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Voices in the Machine: Class, Subjectivity and Desire in Victorian Women’s Factory Poems

Quand la machine parle : classe, subjectivité et désir dans la poésie industrielle des victoriennes
Fabienne Moine


Cet article explore la manière dont la culture industrielle a façonné l’imaginaire et la poésie des victoriennes. Nous oublions souvent que les auteures de la classe moyenne et supérieure engagées dans les réformes sociales ne sont pas les seules à avoir écrit des poèmes sur le monde industriel. Les femmes des classes laborieuses ont également écrit un certain nombre de poèmes à coloration autobiographique sur ce sujet. Le premier objectif de cet article est de présenter les voix des femmes appartenant aux classes privilégiées : en faisant preuve de compassion pour les ouvriers, elles cherchent aussi à faire avancer la cause des femmes. Elles dénoncent dans leurs poèmes les terribles conditions de travail ainsi que la déshumanisation des ouvriers causée par les machines. Dans un deuxième temps, il s’agit de montrer que la poésie des femmes de la classe ouvrière présente une vision très différente de la factory girl : cette dernière peut être utilisée pour véhiculer les valeurs conservatrices de la famille, malgré sa condition sociale. Alors qu’elles ne décrivent pas le travail et l’usine dans leurs poèmes, les femmes des classes populaires insistent sur le potentiel de production et de reproduction de la factory girl – que ce soit à travers l’union matrimoniale ou à travers la passion patriotique. Pour finir, les factory girls qui s’appuient sur leur expérience de l’usine écrivent des poèmes autobiographiques qui valorisent le travail manuel et exaltent leur fierté, leur conscience de classe et le sens de la solidarité et de la collectivité. Alors qu’elles s’inspirent des poèmes bourgeois en adoptant la subjectivité et le sentimentalisme de la classe moyenne, elles cherchent aussi à résister à ses codes poétiques en écrivant leur propre poésie industrielle. La rencontre de toutes ces voix témoigne de la variété des réponses proposées face à l’industrialisation et la mécanisation.

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I would like to thank Professor Neil Davie for offering suggestions resulting in improvements of the earlier draft version of this article.

  • 1 See François Jarrige ed., Dompter Prométhée: Technologies et socialismes à l’âge romantique (1820-1 (...)

1That poetry and technology were not mutually exclusive categories in the nineteenth century is made abundantly clear by the large quantity of scientific verse produced on both sides of the Channel during the period. Mechanical innovation in particular was a favourite subject for science-savvy Victorian male poets, writers, political economists and reformers. In praising the values of machinery,1 their verse generally emphasised that innovation meant more productive, and ultimately more civilised, workers. In short, that technical utopia equalled social utopia. Women poets of the period, in contrast, preferred to embrace industrial culture in a less pragmatic, perhaps more emotional way; contributing poems charged with magnetic attraction or repulsion for machines and for their manual operatives.

2This article will be concerned primarily to explore the various voices in the machine, or rather the voices of those Victorian women who directly addressed the question of factory life. It aims to demonstrate how industrial culture shaped the poetical imaginary of Victorian women in very different ways and led to the emergence of distinct voices; voices which varied significantly according to the social status of the poet. While this article is above all an attempt to analyse the question of the poetical representations of industrial culture, it also explores the expression of women’s desire, a central theme in these industrial poems. Indeed, this emotional engagement with industrial culture is reflected in discourses of hostility, patriotism, fraternity, love and eroticism.

3Attention will be focussed to begin with on the voices of upper and middle-class women poets, whose work created an impetus for social reform, sometimes by offering their own poems as testimonies of the factory workers’ hard daily lives. Their poems denounced the horrendous working conditions in the Victorian factory and the mechanistic dehumanisation of its workers. Yet, by choosing to concentrate above all on the plight of child labourers at the expense of working women, their verse functioned to reinforce domestic ideology; with the result that all women’s work, including factory work, was rendered invisible.

4We shall then contrast these voices with those of women from the skilled working-class who worked outside the factories; women who enjoyed a slightly higher level of income and status and who aspired to a form of gentility. When their poetry engages with industrial culture, it does not pass over the factory girl, but rather paints a socially conservative and idealised image of female industrial labourers, in spite of the latter’s degraded condition; emphasising their productive and reproductive potential. Redemption, in this context, comes from the poet’s quest for respectability.

