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The Labors of Modernism
by Mary Wilson

Reviewed by Jacob Harris


Published:

Published by Ashgate, 2013   |   176 pages

The transition between the First and Second parts of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is neatly marked by a change of place: Emma Bovary and her husband Charles leave the Norman village of Tostes for the larger town of Yonville, where Emma begins the descent into debt and debauchery that so scandalized 19th-century readers. And along with a change of place comes a change of domestic staff. Achingly frustrated with the limitations of provincial life, Emma fires her husband’s beloved old maid and hires a girl of fourteen to manage her new home—proceeding then to teach her all the ropes of upper-class domestic service. Seeking to make a “lady’s-maid” for herself, Emma instructs young Félicité to “address [her mistress] in the third person, to bring a glass of water on a plate, to knock before coming into a room, to iron and starch,” even to dress her mistress in the mornings.

Alongside Flaubert’s text, a host of Victorian novels similarly feature servants in the quiet backgrounds of their domestic interiors. The various cooks, maids, and gardeners that fill the pages of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South are, like Félicité, instrumental figures at best, generally beneath the dignity of full characterization. Seen but rarely heard, the ubiquity of servants in the 19th-century novel mirrors the ubiquity of servants in 19th-century bourgeois life: in what Pamela Horn has called the “servant heyday” of Victorian England, the employment of domestic staff was a sign of middle-class respectability, practically de rigeur. And given that the duties of household maintenance traditionally belonged to women, the booming of the servant heyday saw new managerial powers come into the hands of the bourgeois lady-of-the-house. The aforementioned scene from Madame Bovary serves as evidence that similar conditions prevailed in continental Europe as well.

To contemporary readers, the bustling of servants in the interior of the bourgeois home provides a sense of period and quaintness. Indeed, Horn has examined the demise of the 19th-century order in her 1977 book, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant.Domestic laborers seem decidedly out of place in modernity, with its social and technological transformations of middle-class home life—and, accordingly, in the literary works of high modernism. When, for example, Woolf sought to illustrate the change in human character that she so famously dated “on or about 1910,” she strikingly offered a sketch of two different kinds of domestic cook:

The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunlight and fresh air; in and out of the drawing-room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat. Do you ask for more powerful insistences of the power of the human race to change?

While it is true that the Victorian servant seems to have died away at the turn of the 20th century, the Georgian servant, that strange figure of modernity and change who walks carefree across the threshold that separates the workspace of the kitchen from the social space of the drawing room—arose to take its Victorian predecessor’s place. On closer examination, one finds that modernist literature is actually full of servants: gardeners and cooks can be found in abundance in Woolf’s own fiction, but also in Gertrude Stein’s experimental prose portraits of her servants in Three Lives (1909), in Nella Larsen’s novel Passing (1929), and in the depiction of the assertive maid Christophine in Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).

In The Labors of Modernism, Wilson examines the portrayal of domestic servants in English modernist literature. By engaging with the apparent anachronicity of the 20th century domestic laborer, Wilson interrogates the place of servant in modernity, as well as a peculiar aversion of the topic amongst academics today. Given that the presence of servants introduced questions of cross-class interaction, and of a blurring of boundaries between work and leisure, and between the public and the private, Wilson insists on the importance of depictions of domestic life to modernist social and political critique. And, given that the management of her servants allowed the bourgeois woman a certain measure of power at the turn of the century, The Labors of Modernism examines the tensions and negotiations between a nascent modern feminism, and the perpetuation of a certain class and labor-structure that seemed necessary for the very ability of women writers to write.

Dedicating one chapter to each of the four aforementioned modernist authors, Wilson argues specifically that the role of servant, though understated, is nonetheless crucial to how their respective texts understand modernity’s transformations of domestic life and its shifting distinctions between the familiar and the other. Where Woolf traces the advent of modernity by comparing two types of servant, for example, Stein’s Three Lives uses the foreign-born maid (typically German in turn-of-the-century America) to explore questions of nationality, proximity, and othering. Furthermore, Larsen’s Passing complicates its examination of race through the figure of Zulena, an African-American maid who works in the home of Brian and Irene Redfield—the latter of which lives the dangerous life of a mixed-race woman who passes for white in 1920s New York. And Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, itself a response to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, places a powerful Martinican maid in the home of its white Creole protagonist—two foreigners in colonial Jamaica.

