Donna Landry (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Landry, Donna. “The Resignation of Mary Collier: Some Problems in Feminist Literary History.” In Muses of Resistance: Labouring-Class Women's Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796, pp. 56-77. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Landry argues for the importance of Collier's “The Woman's Labour” and discusses how the poet resigned herself to her life of servitude, while at the same time offering resistance to the status quo through a new mode of poetry.]
Tho' She pretends not to the Genius of Mr. Duck, nor hopes to be taken Notice of by the Great, yet her Friends are of Opinion that the Novelty of a Washer-Woman's turning poetess, will procure her some Readers.
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It should be clear that working class women's oppression poses the key theoretical problem here; for unlike women's subordination in feudal society or within the bourgeoisie, it cannot be related to male control of property.1
(Brenner and Ramas, “Rethinking Women's Oppression”)
Mary Collier appears to have been the first published laboring-class woman poet in England. So far as we know, the publication of her poems brought her little remuneration and no escape from her work as a laundress, housekeeper, and occasional field hand in West Sussex and Hampshire. Her most important poem, “The Woman's Labour: An Epistle To Mr. Stephen Duck” (1739), is beginning to receive some scholarly attention, but until recently she was a poet almost entirely forgotten by literary history.2 “The Woman's Labour” is an important text for at least three reasons. First, the poem's appearance as early as 1739 suggests that English laboring- or working-class feminism has a history that predates its usual association with the nineteenth century. Second, the poem demonstrates that a plebeian poet such as Collier can take aesthetic advantage of her distance from the dominant literary culture by ostensibly filling a familiar vessel—the georgic, the neoclassical epistle—with strong new content. And in so doing, she can challenge some of the sexual and socio-political assumptions of the very culture from which she has so skillfully appropriated her aesthetic materials. Finally, the poem articulates an emergent working-class consciousness with an emergent feminist critique of the misogynist tendencies embedded in that consciousness.
“The Woman's Labour” directly redresses traditional historical silences regarding laboring women's oppression; the triple burden of wage labor, housework, and childcare;3 and the gender ideology that places women illusively outside both material production and language. Collier thus rewrites the georgic more radically than Stephen Duck had done in The Thresher's Labour (1736); she definitively alters traditional maps of eighteenth-century literary history. At the same time, there are significant limits to the radical potential of this and other poems by Collier which must be addressed if we are to understand such women's histories in a nuanced way, alert to the often limiting material and social exigencies of their situations. When the woman in question is herself a writer, we can begin by examining the way she figures herself as a writing subject, for the self-who-writes is socially constructed.
In “The Woman's Labour” Collier locates herself quite clearly in relation to the act of writing as well as in relation to the social space from which her writing emerges. At the point of departure for her speculative flight on the prehistoric origins of sexual relations, Collier figures herself as follows:
Oft have I thought as on my Bed I lay, Eas'd from the tiresome Labours of the Day.(4)
Poor women, taken collectively, may have little time to sleep or dream, as we shall see, but the poet inscribes herself here as conceiving her arguments for verse in repeated moments of meditation that border on dream-work. The source of Collier's productivity as a poet is also the source of her “purity,” as well as her “peace” of mind: her relatively exceptional status as a single woman, without children.5 Despite the poverty that so often accompanied life as a single woman in this period, her working life is more circumscribed, her waking hours are less restricted than those of the married majority of her class, the women on whose behalf she writes “The Woman's Labour.” She works only a double (wage labor, housework), not a triple shift. That is presumably the difference that counts for her, that separates her from other working women: her literacy, her talent, her desire to devote her leisure time to books and writing are in a sense supererogatory. If she had a husband and children to tend, her literariness would be effectively cancelled in advance. Such was not the case with Yearsley, who, by the time of her discovery in 1784, had borne seven children, of whom six had survived.6 But Yearsley appears to be the exception here. For Collier, as for a significant number of other, particularly lower-class, women writers, the single life was seen as crucial to the liberty of literary production.
