Of Factory Girls And Serving Maids

The Literary Labours of Working‐Class Women in Victorian Britain

Meagan B. Timney
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (2009)


My dissertation examines the political and formal aspects of poetry written by working‐class women in England and Scotland between 1830 and 1880. I analyse a poetic corpus that I have gathered from existing publications and new archival sources to assess what I call the “literary labour politics” of women whose poetry encounters, represents, and reacts to socio‐historic change.

The poetry of working‐ class women sheds light on the multidimensional intersections between poetry about labour and poetry as labour. I show that British working‐class women writers were essential in the development of a working‐class poetic aesthetic and political agenda by examining how their poetry engaged with European politics, slavery, gender inequality, child labour, education, industrialism, and poverty.

The first section surveys the political and formal nature of the poetry written by working‐class women immediately before and during the Chartist era to argue that gender complicates the political rubric of the working class during a period of intense social upheaval. I discuss the poetry of women who were published in James Morrison’s The Pioneer, as well as E.H., F. Saunderson, Eliza Cook, “Marie,” and Mary Hutton.

I read their poems against those written both by eighteenth‐ century working‐class women writers and male Chartists to illuminate the intervention of nineteenth‐century women in these literary and cultural contexts. The second section interrogates the politics of working‐class women’s poetry published after the dissolution of the Chartists in 1848 through a discussion of two pseudonymous “factory girl” poets, Fanny Forrester, and Ellen Johnston.

I argue that even as working‐class women’s poetry increasingly engaged with broad social issues, it also reflected the continuing importance of poetry itself as a means of individual empowerment and worked against the prose tradition to argue for the unique possibilities of poetic expression. The thematic and formal complexity of the poetry of these working‐class women allows us to assess the various poetic strategies they developed to respond to the urgent and vexed issues of social reform and personal and national relationships, as they articulated poetic and personal identities as women labouring poets against a society not attuned to their voices.