In August 1863 George Eliot bought the Priory, 21, North Bank, Regent’s Park, for £2000 on a 49-year lease. It had been built in 1822 and overlooked Regent’s canal at Marylebone Wide on the east side of Lisson Grove tunnel. Eliot had it renovated and redecorated by none other than the famous architect and designer Owen Jones (1809 – 74) whose ground-breaking Grammar of Ornament had appeared in 1856. She moved in with George Henry Lewes on 5 November. She and Lewes held a housewarming party on 24 November; Eliot wrote to her friend Mrs Congreve on the 28th that her music teacher Leopold Jansa (1795-1875), an exiled Bohemian former professor at the University of Vienna, had played the violin and she had worn a smart dress in “grey moiré antique ‑ the consequence of a severe lecture from Owen Jones on her general neglect of her personal adornment.” Her soul, she wrote,
never flourishes on attention to details which others can manage quite gracefully without any conscious loss of power for wider thoughts and cares. Before we began to move, I was swimming in Comte and Euripides and Latin Christianity; now I am sitting among puddles, and can get no sight of deep water. Now I have a mind made up of old carpets fitted in new places, and new carpets suffering from accidents; chairs, tables and prices ; muslin curtains and down-draughts in cold chimneys.(Cross, George Eliot’s Life as related in her Letters and Journals, 1885, vol 2. p. 315)
By Boxing Day that year she had learned to love the house, writing to another friend, Mrs Bray, that she and Lewes were
enjoying its quiet and freedom from perpetual stair-mounting, – enjoying the prettiness of colouring and arrangement, all of which we owe to our dear good friend, Mr Owen Jones… And another magnificent friend has given me the most splendid reclining chair conceivable(Cross, George Eliot’s Life as related in her Letters and Journals, 1885, vol 2. p. 318).
It was at the Priory that George Eliot wrote those novels central to the Victorian canon, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda (and the much less read Felix Holt) and held her famous Sunday afternoon “ at homes” attended by many a famous name.
These short descriptions tell us several things: most obviously, that without the material conditions the Priory offered, George Eliot might well have written very different novels from Felix Holt, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. These material conditions of course depend on the labour of others as George Eliot freely points out in her letter: she’s just not interested in it. She may delight in the “splendid reclining chair” given her by her “magnificent friend” and in the “prettiness of colouring and arrangement” but it would have been neither the friend nor Jones who made the chair or the coloured items, the carpets, the tables, or indeed set their prices. Then there are things she doesn’t mention at all, including the paper and ink she was using to write on, the fire that no doubt burned to keep the party-goers warm, the food that was served, the plumbing arrangements.
A couple of years later, Eliot would publish (anonymously) a short essay excoriating the ineluctable stupidity of servants, “Servants Logic,” in the Pall Mall Gazette.
Exactly: Eliot freely admits in her letter to Mrs Congreve that she is happy to delegate to others so that her soul has the time to explore “wider thoughts and cares”. Entirely empty of that sympathy for which her novels are so justly famed, Eliot’s Pall Mall Gazette essay urges a hierarchy whereby servant classes take care of the crass and dull materiality of the world while the classes who employ them exclusively have the right to determine their labour through their own unshared powers of reason. Crucially, the essay operates as if the readers of the Pall Mall Gazette, a newspaper “written by gentlemen for gentlemen,” alone have the right to discourse that is worth listening to. This is precisely what we see in Debbie Canavan’s post about work in the British Workwoman: servants have to obey their superiors silently without questioning. This is far indeed from the sympathy that Eliot’s novels are still famed for promulgating, or the radicalism which is less often claimed for her (Evan Horowitz’s “ George Eliot: The Conservative” in Source: Victorian Studies, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Autumn, 2006), pp. 7-32 shows quite how difficult it is to class Eliot as a political radical in a meaningful way).
Which brings me at last to the point of this blog post, which is to question our continued hierarchisation of texts, the silencing of most and our listening to a very few. The discipline of English Literature still, over 150 years after “Servants Logic”, tends to valorise reading (or performance) that, like “Comte and Euripides and Latin Christianity,” asserts thought over action in the material world like fitting carpets, making chairs, tables, curtains, chimneys – or plumbing and writing the legal contracts of house purchase (neither of which Eliot, discretely, mentions).