5The third and final part of this article will turn to considering the poems written by those working class women who experienced factory work at first hand. These ‘factory girls’, as they were called—but also often called themselves—, wrote autobiographical poems from their position as eye-witnesses and constructed their subjectivity as real insiders. They sought through their writing to invest manual labour with prestige and dignity. This reflected their pride in their work, in their working-class identity and a powerful sense of solidarity. In their case, industrial desire takes on a very literal dimension.

6This study will seek to demonstrate that women poets’ engagement with industrial culture is neither wholly antagonistic nor totally supportive. Victorian women’s factory poems are ultimately vehicles of deep and complex attitudes to industrial imagery.

Middle-class Poets and Conservative Radicalism

7The apparently antonymous phrase ‘conservative radicalism’ highlights a recurrent tension in middle-class women’s factory poems. First of all, it is important to note that these writers played a significant role in the history of social reform and in the improvement of workers’ living conditions in the nineteenth century. Their poems articulated a distinctive vision of the factory, often denouncing the horrendous working conditions within its walls; conditions made even worse by the introduction and development of machinery. Female novelists and poets were for the most part sceptical about the technical achievements of their day, choosing to concentrate on the impact of machinery on workers rather than on its potential benefits in terms of output or productivity. However, this progressive or radical message was counterbalanced by a very conservative, and at times hypocritical, view of female work; one that argued that women should be kept out of factories because factory work threatened their respectability and their femininity. In this way, their attacks on machines and factories should be seen as part of a broader project to support the domestic economy and reinforce the existing social and cultural attribution of gender roles.

8As Patricia F. Johnson has shown in Hidden Hands: Working-Class Women and Victorian Social Problem Fiction, Condition-of-England novels written in the middle decades of the nineteenth century never depicted female characters actually working in a factory. To do so would have meant raising the issue of women’s financial independence, which would in turn have constituted a challenge to the mid-Victorian social and economic order:

To narrate the life of a working-class woman meant describing the hard labour she was made to perform, the money she earned in full-time or part-time labour, and the strength and independence that these tasks demanded, all elements which conflicted with the Victorian view of ‘the feminine’ (Johnson 7).

9Female factory work was thus rendered invisible in literary works, with the subject generally either excluded altogether from fiction or depicted only outside the factory walls. Johnson points out that it was more acceptable for novelists of this period to describe prostitution than female factory work. They thus depicted only the consequences, and not the realities, of women’s labour in the factories. What Johnson writes about female work in industrial novels is also applicable to the depiction of women in factory poems. Even though a few middle-class poets address the question of factories in their work, female labour remains firmly hidden from view. In so doing, their verse contributed to fossilising gender roles and identities and reducing women to a state of social and physical infancy.

10Middle-class poets thus unintentionally downgraded workers to the lowly status of mute and robot-like operatives. While a large number of their factory poems refer to linguistic expressivity in their titles with the use of terms like ‘voice’ or ‘curse’, at the same time they deny workers the very right to speak for themselves. The voices of machines to which readers have access are only those of machines, and not those behind the nuts, bolts and iron plates. Their poems thus silenced workers; the latter’s voices drowned out by the sounds of the machine or by the voices of other spokespeople, generally those belonging to a more articulate middle-class background. This group of poets believed that factory girls could not tell their own stories, therefore their poems ended up essentialising Victorian industrial workers as an immutable, homogenous group of passive victims.

11In Aurora Leigh (1856), Elizabeth Barrett Browning has her eponymous heroine literally speak for the uneducated seamstress, Marian Erle, who is portrayed as nothing more than a mute victim of patriarchy and industrialisation:

She told the tale with simple, rustic terms –
Strong leaps of meaning in her sudden eyes
That took the gaps of any imperfect phrase
Of the unschooled speaker: I have rather writ
The thing I understood so, than the thing
I heard so. (Barrett Browning 1993, Book IV, l.151–56)

12Aurora underlines that Marian’s words are incomprehensible and therefore have to be translated into a more formal language in which emotion is central:

I tell her story and grow passionate.
She, Marian, did not tell it so, but used
Meek words that made no wonder of herself
For being so sad a creature. (Book III, 847–50)