As Wilson notes, the servant is always foreign to her or his employers’ home; and yet, to maintain the dignity of its inhabitants, the bourgeois home cannot help but hire domestic help. One of the questions that guides The Labors of Modernism is thus one of domestication, of the politics that follows from the structure of the household that depends on outsiders to maintain its integrity. Citing historical studies of domestic labor in 19th and 20th century Europe and the USA, Wilson identifies widespread anxieties among middle-class homeowners, worried about the potential effects on their children and their property that such intimate proximity with lower-class servants might have entailed. Furthermore, the popularity of the foreign-born servant led to a certain xenophobic suspicion with the rise of the First World War—especially in the case of the German maid so popular in early-20th-century American households. Wilson’s idea of of the domestic extends metaphorically beyond the confines of the middle-class household; indeed, the author is quick to alert us to the multivalences of home during the period: the term “home front” was first used by the British press in the later years of World War 1. While more contemporary discussions of “domestic policy” and “homeland security” similarly attest to the metaphorical continuities between the nation-state and the individual household.

The Labors of Modernism, throughout, is a meditation on the representation of labor in modernist domestic fiction, but it is also specifically an examination of the labor of writing itself. By considering the role that servants play in literary explorations of modern domesticity, Wilson seeks to examine the paradoxical conditions that grounded much modernist writing by women: the first decades of the 20th century saw considerable changes in social mobility and middle-class domesticity, affording privileged women unprecedented opportunities for engagement in literary and artistic work. And yet, many of these same women, who found themselves newly empowered as writers and artists, relied on servants to undertake domestic labor on their behalf. For one example, Wilson cites Nella Larsen’s avowed regret that so much of her time had been spent scrubbing floors at the expense of writing. Put in terms of Woolf’s best-known aphorism: if a woman requires money and a room of her own in order to writer fiction, it is presumably someone else’s work to keep the rest of the house tidy. To commit one’s time entirely to writing has always been a rare privilege—and much rarer still for women in the early 20th century.

The four authors that Wilson selects for her study thus share a certain attention to the metaphor of the threshold: at a time marked by radical changes to political and domestic life, the work of the servant was to carefully manage the boundaries that divided home-life from work-life, labor from leisure, the familiar from the strange. Indeed, one of the more striking claims that The Labors of Modernism makes is that modernist fiction, by dedicating itself to reconceiving notions of familiarity and otherness, undertakes the work of the domestic laborer by managing and redrawing the thresholds that mark gender, racial, and national differences. Insofar as Wilson sees the home as a space in which gender, racial, and class differences are reproduced and reinforced, the work of rethinking these differences in writing puts the modernist writer in the position of the domestic laborer.

Wilson adds an important layer of historical context to an otherwise largely literary study in her treatment of early 20th-century conduct-books for servants, along with guide-books written to instruct upper-class women in the management of their domestic help. Influential texts such as Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1862), for instance, are cited and read as part of the context of female autonomy emerging in the 20th century and grounded in the home—what Wilson calls the contemporary “discourse of domesticity” along and against which modernism flourished. It is perhaps this juxtaposition of modernist women’s fiction and the discourses of domestic labor that Wilson’s study is at its most challenging. In her chapter on Stein, for example, Wilson cites the timetable of an actual 1920s British housekeeper, written up by the lady of the house. The reader might observe some striking continuities between the crushing repetitiveness of the servant’s daily routine, and the concept of the “continuous present” in Stein’s work. But Wilson alerts us more specifically to the stylistic similarities between Stein’s writing and the chore list, the latter assuming the appearance of a poem:

6:30 A.M. Rise
Clean grate and lay fire in Dining Room. Sweep carpet and dust.
Clean grate and lay fire in Library. Sweep and dust.
Clean grate and lay fire in Billiard Room. Sweep and dust.
Polish staircase.
Clean grate and lay fire in Drawing Room. Polish floor.
Clean grate and lay fire in Morning Room.
Sweep and dust vestibule.
Sweep and dust Blue Staircase.
8 A.M. Breakfast in Servants’ Hall

One notices striking parallels when one reads the daily schedule of this housekeeper (at least for the first hour-and-a-half of it, noticeably deprived of breakfast) against Stein’s efforts to render language spatial and concrete through repetition. Along such lines, Wilson reveals important common ground between domestic and literary labor for 20th century women: if Stein takes up the job of establishing and managing a sense of space through the work of repetition, such work would seem analogous to that of the housekeeper. Both jobs, Wilson suggests, conform to the Hegelian concept of work as that which “forms and shapes the thing”—an observation that draws us, once again, into the fraught territory of the upper-middle-class home, of its masters and its servants.

This territory is a familiar one in The Labors of Modernism, even as the book strives to de-familiarize it. By taking seriously those servant-characters that criticism usually overlooks, Wilson opens the door to further and deeper engagements with modernism’s negotiations of domesticity, whether critical or complicit (and often both). The Labors of Modernism thus undertakes the work of claiming the centrality of domesticity to modernist conceptions of labor, gender, otherness, and of what it means to be at home in modernity.


Jacob Harris is a PhD student in English literature at the University of Chicago. His research interests include British and Irish modernism, the history of aesthetics, and the relationships between the arts in the 20th century. This is his first piece of published writing.

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