‘The Labour of Our Body and the Work of Our Hands’: Working-Class Women Intellectuals of Victorian England

1.Shantanu Majee is currently pursuing his PhD on ‘Intellectual Labour and Victorian Women’ at the Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. He has published on the works of Mrs. Margaret Oliphant, whose writings comprised the subject of his M.Phil thesis.

“This book addresses a question which, until recently, was considered unanswerable. It proposes to enter the minds of ordinary readers in history, to discover what they read and how they read it. It is relatively easy to recover the reading experiences of professional intellectuals: authors, literary critics, professors, and clergymen extensively documented their responses to books. But what record do we have of “common readers,” such as freed men after the American Civil War, or immigrants in Australia, or the British working classes?”[1]

Jonathan Rose in his path-breaking thesis entitled The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes rescued the discipline of intellectual history from alleged criticism regarding elitism. Tracing the circuits that the conversations of great minds might travel beyond the boundaries of their select circles, Rose’s discovery associates intellectual practices with the material culture of the masses. Delving deep into the history of reading and authorship, he unearths the ‘middlebrow’ society of plebeian readers.


It is not surprising, then, that a researcher on Intellectual Labour and Victorian Women would begin with a mention of Rose’s scholarship for the circle remains incomplete without a mention of the intellectual life of the Victorian Working Class Women. As Anna Orel’s work elucidates on 33 lexical units representing Working Women in Victorian Novels,[2] highlighting major areas of involvement such as household service, education, trade and industry, entrepreneurship or art, Victorian proletarian women have suffered gross under-representation, until recent years. The historiography of women’s work in British Censuses too did not seek true representation for census-taking in the Victorian age was a predominantly male affair.

Eventually, interest in working-class writing experienced a surge with the publication of Prof. David Vincent’s thesis entitled Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Working-Class Autobiography.[3] Vincent’s title draws its inspiration from the well-known Chartist autobiography, The Life and Struggles of William Lovett in His Pursuit of Bread, Knowledge and Freedom.[4] The world would have been ignorant of the formative history of the London Working Men’s Association if William Lovett’s account was not revisited by Vincent and his colleagues. Such responses that workers produced, when asked to record their lives, were brought within the purview of cultural criticism when Vincent and his colleagues went on to compile The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated Critical Bibliography, 1790 – 1900.[5] Predictably though, the obvious under-representation, as Regenia Gagner would remind us, existed in terms of gender for only one-tenth of the autobiographies compiled were written by women.[6]

Significant exceptions to this absence were two compilations of life-writings, entitled Maternity: Letters from Working-Women[7] and Life as We Have Known It.[8] Later Professor Jane Rendall, Honorary Fellow of the History Department of the University of York, extended the margins with the publication of Equal or Different: Women’s Politics, 1800-1914[9] first, followed by Women in an Industrializing Society: England 1750-1800.[10] Jane Rendall has also uncovered fifteen more examples of women’s memoirs in ‘“A Short Account of My Unprofitable Life”: Autobiographies of Working-Class Women in Britain c. 1775–1845’,[11] along with her analysis. The latest contribution, though, has been that of Florence Saunders Boos,[12] who have been able to identify a significant body of life-narratives by working-class women and relates them with the educational barriers that the autobiographers had to face before and after the publication of the Education Act of 1870.[13]



If we are to look at the intellectual ideology which prompted the working-class to lay out their lived experiences in representative texts, then it will be of value and importance to revisit the initiatives taken by David Vincent and his colleagues in compiling such cultural exhibits. In a review of Vincent’s publication, it appears to be most evident that every social formation subscribes to its attested mode of education which may include vestiges of older forms as well as anticipatory tendencies which are potentially inconsistent with the existing system.

He devotes a chapter to the attempt by the middle-class Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge to persuade workers that knowledge existed outside the capitalist system, ignoring the fact that the logic of capitalism denied a community of letters which transcended class. It was during this period, indeed, that the tradition of education by class took firm root in England, as the old grammar schools which once provided some workers, at least, a measure of educational equality became the exclusive preserve of the middle class. The autobiographers in the main rejected attempts by the middle class to impose a curriculum on them from above. Their accounts reveal the degree to which workers took charge of their own education.[14]

Such traditions made their indelible presence felt in the memoirs of Victorian working-class women. Whereas autobiographies of nineteenth century middle-class women drew on many genres of life-writing, across biography, diary, family history, domestic memoir, Bildungsroman, Künstlerroman, and more, working-class women rejected canonical formal patterning to focus on the unpredictable sequence of events which mirrored the randomness of their own lives.[15]

