Carolyn Steedman. Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xi + 262 pp. $91.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-87446-5; $32.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-69773-6.
Reviewed by Susannah Ottaway (Carleton College)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2009)
Commissioned by David S. Karr
Domestic Servants, Anglican Clergymen, and Happy Endings in the English Industrial Age
Forty-five years after E. P. Thompson published The Making of the English Working Class (1963), and thirty-five years after the appearance of his seminal article on “Patrician Society, Plebeian Culture,” social historians are still quite evidently engaged with his analysis of class relations in industrializing England, and particularly concerned to add the perspectives of groups (especially women) who were neglected in Thompson's account. Carolyn Steedman’s Master and Servant joins this crowded field, bringing into view two important categories that Thompson had ignored: female domestic servants and Anglican clergymen. In doing so, she offers an important new lens for reading the now mythical story of the making of the working class. Equally important, she introduces some new methodologies for understanding these people, who have suffered not only from the “enormous condescension of posterity” but also, and more specifically, from the condescension of Thompson and the generations of new social historians that his work inspired.
Steedman’s approach to this topic mingles the traditional tools of social historians with a more innovative cultural-literary approach. Using the copious diaries of the Halifax Anglican clergyman John Murgatroyd, she unfolds the fabric of his relationship with his long-time domestic servant Phoebe Beatson. In 1802, Beatson gave birth to an illegitimate daughter whom Murgatroyd loved and protected until his death in 1806, when he left mother and child a significant legacy in his will. Steedman then embroiders this carefully woven tale with a more speculative chapter that mingles an analysis of master-servant relations in Emily Bronte's novel Wuthering Heights (1847) with recent theories regarding the development of the sense of the "self" in the eighteenth century. Significantly, the setting for both the novel and the life of Beatson is the industrializing, cloth-producing West Riding of Yorkshire, which also served as a center of Thompson’s analysis.
One of the most valuable aspects of this work is the new light it sheds on domestic service in the era of industrialization. It has long been understood that female domestic service, in particular, was ubiquitous in the later eighteenth century, and Steedman helpfully unpacks the available data on its prevalence. More important, she analyzes the changing nature of the service relationship, as it was increasingly defined in contractual rather than familial ways. In the early modern period, Steedman argues, a servant’s labor was subsumed by his or her master, so that, in Lockean discussions of servants’ work, “the servant exercises the master’s capacity to labor rather than his own” (p. 70). So powerful was this assumption that masters writing before the last third of the eighteenth century evince a common “elision of self and servant” (p. 88). Such views went hand in hand with a relationship that was essentially familial and paternalistic. In contrast, by the end of the eighteenth century, servant work was viewed as labor that belonged to the servant and was purchased, through contract, by the master. This transformation in the master-servant relationship was evident through the legal commentaries of William Blackstone, the functioning of the Old Poor Law (especially as regards settlement), conduct literature, and new tax laws that clearly labeled the work of domestic service as a quantifiable luxury purchased by masters. This change represents a fundamental shift in the philosophical conception of the servant’s relationship to her labor.
One reason that historians have failed to observe this shift is that neither the writings of Adam Smith nor those of Karl Marx and his followers really conceived of the work of servants as labor. Smith, indeed, specifically designated the efforts of servants as “not work” (p. 22). In contrast, Master and Servant provides a detailed analysis of the nature of servants’ work, demonstrating the variety of forms of labor provided by domestics. Beatson not only provided Murgatroyd with help in the home and fields, but also was centrally occupied with worsted spinning in the putting-out system. Even though we can know little about how Beatson and other domestic servants felt about their work, we can see the myriad ways in which they interacted with household and manufacturing economies.
While Steedman had very limited evidence to use in her reconstruction of Beatson’s life, Murgatroyd’s diaries and plentiful supplemental materials allow her to draw a detailed portrait of this singularly attractive Anglican clergyman. If feisty artisans, radical writers, and prophetesses were the heroes and heroines of Thompson’s portrait of the West Riding, this quiet, compassionate old man emerges as the unsung hero of the worsted district in Steedman’s compelling portrait. Murgatroyd’s life demonstrates something that William Cobbett pronounced at the beginning of the nineteenth century: the Church of England was "everywhere" in this period (p. 156). Through his preaching, and, even more, his teaching, Murgatroyd responded to the challenges of Methodism, shaped his parishioners’ lives, and ensured a safe space for Beatson to raise her illegitimate daughter. Steedman’s careful reconstruction of Murgatroyd’s labors in the parish churches and schools of his district demands that we include such engagements in our conception of "work" in this period. Further, far from being a knee-jerk response to his upbringing, Murgatroyd’s Anglicanism was fully developed and heartfelt. Each day as Murgatroyd "Awak’d with God" he engaged with scripture; published sermons; and often, discussion with friends, neighbors, and other clergymen, all of which led him to a conscious and critical engagement with the Anglican faith.
If we consider the success of Steedman’s coverage of the topics she sets out in her title (master, servant, love, labor), it should be apparent that the relationship between "master and servant" is nicely fleshed out in this book, and the "labour" aspect of the title is also well developed. Less satisfying, however, is the attention to "love." Steedman does effectively demonstrate that Murgatroyd cared for the illegitimate girl who occupied his home for more than three years, but there is little new light shed on affective relationships. Because Beatson’s bastardy examination does not survive, the Old Poor Law records (which do not, in any case, feature very largely in this book) cannot be of any help in determining why Beatson got pregnant, and then was unable to marry George Thorp, the father of her child. In the end, then, the only love that is convincingly portrayed is that of Murgatroyd, who not only provided a home for Beatson and the child, but also left them a legacy that was enough for their independent maintenance after his death.
Steedman seeks to close the gaps in her evidence through an innovative use of the mid-nineteenth-century, middle-class authored novel Wuthering Heights to shed light on her eighteenth-century subjects. Steedman’s analysis of Wuthering Heights serves as a vehicle for her investigation of the emotional and psychological ties that bound Murgatroyd, Beatson, and others. While Steedman makes good use of some of the recent literature on new conceptions of the self, it would have been interesting to see more attention to the growth of empathy in this period, which has been recently highlighted by several historians and literary scholars (including Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity ; Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights, A History ; and Suzanne Keen, Empathy and the Novel ). Steedman helps us to understand how the presence of a more compassionate Anglican conception of God could have facilitated Murgatroyd’s actions in protecting Beatson. But his actions also seem to bespeak a tremendous capacity for empathy, a concept that has always been curiously absent from accounts of the making of the English working class, no matter how historians have constituted that group. Steedman’s Master and Servant is a valuable addition to our understanding of work and domestic life in this cradle of industrial society, but the use of Bronte’s character Nelly Dean as a tool for the imaginative reconstruction of the emotions and psychology of Beaston requires a considerable leap of faith.
. E. P. Thompson, “Patrician Society, Plebeian Culture,” Journal of Social History 7 (1974): 382-405. A good indicator of Thompson’s continued relevance is the symposium scheduled to be held on February 21, 2009, at the University of Warwick, entitled “Plebeian Cultures in Early Modern England: 35 Years After E. P. Thompson.” One of the most important works addressing Thompson’s neglect of gender is Anna Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992); Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights, A History (NY: W.W. Norton, 2007); Suzanne Keen, Empathy and the Novel (NY: Oxford University Press, 2007).
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