13Indeed, in expressing herself on this topic, Aurora ‘grows passionate’ and emotional—the middle-class woman’s way of reacting to the sorry plight of the destitute lower classes, to the unspeakable reality of industrial life. While Marian’s ‘meek words’ are signs of her humility and social invisibility, Aurora’s louder voice is not meant to empower the downtrodden, but rather turns Marian into an irrational being, dominated by her emotional outbursts. The resort to emotion is certainly a means of delivering a stronger form of social criticism, but it also indicates that middle-class poets refused to represent female industrial work directly. Marian’s manual work, which consists in knitting and darning, is dispatched in fifteen lines, leaving the rest of the novel-poem to address what is clearly considered of greater interest: the question of female work and commitment. Seen through the eyes of the two upper-middle class protagonists, the poet Aurora and her cousin Romney, described in Marjorie Stone’s words as ‘an ideologue, wedded as Fourier was to rigid blueprints of reform (Stone 151), the very brief references to factory and manual work evidence that Barrett Browning had either no expertise on the subject or no wish to inquire into what went on behind the factory gates.

14Barrett Browning, like other middle-class women poets, addressed an audience comprised of people like herself. Though quick to denounce the effects of factory work if they threatened the domestic economy and the bourgeois family model, the work of these poets reveals scant knowledge of how industrial labour was actually organised and experienced on the ground. Since female labourers could not be represented for the reasons indicated, this body of work generally focuses instead on the subject of child labourers; certainly more vulnerable, but perhaps also more ideologically acceptable than their mothers and aunts. Women workers, already physically and socially defenceless, were thus further victimised by the way women poets chose to portray them. Their work literally silences the factory worker, maintaining her in a state of infancy; a speechless being who has not yet acquired language, according to the etymology of the word.

15In keeping with contemporary attitudes, women poets tended to essentialise childhood; concentrating their remarks on lost innocence, but certainly not on the pragmatic demands of the economy or on the physical reality of child labour, with its tendency to deform, maim and debilitate. A case in point is the work of Laetitia Elizabeth Landon (1802–1838), aka L. E. L., one of the first middle-class poets to denounce child labour in factories. In ‘The Factory’ (from Fugitive Pieces, 1835), she claimed that England would be cursed as long as children worked in the mills. ‘’[T]is an accursed thing!’ she wrote as an epigraph (L. E. L. 77). In her poem, the power of speech is clearly reserved to those who are able to articulate their condemnation of child exploitation; those whose own children are not among the oppressed. Cursing was thus the middle-class poet’s prerogative, like articulating discourse or using mechanical metaphors.

  • 2 The 1833 Factory Act (3 & 4 Will. IV c.103), also known as Althorp’s Act, stated that no child unde (...)

16Poet and social reformer Caroline Norton took up the same theme in A Voice from the Factories (1836), a 59-stanza poem denouncing the nefarious effects of the 1833 Factory Act. The new legislation made it illegal to employ children in textile factories under the age of nine and imposed limits on working hours for 9 to 18 year-olds, but fell far short of an outright ban on child labour.2 The voice in the title is not the children’s but the poet’s, who declares ‘for You these lines complain!’ The reader is told in emotionally-laden terms about the children’s intense suffering, but the former learns nothing about the veritable nature of child labour:

Ever a toiling child doth make us sad;
’Tis an unnatural and mournful sight,
Because we feel their smiles should be so glad,
Because we know their eyes should be so bright.
What is it, then, when, tasked beyond their might,
They labor all day long for others’ gain, –
Nay, trespass on the still and pleasant night,
While uncompleted hours of toil remain?
Poor little Factory Slaves – for You these lines complain! (IX)

17With factory life often equated by contemporaries with ‘white slavery’, it is no surprise to see that children are associated here with bondage, entitled to suffering but not to rebellion; a common fate in middle-class women’s slavery and factory poems. For example, in stanza XLVI, Norton describes the effects of work on children, which leaves them dumb and lethargic. Indeed, in her portrayal they become little more than puppets:

There the pale Orphan, whose unequal strength
Loathes the incessant toil it must pursue,
Pines for the cool sweet evening’s twilight length,
The sunny play-hour, and the morning’s dew:
Worn with its cheerless life’s monotonous hue,
Bowed down, and faint, and stupefied it stands;
Each half-seen object reeling in its view –
While its hot, trembling, languid little hands
Mechanically heed the Task-master’s commands. (XLVI)

18Norton assigns mechanical characteristics to the child, now depicted as an ‘it’ and turned into a kind of automaton, obeying its master’s orders.

  • 3 House of Commons, ‘Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report (Trades and Manufactures)’ & App (...)

