Victorian Poetry 39.2 (2001) 207-227
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Class And Poetic Communities:
The Works Of Ellen Johnston, "The Factory Girl"
What we call literature, and what we teach, is what the middle class -- and not the working class -- produced.
--Martha Vicinus, The Industrial Muse 1
Critics here [in our collection] are not actively looking beyond class boundaries to working-class poets.
--Isobel Armstrong, Virginia Blain, Women's Poetry, Late Romantic to Late Victorian 2
For critics who seek to bring working-class women's voices into the expanding canon of Victorian poets, lack of access and an attendant lack of interest pose formidable problems. Few working women had the patronage or the material means to publish poems in volume form, a fact that some scholars have mistaken for creative silence. Other critics have offered ideological explanations for absence: that "a gradual defusing of working-class combativeness," along with the increasing popularity of prose autobiography, caused any "identifiable discourse of working-class women's poetry . . . to fold back on itself" after the eighteenth century; 3 or that "women were silenced by their class's adherence to the discourse of domesticity, which made it difficult for them to write of their own experiences as women who worked." 4 By focusing on the work of Scottish poet and power-loom weaver Ellen Johnston, I aim to reopen areas that many critics have overlooked or shut down: to help recover poetry as a revealing, if highly fraught site of Victorian working-class women's expression; and, in doing so, to question the still-common insistence on radical resistance as the key component of working-class subjectivity. Where Landry would find dissolution and defeat, for example, I see strategic affirmation, as Johnston creates poetic personae that negotiate the [End Page 207] often conflicting demands of her gender, her class, and her craft. I will also suggest that by casting our critical net more widely to include other outlets for working-class women's writing, such as the poetry columns of local penny papers, we can gain a better sense not only of still-hidden voices, but also of the Victorian era's multiple communities of writers and readers and tastes. This wider consideration may also help us to define less monolithically the ideological force of such concepts as poetic authority, publicness, and female respectability that have been held so harmful to working women's literary expression. Precariously situated but far from silent, Ellen Johnston claimed the right to voice both private emotion and social critique; and for her efforts, admiring readers titled her "bard."
Johnston, who began mill work at the age of eleven, is one of the few working women represented in recent anthologies of Victorian women's poetry and one of the few whose works have received any sustained critical attention. 5 She is currently known for a single volume of verse that appeared in 1867, although she had, by that date, more than a decade of poetic production behind her. Because this volume has been the sole source for critics' discussions so far, I will turn first to examine some of the shaping pressures and consequences of volume publication for working-class writers before exploring Johnston's other avenues of public address and the difference these may make for our understanding of her poetry and of the communities for which she wrote.
As extensive as the publishing trade is, and innumerable as are the volumes issued by it on almost every branch of knowledge, it is really a very difficult matter, except to a privileged class, to appear in print.
-- Charles Fleming, The Working Man's Friend 6
To read a volume of working-class verse is, in several important senses, to read a work in translation. Given the increasingly professional and commercialized nature of the book trade at mid-century, working-class poets who found their way into print did so largely through the interventions of middle-class sponsors, who edited their poems and introduced them--often through a series of mediating prefaces and testimonials--to the...