type-Writer Girl’, Victorian Studies 40/3 (Spring 1997), 401–26.Find this resource:

                Knapp, James F. Literary Modernism and the Transformation of Work (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988).Find this resource:

                  Ledger, Sally. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the fin de siècle (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997).Find this resource:

                    Lesjak, Carolyn. Working Fictions: A Genealogy of the Victorian Novel (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2006).Find this resource:

                      Liggins, Emma. George Gissing, the Working Woman, and Urban Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).Find this resource:

                        Mainz, Valerie and Griselda Pollock (eds). Work and the Image, 2 vols (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), II: Work in Modern Times: Visual Mediations and Social Processes.Find this resource:

                          Pahl, R. E. (ed.). On Work: Historical, Comparative and Theoretical Approaches (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988).Find this resource:

                            Seltzer, Mark. Bodies and Machines (New York: Routledge, 1992).Find this resource:

                              Shiach, Morag. Modernism, Labour and Selfhood in British Literature and Culture, 1890–1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).Find this resource:

                                Stowell, Sheila. A Stage of Their Own: Feminist Playwrights of the Suffrage Era (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992).Find this resource:

                                  (p. 478) Waller, Philip. Writers, Readers and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain, 1870–1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).Find this resource:

                                    Wilde, Jonathan. The Rise of the Office Clerk in Literary Culture, 1880–1939 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).Find this resource:

                                      Wilson, Mary. The Labors of Modernism: Domesticity, Servants, and Authorship in Modernist Fiction (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013).Find this resource:


                                        (1) Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 8.

                                        (2) Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (London: Chapman and Hall, 1843), 192.

                                        (3) See Krishan Kumar, ‘From Work to Employment and Unemployment: The English Experience’, in R. E. Pahl (ed.), On Work: Historical, Comparative and Theoretical Approaches (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 138–66.

                                        (4) Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (New York and London: Harper, 1911), 8.

                                        (5) E. M. Forster, Howards End (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), 225. For a study of modernist writers’ responses to and reproduction of the language of scientific management, see James F. Knapp, Literary Modernism and the Transformation of Work (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988).

                                        (6) John Ruskin, ‘The Nature of Gothic’, in The Stones of Venice, vol. II (1853). See Dinah Birch (ed.), John Ruskin: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 43–4.

                                        (7) See Carolyn Lesjak, Working Fictions: A Genealogy of the Victorian Novel (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2006) for analysis of the mid-Victorian novel’s elision of the actual experience of work.

                                        (8) For further discussion, see John C. Welchman, ‘Colour, Light and Labour: Futurism and the Dissolution of Work’, in Valerie Mainz and Griselda Pollock (eds), Work and the Image, 2 vols (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), II, 61–90, and Mark Seltzer, Bodies and Machines (Routledge: New York, 1992).

                                        (9) Critical analyses of such fiction have, therefore, necessarily tended to focus either on the work of individual authors or on a particular segment of the workforce. See for example Emma Liggins, George Gissing, the Working Woman, and Urban Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006); Jonathan Wilde, The Rise of the Office Clerk in Literary Culture, 1880–1939 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); Christopher Keep, ‘The Cultural Work of the Type-Writer Girl’, Victorian Studies 40/3 (Spring 1997), 401–26; see also Mary Wilson, The Labors of Modernism: Domesticity, Servants, and Authorship in Modernist Fiction (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013).

                                        (10) Émile Zola, Au Bonheur des Dames (Paris: Gallimard, 2011), 297, 196. For a detailed analysis, see Rachel Bowlby, Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing and Zola (New York and London: Methuen, 1985), ch. 5. Bowlby’s characterization of Denise as the ‘eternal feminine’, however, humanizing Mouret’s system, tends to establish rather too stark a gender divide between female shoppers and male managers, minimizing the role of Denise’s ability to analyze and redesign the business.

                                        (11) Ibid., 489.