19When female poets described machines that transformed workers into robots, they generally used a common imagery of revolving machinery. A modern version of the Indian Juggernaut, the wheel is seen as a terrible force that destroys identities and causes workers—and children in particular—to lose their humanity. To be broken on the wheel thus acquired a new relevance. Barrett Browning uses this metaphor in ‘The Cry of the Children’, her impassioned response to the second report of the Children’s Employment Commission, submitted to parliament at the beginning of 1843.3 Although Barrett Browning could have drawn on any number of realistic details from the 1843 report to illustrate her poem, she singles out the wheel as a powerful symbol of oppression. Children operate wheels before being themselves reduced to mere wheels or cogs, turning round and round ineffectively and meaninglessly:

For, all day, we drag our burden tiring,
Through the coal-dark, underground –
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round. (Barrett Browning 1994, VI, l.69–72)

20Barrett Browning demonstrates effectively here how industrial work reduced children to mere parts in a machine. In a manner similar to Charlie Chaplin’s character in Modern Times (1936) who cannot refrain from attempting to screw tight the buttons on the clothing of his fellow workers, Barrett Browning’s children are caught up in the mechanical forces that dominate their physical and mental environment. The effects of the turning wheels are so devastating that they bring with them disruption and dislocation, visible in the syntactic chaos of stanza VI that reproduces the confused perceptions of children:

All day long, the wheels are droning, turning, –
Their wind comes in our faces, –
Till our hearts turn, – our heads, with pulses burning,
And the walls turn in their places
Turns the sky in the high window blank and reeling –
Turns the long light that droppeth down the wall, –
Turn the black flies that crawl along the ceiling –
All are turning, all the day, and we with all! –
And all day, the iron wheels are droning;
And sometimes we could pray,
‘O ye wheels,’ (breaking out in a mad moaning)
‘O Stop! be silent for to-day!’ (VI, l.77–88)

21The uncoordinated sentences, the recurrent dashes, the repetition of ‘turn’ in its different grammatical forms, all reflect the disruption brought to the children’s physical environment and its effect on their sensory perceptions. Moreover, although the children’s voices are eventually heard in this stanza, they are mere ‘moans’, covered by the inarticulate sounds of machines; ‘droning’ ominously, like insects swarming around a corpse.

22In stanza VIII, children lose their humanity as organic life has been transferred to the machine, feeding on their bodies and compared to a merciless pagan god:

Let them feel that this cold metallic motion
Is not all the life God fashions or reveals –
Let them prove their inward souls against the notion
That they live in you, or under you, O wheels! –
Still, all day, the iron wheels go onward,
As if Fate in each were stark; (VIII, l.99–104)

23The children have no one to whom they might address their lament. Their own master stands as God’s cruel representative on earth and God’s realm in Heaven actually resembles their workplace. All that remains for them, therefore, is an inarticulate and emotional expression of their situation. The final couplet is indeed double-sided: ‘But the child’s sob curseth deeper in the silence/ Than the strong man in his wrath!’ (XIII). Cursing is children’s response to domination but does it really empower them? Does it give them the possibility to be heard by their oppressors and not only by the right-thinking middle-class who are already convinced by Barrett Browning’s denunciation? Does it make working-class children’s voices more audible for a middle-class audience?

  • 4 However, in her introduction to Factory Lives: Four Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiographie (...)

24In her legitimate denunciation of children’s exploitation, Barrett Browning cannot help offering a biased vision of factory work; one in which children are never really allowed to speak for themselves. She refuses to tackle the question of working women, an issue certainly too sensitive for her; she limits her discussion of factory work to its most simplistic illustrations: the wheel and the noise. She never really confronts the question of industrialisation and mass production; and, by silencing workers, she certainly leaves no room for the depiction of dignity at work. Like her novel-writing counterparts, Barrett Browning’s radical conservatism leaves out the factory girl.4

25For middle-class women poets then, machines serve merely to grind down workers. The following section turns to consider the perspective of poets from the skilled working class. We shall see that their work shares certain poetical features with their middle-class counterparts, but it casts manual workers in a more positive light, giving them a central role in the construction of their poems.

Working-class Women Poets and ‘respectable’ Factory Girls

  • 5 See Donna Landry, The Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women’s Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796 (Cam (...)

