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  • Narrative Cessation and Professional Culture in Elizabeth Gaskell’s A Dark Night’s Work
  • Stephen Severn (bio)

In 2007, Graham Handley published an analysis of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1863 novella, A Dark Night’s Work, that bore the succinct title “A Dark Night’s Work Reconsidered.” Although Professor Handley is to be praised for the brevity of his naming choice, the term “reconsidered” is somewhat misleading, for it suggests that he prepared his study in response to other scholars who had already “considered” Gaskell’s tale of a lawyer named Edward Wilkins who mistakenly kills his assistant, Mr. Dunster, and then tries to cover up the crime by burying the body in a nearby garden. In actuality, however, this work, like much of Gaskell’s short fiction, has received relatively scant critical attention. As one would expect, both Linda Hughes and Suzanne Lewis do discuss the text in their introductions to its most recent editions (Pickering and Chatto’s The Works of Elizabeth Gaskell [2006] and Oxford University Press’s World’s Classics series [1992], respectively), and most Gaskell monographs, such as Angus Easson’s Elizabeth Gaskell (1979), mention the work. In general, however, those pieces primarily provide overviews of the novella’s plot, relate key details of its textual history, and elaborate some of the basic thematic questions that appear within it. None of them constitutes an extended, theory-based analysis. To date, Professor Handley’s article is the only study that can lay any claim to that designation.

That A Dark’s Night Work has languished in such scholarly obscurity is unfortunate, for the novella’s essential thematics have the potential to significantly influence an area of discourse that for the past thirty years or so, has been a focal point of debate within Victorian studies: the nature of nineteenth-century professionalism and the impact of professional culture. Despite the foreboding tone of its title and the horrific act to which that name refers, the textual element that gives rise to and then propels the novel’s narrative is not Dunster’s body slowly decaying in its makeshift grave, but rather the destabilizing potential that lurks within the foundation of professional identity: professional expertise.

Expertise is an aspect of professionalism that has been largely ignored up to this point. Beginning in the mid-1980s with Mary Poovey’s famous chapter on David Copperfield in Uneven Developments (1988) and continuing up through more recent works such as Jennifer Ruth’s Novel Professions: Interested Disinterest and the Making of the Professional in the Victorian Novel (2006), [End Page 155] many (if not most) studies have focused on interrogating professionals’ claims to ethical behaviour. To the professionals’ supporters, such as Susan E. Colón, they evince a “persistent relationship to ideals shaped by premodern and nonmarket sensibilities” (2). But to those, such as Poovey, who are deeply suspicious of the professionals’ agendas, their formal codes of ethics and claims of devotion to duty are merely smokescreens for self-serving interests. Note, however, that despite such clear differences of opinion, both sides see the focal point of debate as the professionals’ impetus to action: what drives them to do what they do?

A Dark Night’s Work, however, alerts the reader to key questions that lie elsewhere, for the text is as concerned with outcome as it is with motive. It demands that attention also be paid both to the nature of the ever-growing power that professionals wielded in mid-nineteenth-century Britain and the impact of their actions. The text cautions that not only should we ask, Are the professionals ethical? but we must also explore the extent to which professional expertise can itself become a dangerous and destabilizing force when placed in incompetent or self-serving hands. First published at a time when professionals’ specialized knowledge was helping to dramatically reshape British culture by creating the technological foundation upon which the Industrial Revolution rested, and when information was being disseminated ever more rapidly thanks to professional-driven inventions such as the telegraph and the railroad, Gaskell’s novella displays an acute awareness of the rising power of the professional classes and greets their emergence with a fundamentally ambiguous...


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pp. 155-175
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