                                        (12) H. G. Wells, Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul (London: Penguin, 2005), 32, 33.

                                        (13) Ibid., 35, 37, 41.

                                        (14) H. G. Wells, The History of Mr Polly (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2010), 23.

                                        (15) Ibid., 13.

                                        (16) For further details, see Joel Kaplan and Sheila Stowell, Theatre and Fashion from Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), and Michael R. Booth, Victorian Spectacular Theatre, 1850–1910 (Boston, MA: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981).

                                        (17) H. J. W. Dam, The Shop Girl, British Library, Lord Chamberlain’s Plays Collection, Add MS 53562B, Act I, p. 4. ‘objects’ is mistyped as ‘aobjects’, but corrected here.

                                        (18) Stage, 13 Feb 1908, Pall Mall Gazette, 13 Feb 1908, reproduced in Cicely Hamilton, Diana of Dobson’s, ed. Diane F. Gillespie and Doryjane Birrer (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2003), 171, 173.

                                        (19) Hamilton, Diana of Dobson’s, 119.

                                        (20) George Gissing, The Odd Women (London: Virago, 1980), 25.

                                        (21) Arthur Morrison, A Child of the Jago (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 13.

                                        (22) Ibid., 92, 95.

                                        (23) For further discussion of aestheticism and the literary marketplace, see Philip Waller, Writers, Readers and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain, 1870–1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Jonathan Freedman, Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990); Michael Anesko, ‘Friction with the Market’: Henry James and the Profession of Authorship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986); and Josephine Guy and Ian Small, Oscar Wilde’s Profession (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

                                        (24) Gissing, New Grub Street (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 8, 180–1.

                                        (25) Ibid., 459. The novel’s readers could congratulate themselves on more discerning taste for Biffen-esque realism; as the one reviewer noted, ‘the ordinary reader of the circulating library fiction will probably not care to read Mr Gissing’s three volumes’, Court Journal, 25 April 1891, 710.

                                        (26) For further discussion of the theatrical depiction of women’s work in relation to prostitution, see Sos Eltis, Acts of Desire: Women and Sex on Stage, 1800–1930 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

                                        (27) Githa Sowerby, Rutherford and Son, in Linda Fitzsimmons and Viv Gardner (eds), New Woman Plays (London: Methuen, 1991), 150. For further discussion, see Stowell, A Stage of Their Own: Feminist Playwrights of the Suffrage Era (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), and Sally Ledger, The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the fin de siècle (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997).

                                        (28) Virginia Woolf, review of Dorothy Richardson’s The Tunnel, Times Literary Supplement 13 Feb 1919.

                                        (29) Richardson, Backwater (1916), in Pilgrimage, 4 vols (London: Virago, 1979), I, 274; Dorothy Richardson, The Tunnel (1919), ibid., II, 29.

                                        (30) Ibid., II, 162–3.

                                        (31) Ibid., II, 73, 182, 207.

                                        (32) For Miriam’s further dual role as both worker and consumer, see Scott McCracken, ‘Embodying the New Woman: Dorothy Richardson, Work and the London Cafe’, in Avril Horner and Angela Keane (eds), Body Matters: Feminism, Textuality, Corporeality (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).

                                        (33) Fitzsimmons and Gardner, New Woman Plays, 110.

                                        (34) Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891; repr. London: Penguin, 1985), 392, 394, 404, 405.

                                        (35) Hardy, Jude the Obscure (London: Penguin, 1985), 131.

                                        (36) D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (London: Penguin, 1987), 242, 154.

                                        (37) Lawrence, The Rainbow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 343–4.

                                        (38) Ibid., 346–7.

                                        (39) Ibid., 381, 403.

                                        (40) Ibid., 348, 493–4.

                                        (41) For a discussion of Lawrence’s theories on and representation of labour after Women in Love, see Morag Shiach, Modernism, Labour and Selfhood in British Literature and Culture, 1890–1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

                                        (42) Wells, Mr Polly, 150.