Between boulevard and boudoir : working women as urban spectacle in nineteenth-century French and British literature

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2011-08

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Between Boulevard and Boudoir examines the nineteenth-century obsession with documenting the modern metropolis and analyses visual and verbal portraits of working women to investigate how urban literature invented the seamstress as a type. Approaching the nineteenth-century city as a site of passive voyeurism where social relationships were increasingly mediated by print culture, I argue that sketches of French grisettes and British sempstresses replaced the endless variety among working-class women with a repetitive sameness through the fictionalization of these urban figures. Transforming producers of commodities into objects of consumption, popular fiction showcased the visibility of the city’s working women while ignoring their actual labor. These women were thus portrayed as exploited bodies, rather than exploited workers, destined to adorn, and then disappear into, the crowded city. This dissertation looks first at what Walter Benjamin dubbed “panoramic literature” — texts that sought to describe the metropolis and its inhabitants through a categorization of people and places based on appearances — and asserts that these fragmentary depictions created a widely recognizable urban typology that gained cultural currency and, ultimately, influenced other authors. Analyzing French and British urban text, I maintain, however, that even the most stereotyped representations destabilized the structures of classification that defined the working woman as a type. While novelists Eugène Sue, G.W.M. Reynolds, Charles Dickens, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning all seem to valorize self-supporting women, I demonstrate that, by turning their workers into wives and expelling them from the city, they discredit the premise of an urban destiny that confined these women to a type. This examination of the unique position of working women in Paris and London not only challenges established notions about nineteenth-century constructions of gender but also provides insight into the anxieties – vis-à-vis the rapidly changing city – that plagued the writers who codified these women as types. Investigating the fictionalization of working women, this study opens up urban literature to considerations of how gender and class determine inclusion within the city as it was produced by print culture.

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