The question is, how long can we continue to do this in in a society that – up to this point at least – has come to prioritise education in terms of value for money? As John Morton points out in a post elsewhere on this site, this basically means that disciplines are valued by how well they prepare students for well-paid jobs afterwards. So what does “English Literature” do in terms of the labour market?
For students English Literature trains the reader either for positions in the non-manual labour market (mainly communication), or – as viewed by many outside the discipline – for the luxury of leisure. Many critics will deny that of course – including critics of Eliot who promote her work as encouraging us to think through the moral choices of our actions (and I include myself amongst them). That is certainly something many of us do when teaching, whether we treat texts in class as examples of “how to communicate effectively” (often “this is a Great Text”) or “how to think morally” ( “this text is useful to explore our attitudes towards ecology, “race”, gender, sexuality, class, animals, history…”). This is the case whether we teach popular or elite texts, Daniel Deronda or “The Great God Pan”, Aurora Leigh or Aurora Floyd, Oliver Twist or The Corsican Brothers. Sometimes we teach texts to explore how society works in a combination of fiction and sociology that echoes Zola’s intentions with the roman experimental (though usually at a considerable distance and filtered through Bourdieu, Foucault or others).
Reading the works consecrated by the literary canon is useful, we say, fully aware that this is a justification for what we do since at least Horace’s formulation of poetry’s nature as both “dulce et utile” (Ars Poetica) – “pleasurable and useful” – around 19BC. And yet, most of us know too, even if we don’t admit it, that the dulce comes first – we really read for pleasure, and above all (though this few of us admit) the pleasure that comes from confirming our social positions: if not “Comte and Euripides and Latin Christianity,” then George Eliot and Dickens and Oscar Wilde. “Employability” in this latter understanding is rather vulgar, a notion useful only for those students who do not already have the cultural, social and financial capital to secure “graduate-level” jobs without us. Our pleasure confirms or consolidates the social position and economic possibilities of such advantaged students: we do not, in this understanding, really (want to) think through what really might be useful to disadvantaged students.
With awareness of such socially conservative practices constantly at the back of my mind, I have argued for all of my academic career that we need a more sustained and rigorous look at texts beyond the quite narrow canon of nineteenth-century texts. As a child of the provincial petite bourgeoisie, much as I have been trained by decades of education to adopt high-culture parentage and in many ways want to, I also remain conscious that grand portraits of the Great don’t hang quite straight on my walls. Instead, I have urged serious engagement with mass market, “popular,” reading and how it keeps rising up to the surface of the present to feed us today – not just corralled in neo-Victorian fiction but in indirect narrative strategies, points of view, morals, references (cf. Jay Clayton’s “The Future of Victorian literature” in The Cambridge History of Victorian Literature, ed. Kate Flint, CUP, 2012, pp. 712-729).
But then I came to realise that such reading reproduced “Literature”‘s emphasis on leisure reading (with various kinds of fiction at its core) and on the mental, extending it to be sure, but not disrupting it. Such texts may be indirectly conative by arguing for a particular vision of what society should be (or not be), but they did not give us a series of actions to perform.
Yes, we have looked critically for a long time at political and economic non-fiction like Paine and Wollstonecraft, Marx and Bodichon, Spencer and Galton, and more recently we have looked at texts aimed to effect changes in the practices of some of the professional classes like medicine and science – the thinking classes, the intellectual ancestors of academia – but such studies still leave many others, indeed the vast majority of texts, invisible and unmapped. We need to examine those and trace the hidden threads of affiliation that extend down to us. I have sought to do this already by getting contemporary artists to explore issues of labour and class today with their Victorian counterparts, and indeed asking students to do the same.
In turning to the trade press especially, I am extending what I called when exploring Victorian penny weeklies in the 1990s, “that great mass that is both central and silenced, the occluded norms?” What stories did that mass tell – or, rather, what stories can we hear from them? And then, if we know about them, how might they reframe our thinking about canonical texts? How might they renew our own attitudes to work and leisure and where they come from? What is certain is that the trade press contributed hugely to a sense of identity based on occupation that was no longer tied to guilds or apprenticeships to particular masters. They enabled occupations to escape – to varying degrees – geographical boundaries. They created a sense of community by setting a shared agenda and set of norms based on what people did in the material world, not just on what words they shared.
