Working Fictions: A Genealogy of the Victorian Novel

Working Fictions: A Genealogy of the Victorian Novel

by Carolyn Lesjak

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Working Fictions takes as its point of departure the common and painful truth that the vast majority of human beings toil for a wage and rarely for their own enjoyment or satisfaction. In this striking reconceptualization of Victorian literary history, Carolyn Lesjak interrogates the relationship between labor and pleasure, two concepts that were central to the


Working Fictions takes as its point of departure the common and painful truth that the vast majority of human beings toil for a wage and rarely for their own enjoyment or satisfaction. In this striking reconceptualization of Victorian literary history, Carolyn Lesjak interrogates the relationship between labor and pleasure, two concepts that were central to the Victorian imagination and the literary output of the era. Through the creation of a new genealogy of the "labor novel," Lesjak challenges the prevailing assumption about the portrayal of work in Victorian fiction, namely that it disappears with the fall from prominence of the industrial novel. She proposes that the "problematic of labor" persists throughout the nineteenth century and continues to animate texts as diverse as Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, George Eliot's Felix Holt and Daniel Deronda, Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, and the essays and literary work of William Morris and Oscar Wilde.

Lesjak demonstrates how the ideological work of the literature of the Victorian era, the "golden age of the novel," revolved around separating the domains of labor and pleasure and emphasizing the latter as the proper realm of literary representation. She reveals how the utopian works of Morris and Wilde grapple with this divide and attempt to imagine new relationships between work and pleasure, relationships that might enable a future in which work is not the antithesis of pleasure. In Working Fictions, Lesjak argues for the contemporary relevance of the "labor novel," suggesting that within its pages lie resources with which to confront the gulf between work and pleasure that continues to characterize our worldtoday.

About the Author:
Carolyn Lesjak is Associate Professor of English at Swarthmore College

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Working Fictions compellingly reconfigures the literary history of the nineteenth century by exploring the complex ways in which concepts of labor and pleasure informed the realist novel and Victorian aestheticism. This is a rich renewal of Frankfurt School concerns and a powerful contribution to contemporary literary studies.”—Amanda Anderson, author of The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory

Working Fictions is a groundbreaking book on Victorian literature and culture. Carolyn Lesjak reads nineteenth-century novels together with the best of social historical and Marxist criticism to reveal how the novel separated labor from pleasure and, in doing so, changed the very definition of both. Hers is an argument whose time has come, one that will enable a new generation of work to be done.”—Nancy Armstrong, author of Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel

John Kucich
“[Lesjak] has without doubt developed sophisticated analytical instruments for making the labor/pleasure problematic visible in a wide range of Victorian fiction, and her book will certainly reinvigorate scholarly attention to this tremendously important topic.”

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Post-Contemporary Interventions
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6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

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A Genealogy of the Victorian Novel


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ISBN: 978-0-8223-3888-8

Chapter One


Representing Work and the Working Class in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton

There is always a pleasure in unravelling a mystery, in catching at the gossamer clue which will guide to certainty.-Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton

Written in 1848, Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton was situated at a historical crossroads. In the wake of resurgent Jacobinism in France, Louis Philippe was deposed by the February Revolution, and revolutionary struggles had broken out all across Western Europe, in Italy, the German states, the Habsburg empire, and Switzerland. At stake was the fate of the bourgeois revolutions and the direction they would take: onward to deeper and more democratic revolutionary aims and an alliance with the working class or backward to a retrenchment of bourgeois power and a shoring up of the bourgeoisie's interests with state force. "Eighteen forty-eight failed," Eric Hobsbawm argues, "because it turned out that the decisive confrontation was not that between theold regimes and the united 'forces of progress,' but between 'order' and 'social revolution.'" Or, as Georg Lukács characterizes it, the uprisings and their defeat, especially the June battle of the Paris proletariat, "[produce] a decisive change in the bourgeois camp, accelerating to an extraordinary degree the inner process of differentiation which is to transform revolutionary democracy into compromising liberalism."

Still, at the time of Gaskell's writing, events on the Continent were threatening enough that Britain wished to dampen any incipient feelings of continental camaraderie. Indeed, the possibility of identification with these European movements seemed so real that Gaskell's publishers requested that she write a preface to the completed Mary Barton making clear that it was meant in no way to provide grist for revolution. In doing so, Gaskell invoked France as a threat that could obtain in Britain if "merciful deeds" were not speedily deployed to "disabuse the work-people of so miserable a misapprehension" as the thought that the middle classes do not care about their suffering: "At present they seem to me to be left in a state wherein lamentations and tears are thrown aside as useless, but in which the lips are compressed for curses, and the hands clenched and ready to smite."

