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 of Eliot’s house tell us several things, but, 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. They are a “puddle” whereas she prefers the “sea” of Comte, Euripides and Latin Christianity. She may later come to delight both in the “splendid reclining chair” given her by her “magnificent friend” and in the “prettiness of colouring and arrangement,” but who made the chair and the coloured items, the carpets, the tables, and, indeed, set their prices are very much part of the puddle. 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: all the work of servants, tradespeople and manual labourers.
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 had already admitted in her letter to the wealthy Mrs Congreve that she was happy to delegate to others so that her soul had the time to explore “wider thoughts and cares.” That is, she was putting herself on a level with Mrs Congreve by repudiating physical work. Entirely empty of that sympathy for which her novels are so justly famed, Eliot’s Pall Mall Gazette essay likewise urges a hierarchy whereby servant classes take care of the crass and dull materiality of the world while the classes who employ them have the exclusive right to determine their labour through their own unshared powers of reason: negotiation and conversation are not part of the deal. 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 had to obey their superiors silently without questioning them. 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 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).
This brings me at last to the point of this post, which is to question our continued hierarchisation of texts, the silencing of most and our dialogues with a very few. The discipline of English Literature still, over 150 years after “Servants Logic”, tends to valorise reading (or performance) that, like Eliot’s preference for “Comte and Euripides and Latin Christianity,” asserts thought over actions 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, discreetly, mentions). It valorises leisure over work, even while contributing to the leisure industry by setting fiction on syllabuses and highlighting its importance by enthusiastically writing non-fiction about it.
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, it is a system in which disciplines are valued by how well they prepare students for well-paid jobs afterwards. So what can the mental work of “English Literature” offer in terms of the labour market?
We might conclude that English Literature trains the student either for positions in the non-manual labour market (mainly communication), or – as viewed by many outside the discipline – for the luxury of non-essential leisure. Many critics will deny that of course – including critics of Eliot who promote her work as special because they encourage us to think through the moral choices of our actions and developing empathy (and I include myself amongst them). That is certainly something many of us do when teaching not just Eliot but any literature, whether we treat texts in class as examples of “how to communicate effectively” (often “this is a Great Text”) or “how to think ethically” (“this text is useful to explore our attitudes towards ecology, “race”, gender, sexuality, class, animals, history…” or “what would you have done in, say, Hetty Sorrel’s position?”). 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, Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, or others more recent).
Reading the works consecrated by the literary canon is useful, we say, fully aware that this has been a justification for literature 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 included in that (though few of us admit it) is 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 sometimes regarded as rather vulgar, a notion useful only for those students who do not already have the cultural, social and financial capitals to secure “graduate-level” jobs without us. Like Eliot’s affirmation of the mental over the material, 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 the practicalities of what might be useful to disadvantaged students after they leave us.
With such socially conservative practices (however disguised by the language of radicalism) 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 writings that keep being set on syllabuses, read and published on. 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 crooked 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 or poetry 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 looking at popular fiction reproduced “Literature”’s defining emphasis on leisure reading (which has various kinds of fiction at its core) and on the mental: it extends it to be sure, but does not disrupt it. Leisure texts may be read as indirectly conative by arguing for a particular vision of what society should be (or not be), but they do not give us a concrete series of actions to perform – they don’t often offer clear instructions about how to make a chair or a house, put food on the table, draw up a legal document of house purchase, or clean a new carpet suffering from accidents. Even Amy Levy’s now well-known Romance of a Shop (1888) doesn’t tell readers how to run a photographic studio.
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 that 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 other texts, indeed the vast majority, 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 with this website and through associated activities such as getting contemporary artists to explore issues of labour and class today that counterpoint statements both visual and verbal from the Victorian press on BLT19, and asking students to think creatively about that material too in short stories, blogs, commentaries and annotated editions.
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 this extension of the “great mass” tell – or, rather, what stories can we hear from it? Perhaps, if we know about a previously ignored set of “occluded norms,” that set might reframe our thinking about canonical texts and why we have chosen to halo them with an auratic, “Literary,” nimbus and refused the same to others. How might these norms, unheard but still resonating in our thoughts about work and our actions at it, renew our attitudes to work and leisure and our relationship to where our conceptualisations of them come from?
What is certain is that the trade press contributed (and still contributes) hugely to a sense of identity based on occupation no longer tied to guilds or to apprenticeships to particular masters. The trade press enabled occupations to escape – to varying degrees across the nineteenth century – geographical and social boundaries. It created a sense of community by setting a shared agenda and establishing a set of norms based on what people did in the material world, not just on what words they repeated – for identity is not only discursive but involves sets of repeated material practices too.
In short, what we have tended not to do is attend to the vast corpora of nineteenth-century texts that were avowedly intended to be useful first and pleasurable second, active in and effective on the immediately material world. 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 in the field of work that corresponded to the penny popular periodicals I’d previously studied, periodicals that were intended to lead to corporeal action on the material world: the trade and professional press. This is what George Eliot would certainly have rejected as the mud in the “puddle”: 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 felt confident enough to write 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 and a dependence on secondary sources that meant simple repetition of commonplaces. 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, especially of the trade press. It was obvious that no-one cared about their bibliographic details or contents. What I found we needed before we could begin to reconsider what narratives the trade and professional press could tell, therefore, 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 trade. I certainly have ancestors in the nineteenth century in this regard. Harold Biffen in Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) wrote Mr Bailey the Grocer, though his attempt to introduce “an absolute realism of the ignobly decent” (Gissing, ed. John Goode, 1993, p. 144), whose naturalism out-Zola’d Zola, was not greeted with much éclat: Gissing well knew how the literary market worked and so, he had Mr Bailey the Grocer attract little and mainly negative notice despite the efforts of Biffen’s journalist acquaintance Jasper Milvain:
‘Mr Biffen … seems not to understand that a work of art must before everything else afford amusement.’ ‘A pretentious book of the genre ennuyant,’ was the brief comment of a Society journal. A weekly of high standing began its short notice in a rage: ‘Here is another of those intolerable productions for which we are indebted to the spirit of grovelling realism. This author, let it be said, is never offensive, but then one must go on to describe his work by a succession of negatives; it is never interesting, never profitable, never — ‘ and the rest.George Gissing, New Grub Street, ed. John Goode, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 485
Biffen quietly commits suicide shortly after.
Today’s norm is for critics and historians of the novel happily to excoriate the state of the Victorian market that permitted failures such as Biffen’s, but the market conditions we ourselves operate within and promote likewise still determine that some texts are read more than others. Publishers like standard syllabuses because they reduce the risks that every investment in publication brings; we like them because they give us manageable limits.
Yet both epistemologically and ethically we must ensure that we don’t follow George Eliot in thinking and acting as though ours are the only trades and professions that matter, that all else, including the material conditions that enable our writing, is but puddle. That is why we must not 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. The very act 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 a puddle which thinks itself a sea, 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, those certain things can be done and are, but there are alternatives too.