"Unsuitable for narrative": Working women in Victorian literature

Date of Completion

January 2008


Women's Studies|Literature, English




Nineteenth-century working women challenged the ideal of the Victorian woman, in whom contemporary narrative had a significant investment. This dissertation looks at representations of working women in Victorian literature to examine how narrative accommodates the historically changing issues of work, gender, sexuality, and class. I consider working women as a narrative category across nineteenth-century British literature, and argue that women working in the factories and mines in the industrial novels of the 1830s and 1840s face oppressions of ideology and narrative similar to those faced by the New Women working in offices in the New Woman fiction of the 1880s and 1890s. I use what I call women's "work narratives," the literary descriptions of their paid labor, to bring women's work experiences to the analytical foreground. Work narratives offer an unexplored connection between women that transcends conventional boundaries of class, and act as a site of destabilization of ideological constructs. ^ Working women in industrial fiction are working-class and usually depicted as victims. Ultimately, as demonstrated by Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's The Wrongs of Woman, the most realistic representations of working women necessitate a break with conventional narrative form. By mid-century, working women in narrative have become middle-class and agent. Charlotte Brontë's Lucy Snowe transgresses gender- and class-marked boundaries of both narrative and character. Charles Dickens' Miss Wade and Fanny Dorrit, both aware of their class statuses, also resist and manipulate using various methods of performance. ^ I look at two examples in which women workers are invested with the authority of public narrative. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh is a published poet, and George Eliot's Dinah Morris in Adam Bede is a millworker and Methodist preacher. As evident in Aurora Leigh's move to Italy and Dinah Morris' demotion per the Methodist Convention, nineteenth-century England is not accommodating of women with such authority. Lastly, I argue that prostitutes Eulalie from Augusta Webster's poem "A Castaway" and Mrs. Warren from Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession should be considered New Women. I read these characters as demonstrating New Woman consciousnesses despite the fact that they are excluded from this identity category because of their work. ^