Review of Robin B. Colby, 'Some Appointed Work To Do': Women and Vocation in the Fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell. Victorian Studies 39:3 (Spring 1996): 427-429.

Robin Colby's study of women's work in the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell contributes to Gaskell studies as well as to theories of the industrial novel. Arguing that Gaskell's treatment of women's labor -- particularly that of working-class women -- has not been properly assessed, Colby suggests that close examination of the theme of women's work in Gaskell's novels not only paints a new portrait of Gaskell (who emerges thereby as an unacknowledged feminist), but also complicates our understanding of the industrial novel as a genre. According to Colby, Gaskell's particular contribution to the Condition of England debate was to gender it: Gaskell's industrial novels are unique in using female heroines to bind together class concerns and women's issues. Colby contends that Gaskell's mode of combining questions of class and gender not only added a crucial dimension to Victorian discussions about the plight of the industrial poor, but also enabled Gaskell to formulate a theory of female self-actualization through work that transcended class distinctions.

The first three chapters of Colby's study center on Gaskell's industrial novels, arguing that the emphasis on gender in Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854) allows them to perform substantially different cultural work from that of the industrial novels of Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley, and George Eliot, all of whose social critiques rest on stable, traditional models of gender. Following a discussion of gender in works such as Disraeli's Sybil (1845), Dickens's Hard Times (1854), Kingsley's Alton Locke (1850), and Eliot's Felix Holt (1866), Colby shows how Gaskell uses the characters of Mary Barton and Margaret Hale to make questions of femininity inseparable from issues of class identity. Mary Barton's position as household provider enables Gaskell to integrate paid labor with the fulfillment of womanly duty, while in North and South, Margaret Hale's sympathetic relations with Manchester's industrial poor reconciles perceived contradictions between female propriety and political activism.

The final three chapters expand the book's focus to a wider consideration of women's work in the pastoral fictions of Cranford (1851) and Wives and Daughters (1866), and in the biographical The Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857). In Cranford, Gaskell critiques separate sphere ideology, by showing how the "masculine" world of commerce intrudes on women's private lives. This critique in turn becomes a means of imagining an alternative model of womanhood, one that emphasizes independence and self-sufficiency. In the figure of Miss Matty, the bankrupt spinster-cum-merchant, Gaskell envisions how a retiring femininity might be absolutely consistent with economic enterprise. The Life of Charlotte Bronte, by contrast, is an elaborate apology for female authorship. Concentrating on how Bronte balanced writing with her domestic responsibilities, Gaskell attempts both to rescue Bronte from the charge that, as a writer, she was not a proper woman, and, more broadly, to allay the constitutive tensions inherent in the notion of the woman writer-tensions between duty (to husband, home, family) and desire (to grow, express, create) that structured Gaskell's own life. In the final chapter, Colby argues that Wives and Daughters attacks women's leisure. The novel is a polemic against inactivity, showing how easily ideas about what middle-class women ought and ought not to do can limit them and waste their lives.

The strength of Colby's study lies in its careful focus on problems of labor in a range of Gaskell's novels. Deeply committed to a feminist revaluation of Gaskell, 'Some Appointed Work To Do' describes Gaskell's oeuvre as an elaborate meditation on women's vocation, a serial negotiation of the tensions among duty, choice, and necessity that structured Victorian women's lives. Colby sees Gaskell as a writer for whom work is a source of both deep ambivalence and enormous possibility, and reads each of Gaskell's novels as an effort to come to grips with a different aspect of the problem of women's work. Gaskell's detailed explorations of Mary Barton's sweated labor, Margaret Hale's struggles to help the working poor, Miss Matty's reluctant entrepreneurship, Hyacinth Gibson's studied idleness, Molly Gibson's restlessness, and Charlotte Bronte's soul-sustaining writing all combine to paint a textured portrait of the complexities of work for Victorian women, its capacity to stain their character at the same time as it could help them to discover a sense of autonomy and personal worth.

'Some Appointed Work To Do' limits its own potential by avoiding a thoroughgoing engagement with contemporary scholarship, however. Colby virtually ignores the major developments in feminist theory, cultural theory, and Victorian studies that have taken place over the past ten years. The study is almost entirely New Critical, consisting of extended close readings with minimal historical or theoretical framing. Colby substitutes a schematic backdrop for thorough contextualization, sketching Victorian ideology as a series of rigid binary oppositions between public and private spheres and male and female roles, oppositions that Gaskell's work then collapses. As a result, Colby oversimplifies both Gaskell's fiction and Victorian gender ideology. Rather than positioning Gaskell in relation to the specific complexities of nineteenth-century women's movements, Colby asserts that Gaskell's fiction is an exemplary body of feminist work. Employing a late twentieth-century vocabulary of liberation, resistance, and self-actualization, she goes on to make troublesome equations between Victorian and modern women: at one point, Gaskell is called a "Superwoman" who balanced work and family with a grace that is edifying for women today (12).

Colby's critical strategies are especially puzzling considering the extensive work that has been done recently on the interplay of class and gender in Victorian writing. Even pathbreaking work gets all but overlooked: Mary Poovey's Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (1988) is cited in passing, but Colby does not acknowledge Poovey's important insights into the structure of displacements that characterizes the interplay between class and gender in Victorian writing. Colby does not even include a reference to Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (1987), Nancy Armstrong's analysis of the influence of working-class unrest on Victorian models of class sexuality. Disregarding the contributions of poststructuralism, cultural theory, and materialist feminism to contemporary thought, 'Some Appointed Work To Do' rests on a series of highly questionable assumptions about sex and gender, power and resistance, ideology and language, human agency, and authorial intention.