Genres of work: working identities and the factory girl in Victorian literature

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Melissa Jill Richard (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Mary Ellis Gibson

Abstract: The idea of Victorian womanhood typically summons images of Coventry Patmore's "angel in the house," the domestic saint who formed the moral center of the middle-class family. My dissertation examines another kind of Victorian woman: the factory girl who was also influential in reinforcing dominant class and gender ideologies across nineteenth-century Britain, if only by unfavorable comparison. The factory girl epitomized unnatural womanhood and symbolized the collision of Victorian economic and sexual anxieties; as such, she was cast as a sexual / sentimental other in industrial discourse and was absent or replaced by less controversial female characters in middle-class literature. In this dissertation, I compare the "absented" factory girl of the mid-nineteenth century industrial novel with her revised image in the writing of female working-class authors. Working-class representation of the factory girl, I propose, generates "working identities" that re-imagine the narratives casting female factory workers as threatening or threatened figures. I also argue that genres central to working-class culture, like poetry and autobiography, offer these authors the literary authority to refuse to divide the woman from the worker, to describe their artistic and political aspirations, as well as to evoke, overturn, and pose alternatives to predominate views of working-class women as sexually and morally threatening. The chapters of Genres of Work set up the comparison between the image of the sentimental / sexualized factory girl of industrial novel and her representation (and revision) in working-class lyric poetry and working women's autobiographies. I begin with a study of Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848), in which the peripheral treatment of factory girls or their replacement with other types of working women draws attention away from the economic and personal potential factory work could have for working women; I then examine the poetics of Ellen Johnston, a Scottish working-class writer who united labor, gender, and art by taking on the poetic name "the Factory Girl" through publication in popular working-class periodicals and her book collection Autobiography, Poems and Songs(1868, 1869); and I end my literary analysis with a reading of Kathleen Woodward's Jipping Street: Childhood in a London Slum(1928), an autobiography conscious of the limits of literary self-representation, a performance of the genre Woodward uses to critique the model of empowered female laborer that developed in and around life writing in the early twentieth century. I argue that in the space between literary constructions of factory girls by others and those they construct themselves, labor allows working women to question and re-imagine static categories of class and gender, marking spaces of change that facilitate a cultural renegotiation of what it means to be "working class" and "female" in Victorian and early twentieth century texts.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2013
Autobiography, Class, Gender, Industrial Novel, Poetry, Victorian
Woodward, Kathleen, $d 1896-1961 $x Criticism and interpretation
Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn, $d 1810-1865 $x Criticism and interpretation
Johnston, Ellen, $d approximately 1835-1873 $x Criticism and interpretation
Working class women in literature
Women and literature $z Great Britain $x History $y 19th century
Women and literature $z Great Britain $x History $y 20th century

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