The one form of “labor” omitted from Collier's poem is the “labor” of human reproduction as childbirth. In place of the labor of birth, Collier gives us a textualization of women's work as social and material, but not exclusively or primarily biological, reproduction. This she can write about knowledgeably, and link with her literary endeavors. Such general social and cultural work is the compensatory prerogative of the spinster, reputedly always with time on her hands, available for child-minding or night-nursing or more public good causes.7
If Collier's talents might have been wasted without leisure, her leisure would certainly have been unrewarding to her without education. Not that she received much; as she writes in “Some Remarks of the Author's Life,” her “poor, but honest” parents taught her to read when “very Young.” But she was never sent to school; at some unspecified time she learned to write “to assist” her memory (p. iii, p. iv). Throughout her life, she claims, reading books and composing verses have been her chief, if not her only, recreation. In “An Epistolary Answer To an Exciseman, Who doubted her being the Author of the Washerwoman's Labour,”8 Collier asserts that women's inferior education is the basis of their social subordination, and not merely an effect of it. This poem represents her example of a genre that seems to have been obligatory for laboring-class and many female poets of the period, the poetical self-authentification statement, and as such it serves as a welcome autobiographical moment in an otherwise self-effacing æuvre. Collier closes this text with a mock admission of female idiocy, from which she hopes the exciseman can protect himself, concluding:
Tho' if we Education had Which Justly is our due, I doubt not, many of our Sex Might fairly vie with you.
This challenge combines confidence in her sex with a plea for women's education. It is a challenge that assumes education to be an unbiased equalizer between the sexes, something that women have been unjustly denied, and can safely possess; the question of misogyny within traditional erudition itself is not addressed.
Such an assumption marks a limit to the radical potential of Collier's writing; her utopian impulses tend to manifest themselves in an assumed faith in a higher authority that will be capable of rectifying injustices sometime in the future. Here it is education, elsewhere in her work religion or the monarchy. A certain deferral of desire for radical social transformation can read much like a conservative resignation to the status quo, though such a reading would be neither very historically accurate nor responsive to the sexual and social nuances of Collier's texts. So also with Collier's aesthetic achievement. Her subtle innovations and breaks with convention, her skillful appropriation of stock neoclassicism and occasional verse forms, may not seem very daring to modern readers.
“The Woman's Labour,” like Collier's other poems, challenges our institutionalized critical and aesthetic criteria as working-class poetry is likely to do.9 We run up against some hard questions about how we define and allocate “literary value,” about the intractable importance of political criteria in our evaluative judgments, about whether or not the establishment of a female (or feminist?) counter-canon is a sufficient or even desirable project for feminist criticism to pursue.10 If one project of a feminist literary history might be not only to rediscover women's texts that have been forgotten or devalued by the practices and priorities of canon formation, but also to establish a critical and political feminist discourse within which to reach such texts, then it is necessary continually to historicize our own discourse of feminism by learning to recognize its continuities and discontinuities with earlier instances of resistance to oppression. Collier's writing, particularly “The Woman's Labour,” represents an instance of resistance to oppression both gendered and class-based. If elsewhere in her æuvre we confront discontinuities between the analytical categories of much twentieth-century feminism and Collier's own categories, in this poem the continuities seem more powerful.
READING “THE WOMAN'S LABOUR”
To read “The Woman's Labour” is inevitably to confront what crucial determinants class and gender are in any textual production.
No Learning ever was bestow'd on me; My Life was always spent in Drudgery: And not alone; alas! with Grief I find, It is the Portion of poor Woman-kind.
The weighing of class allegiance and female identity is present early in the poem in that ambiguous phrase “poor Woman-kind.” Worthy of pity as a sex or remarkable for their poverty? Are only impoverished women being addressed, because other women have their marriage “portions” to insulate them from drudgery? We may begin by reading according to the code of “pity,” keeping sexual difference to the fore. But without stating anything polemically, Collier manages to convey as the poem unfolds that this is a class issue rather than simply an issue of sexual difference, as a middle-class woman writer would most probably have expressed it. There is an unbridgeable gap between the women of the landowning and employing classes, “our Ladies” (159), and “ourselves.” The lot of “poor Woman-kind” is her theme, and it is one of the themes given least literary treatment in English up to 1739 and for some time afterwards (Defoe notwithstanding). At a crucial moment slightly more than halfway through the poem, Collier's protest against the laboring man's lack of sympathy with or even comprehension of the nature and extent of “women's work” is supplemented by an equally effective critique of the hard-nosed middle-class mistress for whom poor women “char”—do the laundry, polish the pewter, scour the “Pots, Kettles, Sauce-pans, Skillets … / Skimmers and Ladles, and such Trumpery, / Brought in to make complete our Slavery” (210-12). Like Dryden, at moments of high feeling Collier employs the emphatic triplet, which, given her subject-matter, often has the added effect of a sense of labors prolonged, of the rhythms of work as regulated by the sun's movements being violated, all too regularly.