Against this threat of violence, Gaskell intended Mary Barton as a stimulus to the ignorant middle classes, who, the reasoning went, would readily respond with charity and good will if only they knew of the inhumane conditions under which the laboring classes were suffering. The more Gaskell reflected on the "unhappy state of things" between employers and the employed, the "more anxious [she] became to give some utterance to the agony which, from time to time, convulses this dumb people" (3). Her gambit, articulated in the preface, is that "if it be an error that the woes, which come with ever returning tide-like flood to overwhelm the workmen in our manufacturing towns, pass unregarded by all but the sufferers, it is at any rate an error so bitter in its consequences to all parties, that whatever public effort can do in the way of merciful deeds, or helpless love in the way of 'widow's mites' could do, should be done, and that speedily" (3-4). Contrary to her intent, however, she was attacked by many for doing just the opposite: provoking class against class by her detailed descriptions of the working conditions of the Manchester poor. In response, Gaskell defended herself on moral grounds, claiming that "no one can feel more deeply than me how wicked it is to do anything to excite class against class." As these potential readings and misreadings make clear, the emergence of the working class as a subject for middle-class literature carried with it unique representational problems. What was the best form for giving expression to the working class without fomenting revolution? Was it possible to depict working-class conditions of life realistically without inspiring class conflict? What was the best way of generating interest in the working class on the part of a middle-class reading public? In short, Mary Barton and the industrial novel more generally found itself in something of a Catch-22: if it fulfilled its realist criterion it ran the "wicked" risk of "exciting class against class" and consequently losing its middle-class audience and its moral authority as a cultural force of class conciliation. Faced with this dilemma, Mary Barton tries to bridge the gap between realism and morality: suggesting that cross-class solidarity is to be found in another, higher realm of Christian love and "brotherhood," Gaskell hopes, in her "tale of Manchester life," to reconcile "masters and men."

Gaskell's attempts at reconciliation delineate the task critics face: how best to describe and understand the movement within Mary Barton between narrative modes or generic conventions. If Raymond Williams sets the stage with his description of the "fall" from realism into sentimentalism or the romance, more recent feminist scholars follow with important reassessments and critiques of that "fall." Nancy Armstrong unearths the politics behind the turn toward the sentimental, arguing for the centrality of female authority in the development of the novel and, in turn, of modern identity itself; Catherine Gallagher counters the neat division of the text into an opposition between realism and sentimentalism, arguing that multiple generic modes operate in the novel and that these modes do not shift progressively (or "fall" from one to the other as Williams would have it) but rather are more loosely intermingled throughout the text; and Amanda Anderson extends Gallagher's analysis by looking more closely at the intersection of realism and romance in the specific figure of the prostitute. All these approaches significantly and importantly complicate Williams's assumptions about realism and its exclusive claim to truth and authenticity. In the process they also foreground the issue of form in the novel by focusing on the political work that the sentimental mode-as well as other nonrealist narrative modes-performs, thereby countering Williams's quick dismissal of sentimentalism as a retreat from the (assumed) political mode of realism.

As useful as these recent perspectives of Mary Barton are, they all replicate, ironically, the move away from the representation of work that Williams identifies as the novel's weakness. To be sure, they do so in the name of understanding how domestic narrative(s) in Mary Barton function, but nonetheless the issue of the representation of work all but disappears from these accounts. In this chapter, I want to suggest that reading Mary Barton in this way elides a crucial component of Gaskell's project. In order to show how this is so, we need first to return briefly to the oft-commented-on preface to the novel.

Much has been made of the fact that Gaskell begins Mary Barton with the disclaimer that she knows nothing about political economy. Instead, she has "tried to write truthfully; and if [her] accounts agree or clash with any system, the agreement or disagreement is unintentional" (4). Just as Gaskell distances herself from theories of trade, then, she also distances theories of trade from the truth, suggesting that perhaps her disclaimer is a bit less humbling than it might first appear. On one level, the move from the political to the moral sphere implied by the shift from trade to truth is unsurprising given that the moral domain was deemed the proper sphere of influence for women writers in the nineteenth century. Terry Lovell highlights the force of this writerly female provenance in her discussion of Gaskell's feminine persona: "She has a recurrent refrain, her disclaimer of any knowledge of political economy. As author, she claims the right to speak not from knowledge of 'the facts' but from an identification with the feelings of an oppressed and suffering workforce. In so doing, she claims a woman's privilege." As Lovell goes on to argue, Gaskell certainly had read many works of political economy, but "it would be presumptuous in a woman to speak authoritatively in a woman's voice of such matters. Where she could legitimately speak was of course from sympathetic feeling, and this is what she chose to do, at the cost of playing down her intellect."

