Acts of distinction: Victorian servants and constructions of British middle -class subjectivity

Jennifer Liethen Kunka, Purdue University


This study contributes to scholarship on British literature and socioeconomic conditions by exploring the shifting modes by which Victorian writers represented the “servant problem” in tandem with the changing social and historical conditions that impacted the rise and eventual decline of the Victorian servant class. Using cultural, New Historicist, and feminist theoretical models, including those of Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault, I explore the influences that shape Victorian fictional servants in several works, including the Mayhew Brothers' The Greatest Plague of Life, Charles Dickens' Bleak House, Wilkie Collins' No Name, Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret and Aurora Floyd, Thomas Hardy's The Hand of Ethelberta, and George Moore's Esther Waters, and examine these representations amid competing images in non-fiction works such as Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management , and the Cornhill Magazine's 1874 servant debates. I trace the development of servant characters in the context of middle-class Victorian anxieties regarding the potential class ascension and revolution of their domestic servants, analyzing how the development of these representations shaped, and were shaped by, the literary market and the evolving definition of middle-class subjectivity. ^ In this project, I also examine the resultant critique and reconstitution of the master-servant narrative in neo-Victorian works, including novels such as John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, A. S. Byatt's Morpho Eugenia, and Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, as well as John Madden's 1997 film, Mrs. Brown. While Victorian writers often posited exaggerated depictions of servants that reflected shifting attitudes and fears of the dominant classes, I argue that the postmodern writers of historiographic metafiction expose and investigate the prejudices and anxieties that contribute to the characterizations of domestic servants in Victorian texts. In exposing the parameters of Victorian middle-class subjectivity, contemporary writers utilize the historically absent figure of the Victorian servant as a rhetorical medium through which an evolving definition of postmodern subjectivity can be articulated and explored. ^




Major Professor: William J. Palmer, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Literature, English

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