Over against the undeniable hardships and indignities of laboring men's lives, Collier repeatedly asserts the equally never-ending and futile contribution of working-women's labor:
So the industrious Bees do hourly strive To bring their Loads of Honey to the Hive; Their sordid Owners always reap the Gains, And poorly recompense their Toil and Pains.
The ambiguity of “sordid Owners” here deserves comment, for it is where Collier's protofeminism coincides with her critique of property and class power. Surely (land) “Owners” ought to spring to mind first, so solidly grounded is the text in class consciousness. But a lingering association of women's lot with thankless drudgery may carry from the poem's opening and come to rest here as well. The laboring-class woman is doubly (dis)possessed, her body and her labor owned, but neither acknowledged nor appreciated, by employer and father or husband. Yet it is the hold of gender oppression within the laboring classes that Collier's text sets out to pry loose. Her poem evidences an implicit optimism about redress and improvement where relations between the sexes are concerned. In this, she may be seen to be participating in the discourses of a wider social context in which the debates about middle- and upper-class gender equality and women's fitness for “public” work seem to have been a keen focus of intellectual energy in 1739.11 Class relations, by contrast, remain insuperably in place in Collier's text, criticized as unjust, but not challenged as historically subject to change through political action.
Collier secures her claim to historical truth by means of an appeal to empirical facts, right down to the crucial matter of women's inadequate wages:
And after all our Toil and Labour past, Six-pence or Eight-pence pays us off at last; For all our Pains, no Prospect can we see Attend us, but Old Age and Poverty.
Subsequent research by social historians confirms Collier's testimony.12 Collier does not stress the sexual differential signalized by the difference between men's and women's wages, but working men and women would be bound to recognize in her “Six-pence or Eight-pence” an allusion to the higher, though still inadequate, wage of a male laborer. How this difference may have functioned to divide the working class, thus effectively diminishing its revolutionary potential, remains a matter of debate.13 But Collier, by quietly reminding us of the material facts of working-women's exploitation, also adds a dimension to our understanding of Stephen Duck's scornful attitude towards women workers in The Thresher's Labour, the text that most immediately provoked her into writing. For the wage differential, as a sign of women's symbolic expendability within the work force, might have varied effects in particular historical circumstances. Yet its general function, symbolically, is always to distinguish men from women as agents of material and social (re)production within a class, thus investing this distinction with those residues of power and antagonism that characterize class relations in the society as a whole.
The articulation of protofeminist and laboring-class consciousness in “The Woman's Labour” is not a matter of ostensible content alone. Collier's textual strategies open up questions of aesthetic criteria in a challenging way. Two features of the poem particularly demand an historically informed and theoretically conscious reading if they are not to be undervalued or inadequately understood: the status of “The Woman's Labour” as an epistolary reply to Duck's version of plebeian georgic, and Collier's use of what may seem like rather hackneyed high literary troping. Is Collier's poem in some sense a mere supplementary appendage to Duck's? Does she fail to invent a suitably oppositional discourse of plebeian female—poor woman's—georgic?
It is true that Collier stakes her text on class solidarity with Duck, despite their differences regarding women's contributions to productive labor. We know from “Some Remarks” that she admired Duck and got his poems by heart, but that she fancied “he had been too Severe on the Female Sex.” Less personal pique than the desire to speak out on behalf of the women of her class, to “call,” as she puts it, “an Army of Amazons to vindicate the injured Sex” (p. iv), generated “The Woman's Labour.” In the annals of English plebeian literature, Duck's trajectory as a farm laborer patronized as a poetical prodigy by royalty, given place and pension, and encouraged to enter the clerisy—a social rise that ends enigmatically in suicide—represents laboring-class deracination in an extreme form. Duck had made his mark on the literary scene by mocking the leisured conventions of English pastoral and georgic verse, while dramatizing the experience of agricultural labor as lived. Scything during the hay harvest becomes an epic competition not entirely innocent of Homeric as well as Virgilian overtones:
And now the Field, design'd to try our Might, At length appears, and meets our longing Sight. The Grass and Ground we view with careful Eyes, To see which way the best Advantage lies; And, Hero-like, each claims the foremost Place. At first our Labour seems a sportive Race: With rapid Force our sharpen'd Blades we drive, Strain ev'ry Nerve, and Blow for Blow we give. All strive to vanquish, tho' the Victor gains No other Glory, but the greatest pains.(14)
As Raymond Williams has shown, the vigorous colloquial triumph of The Thresher's Labour is followed, ironically, by traditional “high-literary” pastoral rhetoric: “When sooty Pease we thresh” becomes “Of blissful Groves I sing, and flow'ry Plains: / Ye Sylvan Nymphs, assist my rural strains.”15 Nevertheless, in The Thresher's Labour Duck puts the labor “back” into pastoral verse.16
In addition to celebrating the dignity of male labor, The Thresher's Labour villifies greedy landlords as well as poking fun at talkative female laborers who treat their occasional employment in the fields as a form of recreation:
Our Master comes, and at his Heels a Throng Of prattling Females, arm'd with Rake and Prong; Prepar'd, whilst he is here, to make his Hay; Or, if he turns his Back, prepar'd to play: But here, or gone, sure of this Comfort still; Here's Company, so they may chat their Fill. Ah! were their Hands so active as their Tongues, How nimbly then would move the Rakes and Prongs!
