[The following passage comes from the introduction to the author’s The Victorian Novel, Service Work, and the Nineteenth-Century Economy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. — George P. Landow]

You must know that we Professors, who live upon our taste and invention, are obliged to keep our eyes always open. And you know already that I have many extra expenses to meet just now. So it came into my head while I was weeping at my poor boy’s grave that something in my way might be done with a clergyman. (Dickens, Our Mutual Friend 4.9:734)

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o understand the above epigraph from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, one should know first that its speaker, the self-named Jenny Wren, is neither a professor nor a mother. Her profession is a doll-designer and dressmaker, and she has just come from the funeral not of her child but of her father. What she is explaining to her friend, then, is how the clergyman at her father’s funeral provided her with the inspiration for a new doll to meet the funeral costs. She reveals in this passage the interminable nature of work for those who live upon taste and invention. While some critics have highlighted the materiality of Jenny’s work—that is to say, what it produces—or its pre-industrial organization as a cottage industry, what I want highlight in Jenny’s speech is that she feels she must always be in the process of gathering ideas for work. Indeed, finding ideas is part of her work. After all, without them, she would be unable to make anything, as Jenny is as much a designer of her doll-clothes as she is, in Dickens’s phrase, ‘the doll’s dressmaker’. Moreover, Jenny shows us something specific about work that can easily be overlooked if one focuses too tightly on what work makes or where work is performed: work is fundamentally a form of social discipline. It forces us to sell our time to someone else in return for the means of survival. What Jenny shows us here is that this demand is no less operative on those who work with their wits than on those who work with their hands. In fact, it exerts itself with even more force, since, as Dickens indicates, Jenny must think about work even during life’s most intimate and grief-filled moments. In this way, the oppressiveness of Jenny’s work is not a result of what she makes or how she makes it but rather of the work of thought that she cannot escape. The irony of this passage, then, is that it in part reverses what we know about Jenny. She may not be a professor, either in education or social standing, but in this moment she is an intellectual worker. Jenny’s intellectual work exemplifies my understanding of service work as difficult to categorize forms of work that do not produce something tangible or that produce a tangible <3m>something much later, which people undertake to survive. How they learn to do such work, and why they agree to do it at seemingly all times and in any and every kind of circumstance, is what I examine in this book.

As doll-designer, then, Jenny the intellectual worker exemplifies the fictional service workers who populate the novels I discuss here, as I explore the novel’s role in representing and shaping the service sector’s political, economic, and cultural emergence in mid-nineteenth century Britain. I examine the ways that novels by George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Anthony Trollope articulate forms of immaterial, affective, and signifying work and the subjectivities of those who perform it. Although nineteenth-century political economists labeled such activities ‘unproductive’ because they did not produce material goods, by the 1850s, services had emerged as an undeniably important sector of the British economy, albeit most visibly in the imperial work of gentlemanly capitalism such as finance, administration, shipping, and insurance. Indeed, the usage of the word ‘services’ in this sense begins in the midst of this cultural shift; the Oxford English Dictionary’s records its first use as an economic category in 1853 (OED s.v. ‘service, n1’ 31a). However, services are not limited to such economically empowered work but also include modes of work that lack gentlemanly capitalism’s gender, class, and racial privileges, most especially domestic, affective, educational, and clerical work. The Victorian novel registers this multiplicity of services, constructing narrative links between disparate modes of service—often for reasons of satire and critique directed at finance—and thus explores the new and unruly powers of work’s more immaterial forms: on the one hand, the increasingly powerful interests of finance and the professions, and on the other, the potentially destabilizing effects of an expanding class of affective, educational, and domestic workers. In the following pages, I examine services’ conceptual emergence in and through novels of the 1860s and 1870s, tracing the way that fiction captures the cultural, social, and affective experiences that informed the creation of the British service economy central to the second Empire.

I begin by examining the key discourse that inflects these novels: political economy’s shifting and contradictory conception of unproductive labor. A genealogy of unproductive labor reveals a continuing argument about economic interdependence and political subjectivity that reaches back to the eighteenth century and extends beyond the fall of the labor theory of value. As the work of J.G.A. Pocock elaborates, services were initially termed unproductive not simply because they produce goods that vanish in the moment of their performance, but also because of their role facilitating interdependence, whether in terms of politics, credit, or other social relations.[i] In eighteenth-century Republican politics, to be independent meant to be free of political and economic patronage—that is to say, not a servant of the Court like the financiers behind the Bank of England or of a wealthy employer, but rather a citizen-landowner and independent farmer. In short, it meant to be productive. By contrast, to be an unproductive laborer meant to be under somebody’s thumb. After Ricardo’s intervention in political economy, however, productive labor ceases to be associated with economic or political independence. Instead, those benefits of political autonomy and economic independence increasingly accrue to the immaterial workers of finance and command but not to those politically abjected in service. An examination of services thus provides unique insight into the Victorian understanding of work as an ambiguous political site that produces social connections and new subjects as well as social domination.

