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Katherine Mullin.  Working Girls: Fiction, Sexuality, and Modernity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 262 pp., ISBN 978-0-19-872484-1, GBP£55.

Reviewed by Lena Wånggren.

Katherine Mullin’s Working Girls: Fiction, Sexuality, and Modernity is an insightful, multifaceted, and enjoyable book, encircling that often forgotten late-nineteenth-century type: the working girl. Presenting this persona as a more accessible rival to the frequently studied New Woman figure, while reading her against the backdrop of a changing context of literary production, Mullin provides readers with a complex yet accessible study.

The book, which moves from late-Victorian literary culture to early modernism, is structured into three parts. Following an introduction, each section highlights different ‘types’ of working girls: the first (chapters 1 and 2) concentrates on communication workers such as telegraphists and typists, the second (chapters 3 and 4) on shop-girls, and the third (chapters 5 and 6) on barmaids. These three categories of working girls, Mullin suggests, each occupied separate places in the Victorian public imagination in terms of class, sexuality, and notions of respectability. While telegraphists and typists represented a more educated and sophisticated ideal, shop-girls and even more so barmaids fell lower down the social scale.

The Introduction to the book helpfully places the working girl in a theoretical and historical context. Rather than critiquing the focus on middle-class New Women in studies of late-nineteenth-century writing, or arguing that the working girl might more fruitfully replace the New Woman, she places the two figures alongside each other. Whilst the two figures of womanhood “shared historical, physical and representational space” (5) the two personae often overlap. For Mullin, the working girl personified “a more palatable, accessible, and compelling vision of emancipation” (5). The glamorised figure of the shop-girl, for example, in Mullin’s reading presents, “an assertiveness shadowing more formal feminist agitations for personal, social, political, even sexual agency” (110). As Mullin notes, much of the distinction between the two figures resided in class: the working girl provided a more accessible image of womanhood to the working classes, than the popular images of middle- and upper-class university-educated “ladies.” To working women, the working girl embodied a kind of “vernacular emancipation” (8); while less didactic than the New Woman persona and her writings, Mullin argues, this emancipation was no less challenging. This discussion of class, not often at the forefront of studies on the New Woman, is a welcome aspect of the book.

Through their new place in the public sphere, these young working women came to “transform sexual politics” in the late-nineteenth century (8). As a new type of worker in previously male spheres, female communications workers, shop-girls, and barmaids became simultaneously “workplace novelties” and “quotidian objects of desire” (3) to male employers, colleagues and customers. “Neither a ‘fallen woman’ nor wholly respectable, she became synonymous with a mannered, disingenuous erotic style, simultaneously promoted and withheld” (3). Indeed, the working girl is presented as a “key sexual persona” representing a “new and distinctive form of sexual identity” at the fin de siècle (2, 15).

As a troubling figure of changing notions of gender and sexuality, the working girl also, in Mullin’s analysis, takes on a further signification: as a representative of changing structures within literary production (the death of the three-volume novel, new readerships, the expansion of magazine fiction, etc.), she expresses the fears of writers in an increasingly marketised area of labour. By pairing each chapter describing the literary and cultural significance of a type of working girl (chapters 1, 3, and 5) with another chapter reading the figure through changes in literary production (chapters 2, 4, and 6), Mullin skilfully moves between close readings of individual works and a historical analysis of the literary marketplace. This weaving together of the cultural figure of the working girl and anxieties regarding changing literary production is impressive. In Mullin’s reading, the working girl negotiates late-nineteenth-century uncertainties not only around class, gender and sexuality, but also regarding the changing literary marketplace. Writers “codified discussion about the act of writing” by using various literary and cultural figurations of the working girl as “alluring proxies” to explore questions of authorship and representation in a changing literary climate (12). The telegraphist and the typist, with their mechanical transmission and reproduction of words, their ability to not only listen in on confidential conversations but potentially also to alter them, become “emotive stand-ins” (13) or “allegories of authorial anxiety” (20) for the writer concerned about duplication, copying and originality. The shop-girl, an “immediately recognisable sexual persona” (97) within the late Victorian cityscape, on the other hand presents for authors a more direct engagement with the economic conditions of authorship, through the figure’s volatile relationship to commodity capitalism. Situated right at the centre of the modern department store, as well as smaller shops, shop-girls had to engage in a certain amount of self-commodification, their own feminine appearance and manner becoming part of the products on sale through their “capitalising, sensibly, upon their own desirability” (110). Mullin considers this personal process of commodification similar to that carried out by commercially-minded authors who had to adjust their writing to the demands of a marketplace now based on royalty systems and literary agents, the “compulsions and conflicts” of commerce potentially threatening an author’s aesthetic impulses (128). Lastly, the barmaid, in her sexually provocative position - serving strange men at all times of the day - might signify writers testing the limits of what fiction could represent. While the flirtatious “New Barmaid” became a popular cultural figure, and barmaids featured in more serious “sex-problem” novels of New Woman writers, this young professional also became the centre of debate for purity campaigners and social reformers, who deemed it necessary to protect the vulnerable young barmaids from their surroundings. Debates regarding the “barmaid problem” posed the barmaid as a “flashpoint for a tense ideological struggle about women’s professional, political, economic, and sexual autonomy” (188). For writers of the time, Mullin argues, the debates around protecting young women workers could be read alongside contemporary debates regarding censorship, ‘proper’ subjects of literature, and the influence of books, especially upon young readers.

