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What is a Woman to Do?

A Reader on Women, Work and Art, c. 1830-1890


Edited By Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi and Patricia Zakreski

This anthology contributes to a scholarly understanding of the aesthetics and economics of female artistic labour in the Victorian period. It maps out the evolution of the Woman Question in a number of areas, including the status and suitability of artistic professions for women, their engagement with new forms of work and their changing relationship to the public sphere. The wealth of material gathered here – from autobiographies, conduct manuals, diaries, periodical articles, prefaces and travelogues – traces the extensive debate on women’s art, feminism and economics from the 1830s to the 1890s.
Combining for the first time nineteenth-century criticism on literature and the visual arts, performance and craftsmanship, the selected material reveals the different ideological positions surrounding the transition of women from idleness to serious occupation. The distinctive primary sources explore the impact of artistic labour upon perceptions of feminine sensibility and aesthetics, the conflicting views of women towards the pragmatics of their own creative labour as they encompassed vocations, trades and professions, and the complex relationship between paid labour and female fame and notoriety.


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Introduction: Art and Economics for the Middle-Class Woman 1


1 in labour’ (i). Carolyn Lesjak has recently argued for the ‘inseparability’ of labour and pleasure when considering the novelistic representation of work. Arguing for their historical contingency, Lesjak criticises the way in which labour and pleasure are often divided in contemporary studies of the Victorian novel through the distinction between industrial and domestic fiction. As new forms of labour appeared, she claims, so did new types and understandings of pleasure. Admitting to their linkage can also help to point towards the interdependence of a number of gendered concepts of artistic labour – such as, paid/unpaid, productive/unproductive, amateur/ professional, necessary/vocational – all of which are explored through the four sections of this anthology. Women’s interest in creative occupations, whether in the art-industries, performance or the literary market-place, can be explained in terms of a double rejection: a reaction against the frustration of the domestic ideal, but also a rejection of the alienating forces of industrial capitalism. On the surface, the ideological divide between art and industry seems dif ficult to reconcile. Industrial work signifies mass production, the division of labour, and the alienated worker; in contrast, creative work bespeaks individual endeavour and personal discrimination. The division of labour and the social specializations industrialization involved created questions of what held people together in a commercial society organized around market relations. In opposition to the Marxist narrative of struggle, the feminine aesthetic of labour imagines an ideal of cooperation within competition, creativity applied to industrial reproduction, and pastimes that become professions: a creative labour...

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