What we have tended not to do is look at the vast corpora of nineteenth-century texts that were avowedly intended to be useful first and pleasurable second. I’m not talking texts like Owen Jones’s “design classic” The Grammar of Ornament ‑ which, reproduced by prestigious publishing houses today, constitute the canonical in their own fields – but those everyday, ordinary items that corresponded to the penny popular periodicals I’d previously studied but in the field of work, periodicals that were intended to lead to direct and material action, the trade and periodical press. This precisely what George Eliot rejected: the making and placing of chairs and tables (Furniture Gazette, founded in 1872), chimneys and plumbing (Sanitary Reporter, 1863; Builder’s Weekly Reporter, 1856), food (Bakers Record, 1864; Grocers’ Journal, 1862) and drink (Wine and Spirit Trade Circular, 1848), writing paper and ink (Stationer, Printer, and Fancy Trades Register, 1859), the employment of music masters (Musical Times, 1844), or curtains and “grey moiré antique” (Draper’s Weekly News, 1862; Minister’s Gazette of Fashion, 1846).
We know a great deal more now about Victorian popular fiction than we did in the 1990s – there is now a whole learned society devoted to it – but as far as the trade and professional press is concerned, we are still largely in the dark. Few have been digitised, not least because we just don’t know what there is. In the 1990s I made a database of the complete contents of a single periodical, the London Journal, before I fully felt confident writing about it. I was very dissatisfied with previous work on the penny press as I found huge generalisations had been made on the basis of what appeared a random sampling. That to me risked specious reasoning, especially when conclusions were drawn that reinforced what we thought we already knew.
The same I found with the trade and professional press when I started to research it, though I was now no longer looking at a single periodical but at an entire field. Yes, there were detailed histories of a few individual periodicals – though more often there were histories of employment sectors that raided the relevant periodicals rather naively for information without questioning the narrative conventions of those periodicals – but otherwise there were only impressionistic (and sometimes, clearly hasty) accounts of the trade press especially. It was obvious that no-one cared about the materiality of the Grocer (1862) when there was thinking to do through already pleasurably sanctified texts, or paid work in writing histories of professional organisations. What we needed before we could begin to reconsider what narratives the trade and professional press could tell was a database that listed them, that showed the curves of their development in relation to one another.
Of course I’m not claiming to be altogether new in suggesting we direct our attention to texts and thereby to people excluded from history, not even in the trade press. Harold Biffen in Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) wrote Mr Bailey the Grocer, though his attempt to introduce lower-middle-class commercial ordinariness, void of the glamour of fashionable radicalism or scandal, into art literature didn’t do him any good at all: it attracted little notice and Biffen slid out of existence shortly afterwards. Now critics of the novel happily excoriate the state of the Victorian market that permitted that, but the market conditions we ourselves operate within likewise determine that some texts are read more than others. How did that come about? Many of us remember alternatives, and that helps, but will those who follow us? But then, we are the lucky ones: we have the tools at our disposal to research and tell that history.
Ours are not of course the only trades and professions. Maybe we need to think of others whose training inclines them less to trace the sedimented layers of discourse that make the terrain they operate on. What can a study of Victorian trade and professional periodicals tell us about how the current norms and hierarchies of those occupations arose? That is not such a question so distant from us, either, for like George Eliot we are enmeshed in a world of material and material practices, chairs and carpets and music and ink. What might such a study reveal about what we expect in shops, entertainment, in our homes and at work?
Are we then to allow a new mapping of Victorian trade and professional press to be defined as a topic of interest only to a handful of book historians that no “English Literature” scholar will or should be interested in?
Perhaps, but the very fact of bringing this vast field to our attention and mapping it with careful attention to methodological detail – with as much thought as one might bring to sanctified literature – is a polemical act that may help us escape the puddle of the canon, however filled with delightful flowers it is, and alert us to the existence and location of deep water we never knew existed, and where and how we may swim in it.
This is the logic of a servant who risks questioning the motives of, and asking explanation for, the master and mistress’s “mild yet firm authority that certain things be done”. Yes they can be done, but there are useful alternatives too.