Indeed, Duck goes so far as to imply that talking is women's chief activity, apart from cooking, child-minding, and keeping hard-working but exhausted husbands on their toes. Structurally, The Thresher's Labour obliges us to spot the analogy between the epic heroism of the men's competitive scything and the bathos of the women's conversation, which Duck strains to make competitive as well as noisy and nonsensical. After dinner, the female hay-makers continue to sit on the ground and “chat.” The traditional tropes of women's irrational, garrulous behavior, and their inability to “talk sense” while trying to outdo one another in “meaningless” gossip, are obvious enough. But Duck takes a further step of interest to post-Lacanian feminism; he represents women as, metaphorically and temporarily at least, outside the symbolic order of language altogether.
All talk at once; but seeming all to fear, That what they speak, the rest will hardly hear; Till by degrees so high their Notes they strain, A Stander by can nought distinguish plain. So loud's their Speech, and so confus'd their Noise, Scarce puzzled Echo can return the Voice. Yet, spite of this, they bravely all go on; Each scorns to be, or seem to be, outdone.
Echo, an Ovidian figure for the relative speechlessness with which we are confronted in the “ready-madeness” of language, our imprisonment within a language that can only operate through a subject but cannot be operated autonomously by the subject, is significantly female. Thus Duck casually evokes the longstanding classical association of femininity and exclusion from language-as-power. But these women stand outside even Echo's relation to language; so confused and confusing is their loud noise that it is incapable of recuperation even by a sympathetic female ear. The implication is that what Echo cannot reproduce is not language at all. Duck's inability to understand the hay-makers is a declaration of his linguistic and cultural superiority, his belonging to a realm of “sense” and meaning that laboring men inhabit, but from which their women are excluded.
Thus Duck helps perpetuate the ideological exclusion of his fellow countrywomen from both productive labor and language, at the same time as he transforms the bourgeois pastoral prospect into a worked landscape. It is hardly surprising, then, that when the “thresher poet” is answered by the “washer-woman of Petersfield,” she should take Duck's refusal to “see” women's agricultural labor as, in fact, productive, to be a violation of class loyalty rather than chivalry, good manners, or even good sense.17 One of her characteristic strategies of refutation turns upon quoting Duck's text in the light of previous pastoral refusals to recognize the contributions of labor to the picturesqueness of the countryside. Where Duck had written of the hay harvest, thus cavalierly cancelling the female hay-makers' sweat and toil,
Next Day the Cocks appear in equal Rows
Collier counters with:
[We] nimbly turn our Hay upon the Plain; Nay, rake and prow it in, the Case is clear; Or how should Cocks in equal Rows appear?
By scorning his female fellow workers, Duck has done violence to their shared occlusion from the bourgeois pastoral prospect. By selectively quoting from Duck's poem, Collier hurls Duck's jibes at his female fellow workers back in his face. By apostrophizing Duck in her opening lines, and using the same couplet form and narrative structure as he does, Collier poetically apprentices herself to Duck, whose plebeian verse has inspired as well as provoked her own:
Immortal Bard! thou Fav'rite of the Nine! Enrich'd by Peers, advanc'd by Caroline! Deign to look down on One that's poor and low, Remembring you yourself was lately so; Accept these Lines: Alas! what can you have From her, who ever was, and's still a Slave?
Collier makes the couplet form seem flexible and accommodating, not constraining. With Duck, she helps to constitute the discourse of plebeian georgic by incorporating rural idioms and grammar as well as the subject-matter of work experienced, not observed.
