- Representing Female Artistic Labour, 1848-1890: Refining Work for the Middle-Class Woman
Mention the term "separate spheres," and most feminist critics will have a great deal to say. For nineteenth-century scholars, in particular, separate spheres ideology has prompted recent debate. This debate is nothing new, according to Patricia Zakreski. In the opening lines of her new book, Zakreski considers "Facts Versus Ideas," an 1861 article published in the English Woman's Journal. In the article, the author criticizes her contemporaries' use of the word "domestic" and their failure to acknowledge the fluidity of women's labor both within and outside the home. Separate or not, by the end of the nineteenth century, middle-class female labor had undergone a transformation. The naturalization of middle-class female labor, according to Zakreski, can be linked to its association with art.
Zakreski studies four types of "artistic" labor in which middle-class Victorian women participated: sewing, painting, writing, and acting. Drawing on the work of Mary Poovey, Zakreski claims that the ideology of separate spheres was in fact more elastic than we have realized. In practical terms, these forms of "artistic" labor allowed middle-class women to translate domestic skills into the public marketplace. Ideologically, artistic labor "refined work" for middle-class women by virtue of its association with the private, domestic sphere and with the "'high culture' discipline of the fine arts" (p. 8). Most important, Zakreski posits, is the way in which "artistic" labor refined women's work more generally: "the intrinsic refinement associated with artistic professions could also be afforded to work itself, in all its forms, in a way that could challenge the perception of work as a degrading activity for women" (p. 8).
Each chapter highlights one of the four types of artistic labor. Zakreski centers each discussion on two or three novels or poems, but she situates these works within a multivalent context of literary, periodical, and historical references. This skillful layering results in dense, provocative analyses. Although closer attention to working-class female labor—at least as a parallel or competing movement—would have enriched Zakreski's argument, she enlarges the concept of middle-class female labor in significant ways.
Chapters one and two contend that representations of seamstresses and female artists emphasized the compatibility between artistic labor and proper womanhood, a topic which scholars such as Mary Poovey have explored in detail.1 In chapter one, Zakreski traces the seamstress's association with working-class labor in the 1840s and then goes on to demonstrate how this figure came to be viewed as middle-class and "refined" in later iterations. Zakreski presents a range of seamstresses, both fictional and factual, but she focuses most closely on three works—Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth [End Page 156] (1853), Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1857), and Margaret Oliphant's Kirsteen (1889). Chapter two examines the woman artist in paintings, articles, and novels such as Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) and Dinah Craik's Olive (1850). Here Zakreski probes the division between art and craft as well as "the domestic image of female artistry" extended to, and moderated, the "requirements of professional life, such as education, production, and exhibition" (p. 70). Zakreski does not cite Talia Schaffer, but those interested in the relationship between art and craft must read her influential work on artistic production and 1890s aestheticism, The Forgotten Female Aesthetes (2000).
Chapters three and four explore how female writers and performers negotiated the public's insistent conflation of their private and professional lives. Glossing an array of novels, chapter three concentrates on Aurora Leigh and the ways in which women writers struggled to disentangle their personal lives from their work, while simultaneously using the screen of domesticity to conceal or authorize their writing. In the final chapter on acting, Zakreski contemplates Geraldine Jewsbury's The Half Sisters (1848), Wilkie Collins's No Name (1862), and George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876), along with the cult of personality surrounding actresses such as Ellen...