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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2018

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Keywords for Victorian Literature and Culture
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

If any word is central to the Victorian frame of mind, it is work. After all, Carlyle's gospel of work, what Walter Houghton rightly frames more broadly as the Victorian “religion of work,” permeates the era.Footnote 1 If Victorianists have come to think differently about work in the twenty-first century, this shift reflects changes in the social, political, and economic positions of Victorianists as such. Scholarship in late capitalism exists within a world that has denatured work's Carlylean delineation as useful and masculine physical and intellectual activity and revealed it to include manifold ways of doing gendered, managerial, clerical, domestic, and, perhaps above all, emotional labor. Victorianists are likely to feel closer to the digging navvies, the dingy plantseller, and the female pamphleteer in Ford Madox Brown's painting than to the idly posed Carlyle and Maurice, able to watch and theorize work at a safe remove.Footnote 2

The naked political economic turn of the twenty-first century forces Victorianists to confront in new and stark forms the ways in which work enacts power relations, how disparate discourses and practices articulate the demand to work, and the ways in which workers are not merely shaped by this demand but may, through their resistances, reshape the particularities of those demands. Such an alteration brings to the fore the ways in which contemporary political economic conditions echo Victorian asymmetries.Footnote 3 The postindustrial turn of the late twentieth century witnessed the collapse of manufacturing jobs, the rise of finance, and the proletarianization of professional work, shifts that resonate with the nineteenth-century rise of the invisible industries, expansion of the service sector around the urban core, and expansion of clerical labor in the century's final decades.Footnote 4 The so-called feminization of labor in the twenty-first century echoes the same kind of fears that animated reactions to the New Woman and fears of instrumentalized social relations.Footnote 5 One needn't press far into economic histories to infer the ways in which technological disruptions similarly connect the past and present. The constant threat of machine automation that nineteenth-century workers confronted now confronts all forms of work, including service workers, intellectual work, and even artistic production, and raises fundamental existential questions about our social, political, and economic structures.Footnote 6 To confront these resonances of economic precarity in the present is to reevaluate their effects in the past, to feel the ways in which economic insecurity shot through even the so-called age of equipoise.

Yet for transhistorical research, the crucial differences that questions of work raise are as much political as economic, from the weak responses of reform-minded liberals across the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries to the radically different histories of the successes and failures of labor organizing, mass action, and responses to imperial war. Questions about work's organizational forms, then, become increasingly important as they uncover how coalitions may come into being (or not), and how they may operate (or fail to do so). Research about the role of work can uncover cultural and social fracture lines through which pressures may operate within and upon the work-relation, or within and upon relations implicated in but outside the wage, most especially reproductive work and the position of dependents. To rethink work for the Victorian era is thus to rethink the ways in which race and gender articulate class relations, and to bring forward both reactionary responses as well as the persistent but varied resistances made to the demand to work.Footnote 7



1. Houghton, Walter, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830–1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 251Google Scholar.

2. On masculinity and work, see Barringer, Tim, Men at Work: Art and Labor in Victorian Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005)Google Scholar; Sussman, Herbert, Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics in Early Victorian Literature and Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)Google Scholar; and Adams, James Eli, Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995)Google Scholar.

3. See especially V21-inspired transhistorical work such as Kornbluh, Anna, Realizing Capital: Financial and Psychic Economies in Victorian Form (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014)Google Scholar; and Hensley, Nathan K., Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)Google Scholar.

4. On gentlemanly capitalism and invisible industries, see Cain, P. J. and Hopkins, A. G., British Imperialism (London: Routledge, 2002), 135–50Google Scholar, and Darwin, John, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System 1830–1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 2363CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the rise of services around the urban core, see Lee, C. H., “Regional Growth and Structural Change in Victorian Britain,” Economic History Review 34, no. 3 (1981): 438–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On clerical labor, see Anderson, Gregory, Victorian Clerks (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1976)Google Scholar; Lockwood, David, The Blackcoated Worker: A Case Study in Class Consciousness, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989)Google Scholar; Wild, Jonathan, The Rise of the Office Clerk in Literary Culture, 1880–1939 (New York: Palgrave, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the experiences of work in literature, see Gooch, Joshua, The Victorian Novel, Service Work, and the Nineteenth-Century Economy (New York: Palgrave, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ruth, Jennifer, Novel Professions: Interested Disinterest and the Making of the Professional in the Victorian Novel (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006)Google Scholar; Lesjak, Carolyn, Working Fictions: A Genealogy of the Victorian Novel (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007)Google Scholar; Colón, Susan E., The Professional Ideal in the Victorian Novel (New York: Palgrave, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Goodlad, Lauren M. E., Victorian Literature and the Victorian State: Character and Governance in a Liberal Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003)Google Scholar; Anderson, Amanda, The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2001)Google Scholar; Poovey, Mary, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5. On the feminization of labor in the twenty-first century, see Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio, Commonwealth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 132–36Google Scholar. On work and women in the Victorian era, see Holloway, Gerry, Women and Work in Britain Since 1840 (London: Routledge, 2005)Google Scholar; Gleadle, Kathryn, British Women in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Palgrave, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Walby, Sylvia, Patriarchy at Work: Patriarchal Capitalist Relations in Employment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)Google Scholar.

6. See Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1966)Google Scholar, and Greenfield, Adam, Radical Technologies (London: Verso, 2017)Google Scholar.

7. See Virdee, Satnam, Race, Class, and the Racialized Outsider (New York: Palgrave, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.