Comparable with her use of her immediate male model is Collier's appropriation of such high-literary tropes as the classical allusion. If Duck relies upon the myth of Sisyphus to convey the working man's ceaseless and ultimately futile round of labor, Collier, as if to fix her image as a washer-woman forever in our minds, invokes Danaus's daughters with their bottomless tubs to fill:18
While you to Sysiphus yourselves compare, With Danaus' Daughters we may claim a Share; For while he labours hard against the Hill, Bottomless Tubs of Water they must fill.
For the eighteenth-century poet, classical allusions are stock-in-trade; always in stock, as it were; the very stuff of which verses are made. One proves one's competence to compose, recite, write, publish, and have read, verses by acquiring this stock of and in popular neoclassicism. Both Duck and Collier understandably appropriate the classical figures most easily allied with labor; it would seem that they perceived there to be a certain useful congruence between the representation of manual and agricultural work as lived experience in the texts of antiquity and their own. We need not dismiss the engagement with high literary culture as evidence of opportunism or of failed aesthetic invention. There is a sense in which the plebeian classical allusion proposes a reinterpretation of the classical source as having provided a more immediate apprehension of agrarian labor than most literate English people of Collier's time routinely experienced themselves, or than could be conveyed by the classical allusions of privileged georgic. Collier appropriates the myth of Danaus's daughters in order to assert laboring-class women's value, in the only literary terms that would carry in this historical moment, within such a marginal text.
The polemical edge of Collier's text depends not so much on our previous knowledge of Duck's poem, but on the ways Collier, as a voleuse de langue, dismantles and reconstitutes Duck's contemptuous dismissal of female labor through selective quotation within her own text. There is no pretense of either solitary individuality or original genius in Collier's aesthetic; she has adopted a form of dialogue in order to engage in combative persuasion, and so her poem discloses what post-Romantic texts so often deliberately mystify, the necessary intertextuality of all literary enterprise.19 Without “belaboring” the point, we should also recognize that Duck's own poem, like so many eighteenth-century texts from Pope's satires to the rival novels of Richardson and Fielding, was implicitly intertextual as well, engaging the whole leisured pastoral tradition in order to challenge it: “No Fountains murmur here, no Lambkins play, / No Linnets warble, and no Fields look gay; / 'Tis all a gloomy, melancholy Scene, / Fit only to provoke the Muse's Spleen” (58-61). The difference is that Collier's text addresses Duck's poem specifically and explicitly; Collier does not assume a reified tradition of either misogynist satire or patrician georgic. Her text is thus more immediately and polemically intertextual than his.
It might seem that Duck's traditional description of his fellow country-women as incapable of working hard or speaking sense, though more than capable of generating noise, would undermine Collier's project, despite her skillful intertextual maneuvers. But Collier engages in a strategy invaluable for any form of ideology critique; she attempts to account for Duck's prejudices as the products of an historical process that is by no means inevitable. Adapting the neoclassical commonplace of a mythical Golden Age to protofeminist ends, she speculates that there must have been a more just relation between the sexes at an earlier moment in history: the origin of woman, if divine, could not prove an instance of slavery. There must of necessity have been some historical degeneration from that happy state, so justly designed, in order for human society to have arrived at its present arrangement of female slavery and male arrogance and ingratitude:
Our first Extraction from a Mass refin'd, Could never be for Slavery design'd; Till Time and Custom by degrees destroy'd That happy State our Sex at first enjoy'd.
Historically speaking, then, familiarity bred contempt. Men ceased to honor or praise women as these erotically charged relations grew stalely “customary” over time. By degrees women were degraded to their current status as slaves and drudges. Thus men are not the enemies of women, though they may “enslave” them, but fellow subjects in the realm of physical and historical exigency, also subject to the deformations wrought by living-in-time and being bound by social custom. The forces of deformation may be the same for both sexes, but their effects are clearly asymmetrical, affecting men and women differently. Collier's project is one of radical defamiliarization.20
Collier's method for making Duck's assumptions about female unproductiveness and mindless garrulity seem strange is a simple one. She speaks out against them:
For none but Turks, that ever I could find, Have Mutes to serve them, or did e'er deny Their Slaves, at Work, to chat it merrily.(21) Since you have Liberty to speak your mind, And are to talk, as well as we, inclin'd, Why should you thus repine, because that we, Like you, enjoy that pleasing Liberty? What! would you lord it quite, and take away The only Privilege our Sex enjoy?
If the politics of a simple “speaking out” on behalf of women's rights seems a little problematical...
(The entire section is 11748 words.)