- Women, Work, and Clothes in the Eighteenth-Century Novel by Chloe Wigston Smith
Chloe Wigston Smith’s Women, Work, and Clothes in the Eighteenth-Century Novel concerns the familiar conceit aligning language with clothing, the idea that verbal “Expression is the Dress of Thought,” as Alexander Pope put it in An Essay on Criticism (1711). Smith traces this analogy between words and garments from Aristotle through the poetry and rhetorical treatises of the eighteenth century, a period when the oft-expressed link between ornaments of rhetoric and apparel became conspicuously more than a metaphor. Not just was “all paper…made from cloth,” so that rag merchants sometimes “turn[ed] stationers,” but clothing and accessories often “incorporated paper into [their] structure” (49). Fabric design appropriated images printed or described in books, and “the textile industry borrowed technological innovations” such as “block printing and copper-plate engraving” from the print industry. Smith’s central contention is that even as the rest of eighteenth-century British culture linked text and textile in ways both rhetorical and material, the novel repudiated this connection, along with the “analog[y] between words and things” that it implied, in an “attempt to reshape the meaning and role of material objects” (37, 17). In the process, the novel’s representations of women working with ordinary, nonluxurious items of clothing, garments whose practicality Smith thinks emphasized their material values rather than their symbolic meaning, succeeded in suggesting “a new and more progressive vision of womanhood” (17).
Throughout the book, Smith displays an impressively broad range of reference and expertise. Part I, which details physical and metaphorical connections between clothes and texts, draws as deftly on the history of clothing as it does on the history of rhetoric. Smith juxtaposes her readings of Jonathan Swift’s The Tale of the Tub (1704, 1710), Jane Barker’s A Patchwork Screen for the Ladies (1723), and a number of it-narratives, or stories that track the fortunes of inanimate objects rather than persons, with loving accounts of individual eighteenth-century garments pictured in her book’s illustrations. Here, Smith seems in sympathy with the novel as she describes it: more attentive to the material qualities of the clothes than to their expressive function. Part II explores how the novel’s emphasis on useful, pragmatic garments “entailed a reconsideration of the possibilities of women’s physical labor in the clothing trades” (79). Smith contrasts Samuel Richardson’s servant heroine in Pamela (1740) with invective aired during the Calico Crisis (1719–21), when wool manufacturers condemned domestic servants as “promiscuous shoppers” whose efforts to imitate the dress of their betters and resulting avidity for imported Indian cotton threatened to destroy that embodiment [End Page 273] of “English masculinity and patriotic spirit,” the “domestic wool trade” (111). Smith goes on to compare the pamphlets that Daniel Defoe contributed to this debate with his more open-minded representations of working women in Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana (1724), novels Smith reads in productive conjunction with testimony from the criminal trials of the Old Bailey court. While Defoe the novelist manages, Smith claims, to “separate stealing from sex,” the trial records between 1714 and 1728 depict female pickpockets who “exploited the sexual desires of male victims by infiltrating their pockets and breeches” (96, 99). A final chapter juxtaposes the unfinished Memoirs (1801) of the actress, author, and fashion maven Mary Robinson with Frances Burney’s last novel The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties (1814) to show that “needlework, rather than being perceived as a respectable, domestic pursuit, was associated with promiscuity, publicity, and disguise” and consequently “echo[ed] cultural perceptions of the promiscuous professional actress” (143-44, 144).
Whether Smith’s arguments about the novel’s resistance to stereotypes yoking feminine labor with feminine sexuality in fact bear on the novel’s alleged rejection of the dressed/expressed analogy and willed “fissure between words and things” (83) may be open to doubt. Smith finds that in the novel, garments ceased being “indices to the mind” and became instead “tools of self-preservation...