Love and Work

Kristina Straub
Carnegie Mellon University

Historians, like literary critics, tend to think in patterns as well as in particulars, grand narratives as well as specific events. Both know the satisfying “click” that comes when a detail locks into a pattern, an event becomes part of a larger narrative. Carolyn Steedman works with a high degree of reflexivity about this process of manipulating particulars and patterns in her recent book, Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age (Cambridge, 2007). The particulars that Steedman engages are the available facts about three people: a pregnant servant maid, Phoebe Beatson, who does not fit into grand narratives of seduction and abandonment by which such women are largely framed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century; a deeply religious Anglican clergyman, John Murgatroyd, who does not turn off the female servant when she becomes pregnant—in fact, without any evident romantic or prurient attachment to his maid, he shelters both mother and child and even leaves them an inheritance upon his death; and finally, a working man, George Thorp, who impregnates Beatson, but somehow eludes the pressure to marry her, in effect escaping not only the narrative pattern to which he is supposed to conform, but considerable social pressure from the parish community in which all three individuals lived.

Steedman interprets these particulars in the contexts of two narratives, one historical and one ostensibly fictional (more on “ostensibly” below): E. P. Thompson’s rise of the English working class in the “industrial age,” and the romantic story of transcendent, if destructive love in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847). Most importantly to her interpretation of documents and historical events, however, Steedman brings into play a third narrative, less formal and less canonical than the other two, in the “actions” of an Anglican God, a sort of modern, mythological force behind Murgatroyd’s behavior and decisions as they impacted his own life and that of his servant Beatson.

This third narrative, in which this God acts upon human attitudes and affections through the religious teachings of the Anglican Church, is the explanatory force that drives Steedman’s understanding of Murgatroyd’s, Beatson’s, and Thorp’s lives. All three narratives—Thompson’s, Brontë’s, and Steedman’s—can be mapped neatly onto the same time and place: West Riding in the early years of English Industrialism. Taken together, they allow Steedman to create from Murgatroyd’s voluminous diaries and common-place writings a powerful narrative of the intertwined lives of master and servant. Class and gender identity do not disappear from Steedman’s story, but they are embedded in human relations that allow for both individual autonomy and forms of connection across class and gender lines not well accounted for by the models of identity and class formation that arise from the political economy of Adam Smith and his heirs, Karl Marx and Thompson.

Steedman’s reasons for taking on Thompson’s “making of the working class” are clear. In her “Introduction: On Service and Silences,” Steedman lays before us a truth that Bridget Hill and others have established: the ubiquity of female domestic servants, both in demographic fact and in fictional representations of the eighteenth century, and the corresponding and pointed silence about them in histories of labor and class, including Thompson’s.1 She also correctly notes the more general absence of domestic servants from historical scholarship on class formation and labor relations, an absence which she traces back to Adam Smith’s dismissal of domestic labor as “not-work,” Marx’s incorporation of Smith, and the fact that social historians of class continue to depend on these theories to tell their stories about labor and class relations.

Steedman offers her book as the beginning of an attempt to “enter domestic servants into that drama of class formation” (25). Planting Brontë’s servant-narrator Nelly Dean in the same geographic territory as Thompson’s history of the working class puts both narratives on common ground as “myths of social origin” (26), and Steedman offers the story of Beatson, Thorp, and Murgatroyd as a “new myth.” The stories of the three people on whom Steedman focuses ask us to reconsider the stories that we tell about this geographic community’s role in the history of modernity. The methodological imperative that emerges most powerfully from Steedman’s proffered new myth of social origin, the imperative lacking in Thompson’s myth is the need, in telling the story of labor relations, to complicate the idea of human agency as it is defined by forces other than economic conditions, and the need for a broader definition of “material culture” in order to do this work (27). For example, in “Wool and the Working Class: Myths of Origin,” Steedman objects to histories that see the working classes increasingly losing control over the materials with which they worked because such histories leave out menial servants like Beatson and the labor they do, such as spinning worsted yarn. Steedman makes it clear that master and servant are partners in this labor, not opposing classes. What does this cooperative relationship mean to the “Love” as well as the “Labour” in Steedman’s subtitle? Steedman’s point about the former is less clear than the latter: at the end of a chapter on “Wool and the Working Class,” she points briefly to the possible erotics of spinning and the relationship between Beatson and Thorp, but this gesture seems disconnected from the material analysis of the former’s working relationship with Murgatroyd. The two terms of Steedman’s subtitle prove very difficult to integrate, and, indeed, she devotes separate chapters to “Labour” and to “Love.”

Steedman’s examination of labor in this case study begins by pointing out the anomaly of Marx’s and Smith’s refusal to admit the servant’s labor into their analysis of capital: writers of the eighteenth century show a tremendous amount of interest in what the servant does and how that work is valued by law and the state. The servant’s labor is variously valued as his own or his master’s, and Steedman sees Beatson living at a time of great change in how the servant’s labor is defined—increasingly, the latter is seen as the object of contract. Murgatroyd’s work as a clergyman, both within and without a contractual relationship, is not simply acting on behalf of institutions or functioning as a cog in some hegemonic process. It is the individual finding (in this case) his way to a living among the various economic opportunities offered by those institutions. Steedman makes a strong case for the complex ways in which masters and servants could perceive their labor, complicating the picture drawn by Marx or Thompson. Strong, affectively held beliefs about the connections between human beings have as much to do with labor-based relations as class identification and conflict.