26Showing that working-class women did in fact contribute numerous poems on the subject of factory work challenges Donna Landry’s concluding statements in The Muses of Resistance, her important book on the radicalism of eighteenth-century labouring class women’s poetry. In her conclusion, she argues that Victorian women poets were silenced and could not express any form of resistance to the established order of things.5 The reality is more complex. True, virtually no poem describing life on the factory floor or denouncing abusive working conditions can be found in the anthologies of working-class poetry or in the numerous poems published in the local press. However, this does not mean that working-class women poets remained unconcerned by the fate of the factory women. While their poems very rarely describe what went on within the factory walls, they did nevertheless choose to address the ideology of work, of key relevance to female factory workers.

  • 6 For more information about the role of patronage in the publication of volumes of poetry, see Marth (...)

27The publication of working-class poetry was in the hands of middle-class periodical publishers and book editors and was dependent on patronage.6 The result was that the more politically-committed poets were often turned down, and when they were not, the more realistic, therefore controversial, poetic depictions of work were frequently bowdlerised. There are other reasons for the scarcity of factory poems written by working-class authors: poets may simply have wanted to write escapist poems during their very brief moments away from the din and pressure of the factory floor. In addition, many probably would not have wished to offend their mentors and might thus have disguised controversial subjects behind a moralising discourse (Vicinus 173). In the case of the factory girls themselves, they may have feared retaliation from employers after writing autobiographical poems. For this multiplicity of reasons then, most working-class poets believed that working conditions and work in general were subjects that could or should not be represented (See Zlotnick 1998). Indeed, their principal concern was to explore their own conservative ideology of work and the domestic values they considered female factory labour to embody. That being said, they did not avoid entirely the subject of the risks involved in factory work and on rare occasions their verse provides more or less accurate descriptions of what actually went on behind the factory gates.

28The remainder of this second part will deal with the factory poems written by working-class women whose position within the skilled working class meant that they were able to escape the rigours of factory work themselves. The slightly higher level of income and status also meant that they could aspire to a form of gentility. Indeed, they often copied bourgeois poetical codes by adopting middle-class subjectivity and sentimentalism, useful to gain respectability and visibility. They did not however comply fully with bourgeois poetical norms since—unlike middle-class poets—they presented the factory girl in a generally positive light. As a matter of fact, it was precisely the respectability of the female manual worker and her compatibility with conservative values that they wanted to promote. In his study of the late-Victorian working-class in York, Charles Walter Masters explains that the search for respectability was central to workers’ lives: ‘Respectability was embedded in the lives of working people as a worldview that helped them to meet the physical, spiritual and psychological demands of a Christian and increasingly market-led society’ (Masters 1). With poems highlighting workers’ industry, self-restraint, self-reliance, morality, and cleanliness, to name but a few values supported by public discourse, working-class women poets approached industrial culture from the perspective of respectability. In this way they sought to improve the social status of the women they depicted but in so doing also raise their own literary and social status. It would certainly be inappropriate to call these women ‘muses of resistance’, but they did use their emotional and moral engagement with female factory labour as a strategic tool to praise the value of women’s work more generally.

29In ‘The Factory Girl’ (1876), Margaret Theresa Wightman, who worked in the millinery departments of several Dundee stores, calls for respect for these women. In her view, they were more worthy of respect than their more well-off sisters because they contributed both to the country’s wealth and to the domestic economy:

Toiling, with willing heart and hands,
That goodly fruit may come,
Of labour’s wealth to crown the lands,
And gladden many a home.

Toiling that ships with cargoes rare
May proudly sail the sea,
And our merchants dwell in palaces fair,
Like princes sumptuously;

And Trade and Commerce bless the land
Wherever our flag doth wave;
For this doth she toil with willing hand –
That maiden fair and brave. (Wightman 171)

30The fleeting references to physical labour make it almost invisible. However, the metonymic ‘hands’ rhyming with ‘lands’ indicate that women are necessary to increase output and productivity and to create wealth. The values of diligence and industriousness thus take centre stage. Wightman may have wanted to redeem these girls and to give them back a form of dignity as they were often believed to be a danger to society. Factory girls were often said to have disgraced themselves and their families by working outside the home. In this context, skilled working-class women poets were keen to refute this argument and show that the motivation in such cases was not to obtain an independent wage, but to serve the nation. Thus in Wightman’s poem, these ‘maiden[s] fair and brave’, certainly of marriageable age, have their reproductive potential translated into a productive and patriotic potential.