The most exciting aspect of Mullin’s book, to my mind, is the focus on ephemera and popular fiction, rather than on more frequently read canonical works. She includes in her study difficult-to-access material such as pamphlets, music hall programmes, satirical postcards and photo stories, early film, periodical fiction and popular fiction, with an ample amount of visual illustrations accompanying the text. Much of this material is neither available to the general public or students, nor widely studied by literary scholars. Mullin thus performs a great favour by presenting and structuring this difficult-to-reach material for the reader. As she herself notes, such material provides, “glimpses into a bygone world [ . . . ] tantalisingly ephemeral, retrievable only from press notices [and] sheet music illustrations” (36). The structure of the book, described above, highlights the connection between, rather than separates, different forms of culture: providing first a chapter outlining ephemeral cultural and popular figurations of the working girl, followed by a chapter discussing literary fiction, she shows how the trope of the working girl moves with ease through music hall performances, periodicals, popular fiction, and Joycean modernism. In this way, authors used the new “key sexual persona” (2) of the young working woman to explore boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and literature. Authors such as Grant Allen, George Gissing and H. G. Wells, despite sharing similar positions as Grub Street writers, are separated by Mullin into different camps of either ‘popular’ or ‘literary’ fiction and these distinctions might have been more clearly explained, but this is a minor point. Reading popular and often ephemeral forms of literature and culture alongside canonical works, Mullin indeed interrogates the divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, showing instead the ways in which they intersect and borrow from each other.

In the Afterword, Mullin links the late-nineteenth-century figure of the working girl, with her combination of self-commodified sexuality and independence, to a late twentieth-and early twenty-first-century post-feminist sensibility. This is an interesting reading, opening up questions regarding feminist historiography, with its longer view of post-feminism. I would have liked to hear more about this comparison, especially in the context of the economic changes surrounding both the nineteenth-century and the modern day post-feminist working girl figure. While Mullin mentions in a footnote the post-feminist US film Working Girl (1988), about two competing women selling their ideas as well as a specific sexualised femininity, a fuller discussion of this film in the Afterword would have been interesting. Displaying a sexualised bargaining power similar to that of the working girls analysed by Mullin, Melanie Griffith’s character tells her male colleague: “I have a head for business, and a body for sin.” While the late-nineteenth century saw an increase in commodity capitalism (as Mullin notes in the chapters on the shop-girl), the globalised capitalism of the late-twentieth century (which exploits cheap labour in some parts of the world to produce cheap goods for consumers in other parts), similarly encourages an unlimited production and consumption of goods. Within contemporary neoliberal capitalism, the possibilities of self-commodification are multiplied through the use of social media - perhaps similarly to the late-nineteenth-century mass media circulation of popular images of the working girl described by Mullin. Mullin thus opens up new lines of enquiry not only regarding divisions (and gendering) of ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultural forms, but also regarding the ways in which we write histories of feminism.

Writers such as Morag Shiach (2004) and Leah Price/Pamela Thurschwell (2004) have studied the intricate relations between gender, labour and literary culture at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Mullin’s book is a very fine continuation and development of this trajectory, and with an even wider range and depth of material. She moves from Victorian authors such as Anthony Trollope, via later writers such as Margaret Oliphant and Thomas Hardy, to the modernist writings of James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield. Working Girls: Fiction, Sexuality, and Modernity is to be recommended not only for New Woman scholars, but for any researcher working on late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century literary culture, especially for Mullin’s fine bridging of various forms of literature and popular culture, and for the study’s intricate binding of cultural imagination and economic structure.

Lena Wånggren. is a Research Fellow in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, where she also teaches. Her research concerns questions of gender in late nineteenth-century literature and culture, as well as feminist theory, pedagogy, and the medical humanities.