Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Steedman, Carolyn|
Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age.
By Carolyn Steedman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xi
plus 263 pages. $85.00 HB, $32.99 PB).
The title of Carolyn Steedman's book promises to explain the relationship between masters and servants in the industrial age. Service, as Steedman demonstrates, was all but ignored by theorists from Smith to Marx, as well as modern historians of the working class, yet it was a crucial part of the class structure. Yet this aspect of service is theorized here in a tantalizingly brief fashion--the reader will have to wait until Steedman's promised magnum opus on service in the eighteenth century. This book is really about a relationship between a Yorkshire parson, the Rev. Murgatroyd, and his pregnant servant, Phoebe Beat-son, and the fictional relationships of master and servant in Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Above all, it is about religion and the formation of the self.
The relationship of service underwent a major change during the industrial revolution as domestic service became disentangled from waged industrial labor. Theorists such as Adam Smith and Marx denigrated service as unproductive labor because it did not produce commodities. Steedman points out, however, that in the eighteenth century and earlier, servants sometimes carried out both domestic tasks--cooking, cleaning and washing--and productive labor such as farm work. By the late eighteenth century, service and production were becoming more differentiated legally, if not in practice. But Phoebe Beatson still kept Murgatroyd's house and also spun wool in Yorkshire's flourishing putting out industry.
In this book, Steedman asks how could servants become persons in law, religion, the economy, and in actual relationships. Servants, as Steedman argued, had been long considered part of the master's "self" being subordinated members of the family household; the master was to treat them with "common humanity" (137) and discipline. In Locke, people become possessive individuals by creating things through their labor--but when servants do the actual labor, they are absorbed into their masters' personage. By the late eighteenth century, servants were emerging as separate legal persons. In 1777, servants were taxed as a luxury if they performed indoor domestic tasks and lived in the employers' household. According to the law of master and servant, servants contracted with their masters for a particular period of time, which gave them certain rights such as a poor law settlement.
Given the lack of sources, it is difficult if not impossible to get at the subjectivity of servants. Instead, Steedman is able to examine the subjectivity of the master. The central question of the book is actually why did John Murgatroyd, an Anglican cleric, not throw out his pregnant servant and denounce her as a sinner? Why did he instead keep her and support her and her child, and leave them a generous bequest? We cannot know directly, because Murgatroyd's diaries and other writings do not survive for the years 1801-2, when his servant Phoebe became pregnant.
To answer this question, Steedman examines Murgatroyd's voluminous theological writings and practices. Steedman makes a profound case for taking religious belief seriously on its own terms, rather than just as a reflection of socioeconomic structures, or as a delusion. While most studies of late eighteenth century Anglicanism emphasize its stodgy conservativism, its advocacy of the established order, Steedman finds a much more compassionate religious perspective in Murgatroyd. He read the accounts of other clergymen who advocated a form of enlightened Christianity, in which the soul exercised will, reason, and observation of creation. The ideas of Locke are filtered through this Anglicanism; the soul is defined in terms of what it could know, feel and will. Unlike Evangelicals, Murgatroyd did not emphasize individual sin or the atonement. Instead, Murgatroyd focuses on forgiveness, compassion, and the duties of people toward their neighbors, but he also deeply sensed the "soul's connection to God." (169)
Murgatroyd's sexual morality also differed from strict Calvinism. He advocated chastity on its own terms, but also because he feared that women who yielded to seduction would be heartbroken, vulnerable, poor and alone. Of course, we know from other historians that sex during courtship, especially after a promise of marriage, was common among plebeians. Parish authorities would try to force men to marry the mothers of their illegitimate children, to spare the taxpayers the burden. However, John Murgatroyd was unable to get George Thorp to marry Phoebe Beatson, although she ultimately married another man. Steedman links this story with Murgatroyd's theology that rejected the notion that infants were stained by original sin. Furthermore, the elderly clergymen "fell in love" with Phoebe's baby. Steedman therefore extends our notion of love beyond romantic love, so important in the late 18th century, to a wider sense of love as part of a community.
Steedman ends her book with a brilliant analysis of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, which of course is narrated by the servant Nelly Dean. A servant, of course, is an especially clever way to narrate a story, because servants were supposed to he invisible, yet they were omnipresent and observing everything. Steedman takes this opportunity to meditate on the historian's relationship to her sources, because a novel is not about what actually happened, but the creation of a narrative. In this way, Steedman uses Phoebe Beatson to narrate her tale of John Murgatroyd, who would otherwise be an obscure clergyman.
Carolyn Steedman is one of our most unique and important historians, but she does not write in a straightforward fashion with an argument, evidence and conclusion. Rather she is an essayist who approaches topics indirectly and circularly. She is also a historian fascinated with the riches and lacunae of archives; she thinks deeply about the theoretical implications of these lacunae, but she also is fascinated by every prosaic detail of servants' work, their clothes, clergymen's readings, the woolen industry of West Yorkshire and so on.
Steedman is also trying to write her own myths and own narratives about servants, to overcome our postmodern problem with "experience" as posited by E.P. Thompson and so heavily critiqued by others. We can never know the experience of Phoebe Beatson, she recognizes, and even though we know quite a bit about what Murgatroyd read, thought and wrote, we do not have his own explanations for his actions, or an account of his subjectivity. Rather, the historian must, as does Steedman, examine and search out everything that surrounded these individuals and shaped them: from the household furniture Beatson inherited from Murgatroyd, to the books he read, to the law of master and servant that determined her life, to the yarn she spun in the putting out system. And then the historian must be attentive to her own mythmaking. It is this combination of theoretical sophistication and old-fashioned archival research that makes this book a poignant and fascinating read.
University of Minnesota
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