On another level, though, the matter of female authority in the novel has other, more pervasive ramifications as well. The separation Lovell refers to-between the economic, the social, and the moral-is itself part of a larger, newly emerging social formation. In Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830-1864, Mary Poovey identifies this process as one of modern disaggregation. Modern disaggregation involves the gradual separation and institutionalization of different domains of knowledge and social practices on the basis of specific rationalities. So, for example, the Poor Law of 1834 newly distinguishes between pauperism and poverty in terms of separate domains: the former becomes a moral and physical designation (the components of which later come to encompass the social domain), the latter an economic category. In the process, issues of morality and health are dissociated from one's economic situation, at the same time that they continue to exist in a relationship of relative autonomy, maintaining traces of their originary affiliation. As Poovey argues, when novelists, specifically, entered the "Condition of England" debate, "they were implicitly arguing that a feminized genre that individualized distress and aroused sympathy was more appropriate to the delineation of contemporary problems than were the rationalizing abstractions of a masculine genre like political economy." Of course, paradoxically, this very separation of domains reflects the rationalizing discourse of political economy, and, more generally, the formal rationality of capitalist market relations. Nonetheless, the force of Gaskell's appeal involves resituating issues of work and poverty in a realm of "feeling" seemingly outside of or uncorrupted by the quantitative, statistical epistemologies of either the economic or the political realm.

Whether her opening proviso is read finally as a weak or a strong move, its presence at all registers the peculiar constraints under which Gaskell found herself as a result of Mary Barton's subject matter. By the time even of North and South (1855) such cautionary notes apparently were unnecessary. Certainly, too, the whole issue of the preface is vexed by the fact that her publisher, Edward Chapman's request for it left Gaskell completely at a loss. Perplexed and irritated, she wrote to Chapman, "I hardly know what you mean by an 'explanatory preface.' The only thing I should like to make clear is that it is no catch-penny run up since the events on the Continent have directed public attention to the consideration of the state of affairs between the Employers, & their work-people. If you think the book requires such a preface I will try to concoct it; but at present, I have no idea what to say." Clearly, if Gaskell had any concerns about the novel, they stemmed from it being perceived as lowbrow and sensationalist, written quickly to capitalize cheaply on public interest-a far cry from Chapman's concerns.

While the preface as it was finally published does not register Gaskell's concerns in the form given in her letter, it does, however, offer a more complex apologia than the turn away from political economy would suggest. For the preface begins with Gaskell's motivation for writing the novel in the first place, namely, her sympathy for working people and her sense of "how deep might be the romance in the lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided" (3). She then goes on to note their anguish at the "lottery-like nature" of their lives and the consequent animosity they feel toward the rich, a sentiment that Gaskell ultimately refuses to judge: "Whether the bitter complaints made by them of the neglect which they experienced from the prosperous-especially from the masters whose fortunes they had helped to build up-were well-founded or no, it is not for me to judge. It is enough for me to say, that this belief of the injustice and unkindness which they endure from their fellow-creatures taints what might be resignation to God's will, and turns it to revenge in many of the poor uneducated factory workers of Manchester" (3). The coupling of sympathy with the refusal to judge is significant in two respects: first, it is Gaskell's sympathy that necessitates her disclaimer. Without the ability to feel for the workers, and to represent that concern, her publishers probably would not have had to worry about her representation of them being misunderstood. Second, the ability to see through the workers' eyes, as it were, and to do so without (or at least before) enforcing judgment on them delineates a narratorial voice desirous of more than the moralizing stance implied by Gaskell's abnegation of political economy. Indeed, it is the very coupling of these two impulses (feeling and seeing) that continually challenges the oppositional structure-romance versus politics, morality versus political economy-Gaskell explicitly articulates in her disclaimer. For want of a better term, Gaskell's "sentimental realism" allows her both to feel for the workers and their plight and to detail their workaday existence, both in the domestic and the political realm. Contra Williams, it is not a question of Gaskell's sentimentalism jeopardizing her realism or vice versa or of the two being at odds with one another but rather of each mode enabling the other-and to such an extent that the resulting text warrants a disclaimer. To feel is to see and vice versa.

But these prefatory comments also expose an ambivalence on Gaskell's part toward her subject matter that persists throughout the narrative and ultimately defines the novel's conflicted "structure of feeling." Ostensibly, the novel is about work and the working class. Yet, like its generic compatriots, it summarily avoids any direct representation of work itself. Given this absence, one might be tempted to conclude that any focus on work in the novel is a fruitless attempt to find something that does not even exist. But, as Gaskell's own statements suggest and the narrative of Mary Barton confirms, the presence of work is inseparable from the novel's attempt to sympathize with the working class. Even as Gaskell claims in her preface to the novel that she is not going to judge whether the workers' complaints are legitimate or not, the fact of their work intrudes on her nonjudgmental stance: "Whether the bitter complaints made by them of the neglect which they experienced from the prosperous-especially from the masters whose fortunes they had helped to build up-were well-founded or no, it is not for me to judge" (3, emphasis added). Rising up, parenthetically, is a clear statement of the working poor's responsibility for the wealth of the rich; they have literally made the rich rich. Similarly, later in the preface, the "common interests" unifying factory workers and factory owners are defined in terms of their work relations, as "employers and the employed." As much as the novel does not, then, directly confront labor per se, its presence forms the guilty conscience of the text.


Excerpted from WORKING FICTIONS by CAROLYN LESJAK Copyright © 2006 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Carolyn Lesjak is Associate Professor of English at Swarthmore College.

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