Services use discourses to produce immaterial relations for economic ends and to discipline workers, all the while retaining implicit (and sometimes explicit) threats of violence. … For my project, the word discipline … [highlights] its intersection with specific forms of work-discipline and Marxist analyses of work as disciplining individuals to market forces. Although these disparate forms of discipline may often align, their multiplicity in culture and work ensure that discipline is neither as totalizing or encompassing as D.A. Miller’s discipline—and its concomitant encompassing suspicion—has come to mean for literary scholars. Only one form of discipline is impossible to escape: capitalism’s market discipline—the demand to work in order to survive, as autonomist Marxism has argued. More on that in a moment. For now, suffice it to say that the market operates a fundamental discipline on individuals in capitalist societies, though the effects of this discipline are determined by the historical structure and function of particular markets. As Foucault’s notion of discipline illustrates, it may operate on particular people to particular ends. However, capitalism’s fundamental discipline—the social mediation of survival—is always in sight. Work-discipline provides the crucial starting point, then, for how actions are completed within the work-process itself and how individuals subject these modes of discipline to agitation and refusal. To create mobile, self-disciplining subjects suitable to the needs of capitalism, social and discursive modes of discipline extend and refine work discipline by defining the possible or impossible actions for particular subjects (for Foucault’s discussion see Foucault 217) At first glance, these forms of discipline may seem to nest one within the other like Russian dolls; however, as temporally and historically situated acts, they are subject to constant change and revision through performance and repetition in the face of altered circumstances. Discipline is never achieved, in any of its forms. It is multiple and multiply instantiated, and thus fragmented and capable of resistances and revisions. By reframing discipline as multiply performed, we may trace how differing performances of discipline can reinforce one another, come into conflict, or operate simultaneously to create unexpected results. As total and carceral as discipline may first appear, it is neither stable nor solid.

Services offer a privileged point of entry for this larger re-examination of discipline’s multiple functions by highlighting the ways in which work that operates in disorganized and non-institutional spaces relies on discourse for its work-discipline.

How do these interchanges between narrative, service work, and discipline operate? Consider the case of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. In this text, Eliot uses productive labor and capitalist subjectivity to remake community. Silas Marner maintains his role in Raveloe, however peripheral, because he is the only local linen-weaver, but the basis for his redemption is his fetishistic miserliness, which first elevates a thing to the status of an individual in his gold before, through a sleight of eyesight, it latches onto the golden hair of a foundling child in place of his lost hoard. What is curious here is not the novel’s connection of productive labor and material wealth to the construction of self and community but the way that the letter of the text undermines these ideas. Unsurprisingly, the narrator reserves the ability to remake subjects and create immaterial social connections for narration. However, this immaterial subject-work slips out of the narrator’s control in the text’s descriptions of Marner, Godfrey Cass, and Cass’s opium-addicted wife Molly via tropes of ghosts, demons, and phantasms. These shared tropes act as immaterial transmissions of social connection and subjective construction that escape the narrator’s focus on productive labor and materiality. The novel’s subsequent contesting evaluations of work and social connection reveal the cultural ambivalences about service work that mark Eliot’s novel, which otherwise bears few obvious indicators of unproductive labor. The narrative of Eliot’s text reveals how immaterial work finds itself caught between maintaining social discipline and becoming a means of connection and creation beyond the control of the privileged and educated.

This intersection of the hegemonically empowered work of subjecting and the reinvention of the work of social and subjective creation discloses a submerged social crisis as the snarled nature of unproductive labor draws together service workers who represent a new set of class interests and those who may threaten its social, political, and economic certainties. The novel captures this crisis in conflicts of economic discourses and forms of work. In Eliot’s Brother Jacob and Silas Marner, this appears as a mix of moral and political economy with their prodigals, misers, weavers, and bakers; in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, as intersections of improvisatory skilled and servile work with its financiers, teachers, lawyers, clerks, dustmen, and housewives; in Collins’s The Moonstone, as a battle over class perspective and interests by the narration of its rentiers, domestic servants, and professionals; and in Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, as a conflict over the power of falsification and violence in its speculators, gamblers, and scheming women. The novel’s use of service work’s cross-class connections provides an expansive view of the problems and potentials not of financial work but of immaterial and subjective work, which includes the work of fiction itself. The novel attends to these connections to express the experiential and cultural contours of the nineteenth century’s evolving notion of service work, and, in the process, it engages with fiction’s implication in this historical and discursive conjuncture.

Related material


Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend. Ed. Michael Cotsell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Foucault, Michel.Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1977.

‘service, n.1’. OED Online. December 2014. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/176678?rskey=0es8HP&result=1 (accessed December 19, 2014).

Pocock, J.G.A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and The Atlantic Republican Tradition, 2nd ed., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

See especially 361-505, and Politics, Language, and Time , 80-102. For more discussion of Pocock, see chapter one.

_____. Politics, Language, and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History, New York: Atheneum, 1971.

Last modified 3 January 2020