UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

"Plain work to do" : Elizabeth Gaskell's intervening re-productions of seamstress labour Becker, Alayna Marian


This thesis explores Elizabeth Gaskell’s engagement with and intervention in issues surrounding seamstress labourers, particularly as manifest in her three texts with eponymous seamstresses: “Libbie Marsh’s Three Eras” (1847), Mary Barton (1848), and Ruth (1853). Many scholars have emphasized that representations of seamstresses, including symbolic, proliferated in Victorian culture during the rise of industrialization. Most notably, Lynn M. Alexander argues that authors adopted the seamstress as a metonym for the working class and later as a stand-in for other groups. My study juxtaposes Gaskell’s seamstress fictions with Victorian nonfictional, poetic, and visual representations that helped establish the figure of the Victorian seamstress. However, my readings of Gaskell’s needlewomen are in tension with both recent critical understandings of the seamstress figure in Victorian literature as symbolic or metonymic and popular Victorian constructions of the seamstress; such interpretations do not do justice to the complexity of Gaskell’s seamstress fictions and ultimately dissociate Gaskell’s seamstresses from her depictions of labour conditions as they distinctly affect individual needlewomen. Libbie is a labouring slopworker whose individual physical toil and financial limitations reveal the complex fabric of a gradated working class; Mary is one of three distinct seamstress labourers (along with Margaret and Sally) that lay bare the contradictions inherent in collapsing the nuance of seamstress experience into a single representative figure, while Ruth is a fallen woman whose consistent attempts to find paid labour recognize women’s labour as an economic necessity rather than as simply moral or domestic work. Combined, these chapters reveal that Gaskell challenges the dominant representations of seamstresses; she re-places her seamstresses in the conditions of their labour, mounting an implied critique of a gendered social system that limits the productive capacity of women’s labour.

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