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Eighteenth-Century Life 25.3 (2001) 62-79

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From Grotesque Bodies to Useful Hands:
Idleness, Industry, and the Laboring Class

Sarah Jordan

In 1720, Laurence Braddon, one of the many public-spirited projectors who kept eighteenth-century British printing presses humming with schemes for increasing the wealth of the nation, made a startling claim. He could, he said, "propose a way, how any Person, past [sic] Twelve Years of Age, that had neither Eye, nor Hand, and but one Foot, by the motion of that Foot, twelve Hours in a Day, and without much force, should get, six Pence per Day" (author's italics). 1 Like many proposals of this period, Braddon's is aimed at benefiting not only this unfortunate hypothetical worker, but also the nation, in reducing the poor-rates and thus diverting a drain on the country's resources into a tributary to swell them. 2 The brutality that this image displays, however, points to a more complex and perhaps less benign aspect of much eighteenth-century writing about the poor, an aspect that has to do with the way the comfortable class tended to view the laboring class. 3 To most comfortable-class writers, the bodies of the so-called "idle" poor were grotesque, objects of fear and revulsion. 4 When the laboring-class body was not industriously engaged in work that would benefit "society" (by which was generally meant the middle and upper classes), it was seen as disgustingly appetitive, dirty, and uncontainable. Conversely, bodily attributes considered grotesque were seen as signs of idleness, and therefore of undeservingness. Even when the poor were industrious, their bodies could be rhetorically reduced to their useful parts, thereby rendering them non-threatening as attention focused on building an empire.

I want to examine the rhetorical brutality present in so much eighteenth-century writing about, or addressed to, the laboring class. The techniques of literary analysis can, I believe, be useful in investigating both how these texts present the idle or industrious laboring-class body, and what these presentations imply about the causes and consequences of the fervent concern about laboring-class idleness. These writings reveal an attitude toward the laboring-class body and the work it performs--or does not perform--that is surprisingly consistent throughout the eighteenth century and that appears to be shared by writers as disparate in their views as Bernard Mandeville and Hannah More. Although comfortable-class writings [End Page 62] about and directed to the laboring class seem to grow more urgent and shrill in tone as class friction increased near the end of the century, they express the same general ideas and use the same sort of tropes as those written earlier in the period. The ideas about and representations of the idle poor protected comfortable-class interests by the "utility of poverty" doctrine, which advocated keeping prices high and wages low so that workers would have to work nearly every waking hour just for subsistence, thus preventing their being idle. 5 But, beyond this practical level, what seems to me notable in these writings is the profound fear of and hostility toward the poor that they reveal. The same images of grotesque or metaphorically dismembered bodies appear in texts that otherwise differ in attitude, from the frank self-interest of Mandeville's work to the "benevolence" of More's. To my knowledge, no one has yet explored at length these representations in various types of discourse. 6

As several recent works of scholarship suggest--most notably, Linda Colley's influential Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven: Yale University, 1992)--eighteenth-century England was involved in the project of defining a national self-image. An important part of this self-image, I want to suggest, was the idea that the British were an industrious people. E. P. Thompson's seminal article, "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism," 7 has convinced later scholars that the eighteenth century saw an important move toward an emphasis on a productivity ruled by the clock. Scholars building on Thompson's work have...


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