Where those beliefs come from is the subject of chapters on “Teaching,” “Relations,” and “The Gods.” Murgatroyd’s understanding of his role as a teacher was embedded in his role as an Anglican clergyman. Steedman sees a specific Anglican God as the content of this teaching. She also sees Lockean assumptions about children’s psychology as widely disseminated through the educational activities of the Anglican Church in general and Murgatroyd in particular. Steedman comments on her own historical method in this regard that “what you tell children about a god, their means of approaching that god and the implications of that information for the child’s individuality and personhood, all offer some kind of access to the beliefs of the adult doing the teaching”(156). Steedman argues that the ethics of the Anglican understanding of God can be seen in Murgatroyd’s digestion of Anglican religious teachings and that these ethics create “some space here for Murgatroyd to be able to understand Phoebe Beatson as a creature something like himself, and to act to make her happier than not” (173). Beatson, as a servant, is caught in the midst of a historical transition from being conceptualized “as a servant of God and a relation of the master who represented Him on earth” to being thought of as “a person, wearing the persona of a maidservant” (173). Steedman documents in eighteenth- century writing about masters and servants the emergence of a “personhood” attributed to servants, but does not see the full-blown contractualism that assumed such personhood, a contractualism governing domestic roles that can be traced in Samuel and Sarah Adams’ later guidebook on relations between masters and servants, the voluminous Complete Servant.

If Phoebe Beatson could be seen, and she could see herself as a “person” in the labor relations, she could also be loved as a person. Steedman sees the possibilities for Murgatroyd’s love of Beatson and her child as rooted in deeply embedded assumptions about the “right” response to children in a late eighteenth-century, Anglican universe: they are there to be loved, simply. She also comments on the propensity for masters to love servants as ones who “share” with them their lives. So on two counts, Beatson and her child are loved and cared for by Murgatroyd.

The most fun of all the chapters, at least for a literary scholar, is “Nelly’s Version,” which juxtaposes Nelly Dean of Wuthering Heights to the social historian’s more traditional materials, the records and personal documents relating to the Murgatroyd/Beatson relationship. Steedman is meticulous in positioning the nature of this fictional evidence of relations between masters and servants, its value and its limits. Emily Brontë is a social historian of sorts, but not the same kind of historian as Carolyn Steedman. For example, Brontë’s characterization of the maidservants, Zillah and Nelly Dean, is not informed by Steedman’s historical knowledge about the settlement laws affecting servants’ ability to establish a place of residence and, hence, some sense of obligation on the part of the parish wherein the servant was settled. Nonetheless, Steedman’s reading of Wuthering Heights supports the vision of human relations that she reads in the Murgatroyd/Beatson materials. The dates of the novel map with satisfying tightness onto the dates that punctuate the narrative trajectory of the Murgatroyd/Beatson relationship. Steedman is claiming more than coincidence, however; Brontë, Steedman argues, is “a historian avant l’emergence of the modern, university-trained, professional” (206). This novel, then, is as “true” a story as the “fictions” produced by modern historians about the period.

Steedman offers the historical narratives of Wuthering Heights and the Murgatroyd/Beatson case as “one key to writing a new version of a well-worn history of the making of class society” (208). And what difference does this “key” make to the grand narrative of the “making of the working class,” the tale spun by Thompson? Structural opposition between worker and manager—mapped onto the opposition between servant and master—does not disappear, and Steedman reads Joseph in Wuthering Heights as giving voice to a tradition of servants’ resistance to ruling-class hegemony in the form of enclosure and the gradual erosion of traditional “perquisites” (214–15). But these structural relations are complicated by models of human feeling and action that do not fit neatly into the ideals of class-identification and formation that are so potent a part of Thompson’s story.

In her conclusion, “Phoebe in Arcadia,” Steedman takes a final shot at Thompson, rightly noting that the domestic servants who, William Godwin notes, comprise so large a demographic at the end of the eighteenth century, cannot play a role in the “making of their class, for the very obvious reason that they are not already in the story that is being told, which is one about resistance to industrial capitalism, thought through and understood in relation to an industrial (or industrializing) mode of production” (228). She points out the (wasted) radical potential of contemporary thinkers such as Godwin, who saw the ways in which the material interests of servants divided them irrevocably from their masters, but the story that she is telling about West Riding will not end in Phoebe Beatson’s recognition of class-based oppression and her resistance to her master. Part of the problem, Steedman concedes, is that most of the materials upon which she constructs her story are about the master, Murgatroyd, not the servant. Beatson is more absent than present in this story, clearly a down side to framing this family’s story in the context of late eighteenth century Anglicanism. Beatson’s inability to write means that her experience is encompassed in the writing of her literate master; Steedman is posing the question of not just of historical silences but the problem of finding the “right” narrative in which to fit the lives of the illiterate. Still, Steedman’s tale of a shared life between clergyman, maidservant, and illegitimate child convinces. As Steedman says, the story’s “events carry their own eventuality” (228). Steedman develops from Anglican ideology—and a novel—a model for love that rivals in power Thompson’s model for labor, allowing us to think simultaneously of love and labor as twin forces in human life. My question for Steedman, were I so lucky as to talk with her, would be this: Is the separateness of these models itself the product of an historical process that was just underway in the “English Industrial Age” and that we assume in ways that John Murgatroyd and Phoebe Beatson never did?


1.   See Bridget Hill, Servants: English Domestics in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 1996) and Women, Work, and Sexual Politics in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 1989).