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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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Section Three From Pastime to Profession 193


Section Three: From Pastime to Profession Introduction In an 1857 article on the employment of women, a writer for the North British Review argued that what was needed was ‘something plain- spoken and practical […] something not about woman’s genius, but woman’s work’ (292). While, as the previous section makes clear, the development of a feminine aesthetic and the notion of woman’s genius were indeed important for the transformation of woman from femme incomprise into an artistic labourer, practical concerns, such as money, education, status were equally formative. This third section consequently focuses on the specifics of women’s entrance as professionals into an expanding labour market. It traces the material conditions under which female amateurs expanded, in Margaret Oliphant’s words, their ‘limited orbit’ into female professions and handicrafts (qtd. in Robinson 199). The section opens with George Henry Lewes’s assertion that literature ‘should be a profession, just lucrative enough to furnish a decent subsist- ence to its members’ (285), which formulates the key relationship between aesthetics and economics. Moving away from the ideals of vocation, Lewes centres his ethic of professionalism on the idea of an independent wage according to which an author could support oneself by the proceeds of his/her work rather than the generosity of a patron or another source of income. For writers, the growth in the literary market-place in the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly in the periodical press, made Lewes’s ideal possible. In spite of his dismissal of female authorship as dabbling, literature, and...

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