Women at Work in the Victorian Novel

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Although middle-class women’s work was one of the major social and feminist issues of the mid-Victorian period, literary critics have yet to give extended consideration to the way women novelists treated this topic. This book examines the form and ideologies of mid-Victorian novels that represent middle-class women at work.

The study locates women’s novels of the period within a discourse of women’s work that included writing by the Langham Place feminists, Sarah Ellis, Sarah Lewis, and Harriett Martineau. Focusing on novels by Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontë sisters, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, but also examining the work of lesser-known writers such as Amelia B. Edwards, Louise Costello and Ouida, this work examines how both ideologies and rhetorical forms circulated within fictional and non-fictional writing.

The work debate fundamentally challenged social beliefs about women’s sexual and class status, their economic and marital positions, and their educational and occupational opportunities. The demands of work reformers conflicted with the domestic ideology of womanhood, which assumed that middle-class women would remain as the moral centre of the domestic sphere, supported by their husbands or fathers.

By examining the way that novels both influenced and were influenced by this ideology, this book demonstrates how Victorian novels contributed to the imaginative and ideological changes of that most important aspect of female emancipation, women’s work.


“The importance of this book lies in its exploration of the novelistic treatment of middle-class women at work ... Through a lively series of examples depicting women as housekeepers, governesses, artists, nurses and charity workers, Dr. Rivers' new study allows us to glimpse the way that working writers like Charlotte Brontë and her friend Mary Taylor both disseminated their own views and reflected those of their society ... This book shows that, paradoxically, it was often by promoting the traditional ideal of woman as the moral and spiritual centre of her domestic space that novelists and social reformers were able to shift traditional views towards an attitude more conducive to female emancipation ...” – (from the Preface)Professor Christine Alexander, University of New South Wales

“The book examines the ideological instabilities and contradictions of representations of women’s work in a selection of Victorian women’s novels in the context of contemporary debates about middle-class women’s work ... The overall thesis is that the novels under examination contribute to the dismantling and the revision of the conventional middle-class domestic ideal of womanhood. The author refers to an impressive range of canonical and non-canonical writing in order to explore the circulation of ideas about women’s employment within and between fictional and other discourses and to analyse the ideological work performed by the mid nineteenth-century novel ... Dr. Rivers writes in a lucid and engaging style, and her argument is well-constructed and compelling. This is a book that will be of central interest to students of Victorian women’s writing and the cultural discourses of work.” – Professor Hilary Fraser, Birkbeck University of London

“[This work] offers a stimulating, lucid study of the social context for women’s employment in the nineteenth century, as well as a broad-ranging analysis of the stimulants and impediments toward the legitimization of professional vocations for women. While the work is written in a clear and flexible style, it also manages not to sacrifice complexity to clarity, so that I found it both thought-provoking and very enjoyable to read. This book will fit well into lists of recommended reading texts for many courses on the theme of women and the nineteenth-century novel ...” – Dr. Philippa Kelly, University of New South Wales, Australia

Table of Contents

1. Cunning Workers: Argument within the Work Debate
2. Household Management and Performance: The Domestic Work of Display
3. The Threat of the Working Woman: The Duplicitous Governess and Domestic Information
4. Women and Art: Convention and Escape
5. Morality and Language: Reforming the Nursing Woman
6. Working for the Self: Women’s Charity and Female Emancipation
Conclusion: Toward the Fin de Siècle

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