Such working-class writers were by no means dominated by the bourgeois form of autobiography, but they could not save themselves from its influence. Some would openly reject bourgeois individualism, though others accepted it and represented themselves as weak subjects. In either case, they were collectively successful to distant away from fictional representation of the working class as it was disturbingly untrue to the experience of the community. The literary representation of the working-class women in fiction has been chiefly constrained by narrative orthodoxies designed to accommodate the dominant culture. In addition to this, it perpetually ran into the risk of depicting a social class as a monolithic structure voicing unanimous will. The working-class memoirs, on the other hand, are constitutively fragmented and fissured on one plane by gradations of class and divided on an intersecting plane into interest groups, like the Women’s Co-operative Guild, that may or may not acknowledge class gradations, to such an extent that the class identity diffuses into an idea of a conglomerate. The members of this conglomerate may not act in common but may still share certain characteristics and goals which lead them to endorse certain common values.[16] Hence, the rejection of literary representation in fiction by the women of the working class may be analysed as an act of resistance against the symbolic violence inflicted by those who boast of high cultural capital.


In relegating fiction to the realm of applied art, the memoirs of working-class women refuse to conform to the dominating aesthetic preferences of the time. Also, in doing so, as a social group, they end up holding their allegiance to their own particular specialised category of intellectuals. Such leaders would often define the issue of subjectivity in the life of these working-class women through an understanding of material conditions, where workers are not ‘heads’ but ‘hands’, not homo cogitans, the thinking individual, but homo laborans, the working individual. This idea is further problematised by differentiating labour from work. Whereas labour constitutes practices necessary for maintenance of physical life, work, on the other hand, does not lead to an object for consumption. Nevertheless, as the working-class intellectual may qualify to the arendtian category of homo faber, who is the judge of material labour and practices,[17] let us not be ignorant of the truth that working-class women too, much like their more comfortably suited sisters from the middle class, thought of themselves in terms of a relational sense of self. Though it will be inadequate to read working-class narratives through the middle-class ideas of morality and identity, gender issues, however, may go far beyond the bourgeois – working-class divide.


[1] Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. London: Yale University Press, 2010. p. 1.

[2] Orel, Anna. ‘Lexical Units Representing Working Women in Victorian Novels’ in Advanced Education 12. Ukraine: National Technical University, 2019. pp. 174–180.

[3] Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Working Class Autobiography. London: Methuen, 1982.

[4] Lovett, William. The Life and Struggles of William Lovett in His Pursuit of Bread, Knowledge and Freedom. London: Trübner & Co., 1876.

[5] Burnett, John, David Mayall and David Vincent. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated Critical Bibliography, 1790 – 1900. Brighton: Harvester, 1984.

[6] Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’ in Victorian Studies, Vol. 30, no. 3. 1987. pp. 335–363.

[7] Women’s Co-operative Guild. Maternity: Letters from Working-Women. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1915.

[8] Davies, Margaret Llewelyn (ed.). Life as We Have Known It: By Co-operative Working Women. London: Hogarth Press, 1931.

[9] Rendall, Jane (ed.). Equal or Different: Women’s Politics, 1800-1914. London: Blackwell, 1987.

[10] Rendall, Penny and Jane Rendall. Women in an Industrializing Society: England 1750-1800. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1990.

[11] Rendall, Jane. ‘“A Short Account of My Unprofitable Life”: Autobiographies of Working Class Women in Britain c. 1775–1845’ in Women’s Lives/Women’s Times: New Essays on Auto/Biography. Albany: SUNY Press, 1997. pp. 31-65.

[12] Boos, Florence S. Memoirs of Victorian Working-Class Women: The Hard Way Up. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

[13] The Education Act of 1870, acknowledged and codified for the first time the Crown’s responsibility for elementary education. Commonly known as ‘Forster’s Education Act’, it set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 12 in England and Wales.

[14] Meacham, Standish. The Journal of Modern History. Vol. 56, no. 4. 1984. pp. 721–723. p. 722.

[15] See Sanders, Valerie. The Private Lives of Victorian Women: Autobiography in NineteenthCentury England. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989. Also, Peterson, Linda. Traditions of Victorian Women’s Autobiography. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999.

[16] For further discussion see, Young, Arlene. Culture, Class and Gender in the Victorian Novel: Gentlemen, Gents and Working Women. London: Macmillan, 1999.

[17] See Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. London: The University of Chicago Press, 1958.