This book challenges influential accounts about gender and the novel by revealing the complex ways in which labour informed the lives and writing of a number of middling and genteel women authors publishing between 1750 and 1830. It provides a seam of texts for exploring the vexed relationship between gender, work and writing. The four chapters that follow contain contextualised case studies of the treatment of manual, intellectual and domestic labour in the work and careers of Sarah Scott, Charlotte Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft and women applicants to the writers' charity, the Literary Fund. By making women's work visible in our studies of female-authored fiction of the period, the book reveals the crucial role that these women played in articulating debates about the gendered division of labour, the (in)compatibility of women's domestic and professional lives, and the status and true value of women's work, which shaped eighteenth-century culture as surely as they do our own.
This introductory chapter sets out the purpose of the book, which is to complicate the conventional narrative about labour, gender and authorship posited by Samuel Crisp, and often endorsed by literary and historical scholarship, both by pointing to the vital and valued role that work of various kinds played in texts by middling and genteel women writers publishing during the later eighteenth century, and by revealing labour's centrality to these authors' self-conceptualization as women and as literary professionals. It then discusses men's work and women's leisure; domesticity, the novel and the invisibility of women's work; and the debate on women's work. An overview of the subsequent chapters is also presented.
Labour, narrative and community in the novels of Sarah Scott
This chapter examines Sarah Scott's early fiction and its implications for midcentury political, economic and philanthropic debates about the moral and economic functions of women's work. It argues that, more than any other writer of the mid-century, Scott was committed to moving the working woman from the periphery to the centre of the eighteenth-century novel, to exploring the relationship between labour and gentility, and to asserting that women's work was individually enfranchising and culturally necessary.
This chapter examines Charlotte Smith's treatment of labour, primarily in the fiction, in order to tease out its implications for the novels' arguments about gender, domesticity and authorship. It begins with an examination of Smith's figuring of manual, affective and intellectual labour in Marchmont (1796), arguably her fullest contribution to contemporary debates on woman's work, to reveal how the novel retriangulates its author's rhetoric about the relation between women's work, domesticity and abjection, thus paving the way for a reassessment of Smith's (Lockean) self-conceptualization of her authorial labour as a form of inalienable property. Smith's figuring of writing as work was not simply a strategy to gain her readers' sympathy; rather, it was an attempt to break down the barriers that prevented women writers from laying claim to the new models of literary professionalism which were being cemented in this period. Only when we, like Smith, grapple with the complex question that is women's work can we recuperate her distinctive and ambitious construction of professional authorship as an embodied activity which was simultaneously a labour of mind, body and heart – and, unequivocally, women's work.
This chapter addresses the complex turns that the debate on women's work took in the specific context of the 1790s and, more specifically still, in the non-fictional and imaginative publications of one of the most vocal and eloquent commentators on this issue, Mary Wollstonecraft. Her extensive, but by no means internally consistent, reflections upon the labour and literary marketplaces signal crucial, and in many ways decisive, developments in the narratives about work and authorship that this book examines. Most particularly, an investigation of her polemical writings, philosophical works, travel literature and novels suggests that the more labour was prized in late eighteenth-century writings on political economy, and the more centrally its language figured in the republic of letters' self-presentation at the century's close, the more vital and the more difficult it became for women writers to press the discourse of labour into the service of their gender and textual politics.
This chapter focuses on a group of popular women writers, all of whom were applicants to the writers' charity, the Literary Fund (later the Royal Literary Fund). The picture that emerges from these writers' publications and their pleas to the Fund – the archives of which provide a rich and largely unmined seam of evidence concerning the material conditions, and rhetorical construction, of authorship – is illuminating. Increasingly presented as the degraded other against which the activities of the male professional were defined, women's work was to play an ever more central role in the discourse of authorship in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to the detriment of a number of its best-loved practitioners. Moreover, as gender became increasingly constitutive of literary authority at the turn of the century, so the discourse of authorship served more insistently to reinforce constructions of gender.
Reading labour and writing women’s literary history
Despite three decades of groundbreaking feminist scholarship, the project of writing women's literary history is still, to an extent, overshadowed by the critical narratives about professionalism, gender and the literary that were being constructed and contested in these writers' own lifetimes, and which subsequent generations of scholars have resisted rethinking. This book sought to break down this resistance by exploring women writers' negotiation of a series of defining moments in literary history through their responses to the manual/intellectual labour axis around which this history unfolded, and to which that history is still – often prejudicially for women writers – subject. By making work visible in eighteenth-century writings by women, the intention has not been simply to uncover something that has always been there, but to offer some account for eighteenth-century studies' unwillingness fully to acknowledge labour's crucial, if vexed, presence in imaginative and nonimaginative prose of the period and, further, to suggest the costs of colluding with assumptions about gender, work and women's writing which would play such a vital part in the ‘Great Forgetting’ of female authors in the nineteenth century.