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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.1 (2001) 190-228



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The Failures of the Romance: Boredom, Class, and Desire in George Gissing's The Odd Women and W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage

Lise Shapiro Sanders


I was sick of the starve and the stint and the grind of it all--sick to death of the whole grey life--and so I settled to have a royal time while the money lasted. All the things that I'd wanted--wanted horribly, and couldn't have--just because I was poor--pretty dresses, travel, amusement, politeness, consideration, and yes, I don't mind confessing it--admiration--they should be mine while the cash held out. I knew that I could buy them--every one--and I wasn't wrong.

--Cicely Hamilton, Diana of Dobson's

This passage, excerpted from Cicely Hamilton's 1908 feminist play, Diana of Dobson's, forms part of an impoverished shop assistant's confession to posing as a wealthy widow and spending an unexpected legacy of three hundred pounds to purchase the pleasures denied her in the context [End Page 190] of her everyday life. Formerly employed at Dobson's, a large drapery establishment characterized by "grind and squalor and tyranny and overwork" (38), Diana decides to exchange her financial resources for a month of leisure, at the end of which she faces a return to the detested experience of the shop. In Hamilton's formulation, shop life is structured by the monotony of repetition, imagined by Diana as her inevitable future: "I shall crawl round to similar establishments, cringing to be taken on at the same starvation salary--and then settle down in the same stuffy dormitory, with the same mean little rules to obey--I shall serve the same stream of intelligent customers--and bolt my dinner off the same tough meat in the same gloomy dining room with the same mustard-colored paper on the walls" (40).

The unremitting monotony of shop life, its dullness and drabness ("the whole grey life"), results in Diana's longing for an alternative atmosphere that would stimulate and invigorate rather than deaden her senses. Hamilton's depiction of the shop as a gray and drab existence structured through sameness and repetition transforms the scene of distribution and consumption from a glittering spectacle into a mundane environment drained of its attractions. Her critique of shop life spatializes and visualizes the banality of Diana's experience, producing an aesthetic version of the boredom produced by the culture of the shop or department store. 1 In this context, the stimulation provided by an escape from this stultifying experience is the only way to counter the monotony of the shopgirl's everyday life.

The contemporary conception of shop life as monotony resulted in part from the impoverished experience of time under the disciplinary conditions of shop labor. 2 Shopgirls, like factory hands, worked in an environment defined by repetition and routine and were expected to reproduce an attitude of deference and readiness upon each encounter with a new customer. The department store's culture of industrial display labor, in which the employee becomes one of many elements in the display of goods for sale, rendered boredom a constitutive aspect of shop life and resulted in a perceived desire on the part of the shopgirl for stimulation and excitement. The monotonous character of shop labor finds a corollary in the aesthetically depleted conditions of life outside the shop: shopgirls often lived in a "plain and comfortless" (Hamilton 35) environment that contributed to the dullness of their everyday lives. [End Page 191] I preface this article with Hamilton's characterization of shop life as dull and lacking in interest in an effort to describe the process by which the shopgirl became the focus of a set of cultural anxieties over the unsatisfied desires associated with late Victorian and Edwardian femininity. This process in turn worked to transform the shopgirl's identity in the popular imagination, rendering her a...

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