Refining work : representations of female artistic labour in Victorian literature, 1848-1888
This thesis explores representations of women working in artistic professions in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century. Applying an interdisciplinary method that draws on fiction, prose, painting and the periodical press from the years 1848-1888, this thesis aims to expand our understanding of women's relationships to paid work in the Victorian period. Paid work, I argue, was not always represented as a degrading activity for women. Throughout the thesis, I trace the process through which the concept of work for middle-class women was made increasingly acceptable through an association with artistry. One of my central purposes is to show how the supposedly degrading activity of paid work could be transformed into refining experience for women. Looking specifically at sewing, art, writing and acting, I demonstrate how these professions came to be represented as suitable remunerative work for middle-class women. In chapters one and two, I examine the way in which the reputations of the typically working-class occupations of needlework and industrial design were 'rescued' from their associations with commercial degradation and vulnerability in order to expand the middle-class woman's employment opportunities. Chapters three and four demonstrate that even the very public and self-promoting professions of authorship and acting could be represented as domestic in character. Each of these chapters considers the relationship between domesticity, creativity, remuneration and refinement in fictional representations of working women and shows how they produced images of work defined by female forms of experience. Such representations, I argue, helped to raise the profile of women's work so that, by the end of the century, the working women who had been pitied and patronised as victims of degrading circumstances came to be seen as a legitimate, respected and self-respecting group.