31Very little is known about the Yorkshire poet Charlotte Oates (1856–1900), but, from her poetical themes and choices, we can deduce that she was a working-class woman and as such may have witnessed local girls going to the factory. In her poem ‘Yorkshire Factory Girls’ (1898), her purpose is to show that industrial labour, though rarely considered a subject worthy of poetic treatment, in reality reflects the values of middle-class gentility:

They rise at morn, with cheerful hearts.
While factory bells are ringing;
And make towards the lofty mill’s, –
Their shawls around them clinging.

With dresses neat, and clattering clogs –
Though wet and wild the weather, –
They trudge contentedly to work.
In joyous groups together. (Oates 236)

  • 7 See for example what Louise Raw writes about the social perception of factory girls in the first ch (...)

32The girls are depicted on their way to the mill, but are never described walking through the factory gates. Unlike the Victorian stereotype that tended to depict factory girls as a group as rowdy, disruptive and chaotic,7 Oates’s representation celebrates their femininity and thereby their moral respectability. Their ambivalent position both inside and outside the domestic economy is made clear through the different oxymoronic forms: the girls wear ‘dresses neat’ but also ‘clattering clogs’; they ‘trudge’ to work but they are ‘contented’ to do so; the working teams are replaced by ‘joyous groups’. While descriptions of actual work are passed over in silence, the message is that factory work has made them ‘bonny’, healthy and possibly suitable for marriage:

They love a happy song or jest,
By way of recreation;
And they enjoy a hearty laugh,
And social conversation.

Go where you will, throughout the land,
Amongst all creeds and classes,
None will excel in face and form
These bonny Yorkshire lasses! (237, l. 21–8)

33Their feminine attributes clearly counterbalance the threat to the social order involved in female work. The social and gender order is restored as these factory girls are given no poetical space for complaint or self-perception; they are just shown as prepared for the marriage economy.

34Like Wightman and Oates, Mrs A. Jones, a late-Victorian working-class poet from rural Lancashire, praises the values of femininity combined with the Victorian ethos of hard work in ‘The Croaker: Written to “The Factory Times,” in answer to a grumbling correspondent’ (1890). This poem was written in response to a contributor from a local paper who denounced the economic consequences of industrialisation. According to this anonymous contributor, unemployment was on the rise and the status of work was being degraded as workers who did not control their means of production were replaced by machines:

He speaks of the loom and the spindle
As if they were objects of dread;
Instead of the useful inventions
That provide us with clothes and bread. (Jones 15, l. 5–8)

35While Jones never describes actual factory work, her objective is to redeem it by insisting on the value of work. Unlike the ‘grumbler’, she portrays factory work and industrialisation in a very positive light, because they stand in opposition to one of the worst evils of Victorian society: idleness. Indeed, the word ‘idle’ is central to her poem, indicating that her objective is moral, rather than political. Only the workless are idle and are seen by her as sinners. Indeed, she comes very close in this poem to alleging that the unemployed are to be held personally responsible for their own situation:

Sin and want accompany not labour, –
It is idleness clothes us in rags,
And prompts us to envy the neighbour
Who rides in his coaches and gigs.
’Tis when loom and spindle are silent
That children cry out for bread;
And the mother is so pained to hear them –
For food she sells their warm bed. (l. 9–16)

36As for factory workers, industry itself makes them better Victorians, hardworking and innovative. Jones sees industrial life through rose-tinted glasses as she evidently confuses operatives with engineers in the following stanzas:

Why speak of the factory workers
As a down-trodden spiritless band?
They’re the very backbone of our nation, –
The strength and pride of our land;

Whose genius invented our engines,
And most of our splendid machines:
Instead of idly complaining,
They realized wonderful dreams. (Jones 16, l. 21–28)

37As producers of national wealth, it is natural that workers should become deserving members of the consumer society they have helped to build. Hence they adopt the middle-class values and practices of ‘Work, recreation, and mirth’ (l.32). The self-imposed idleness of the pauper is denounced while the well-deserved recreation of the manual worker who aspires to a middle-class way of life is praised. Labour creates happiness in the workplace but also at home. Indeed, domestic values and job satisfaction cross-fertilise in the following stanza, proving that hard work brings domestic bliss:

But in mills are both men and women
Who are happy and live on good cheer.
Whose homes are a picture of neatness,
Cheerfulness, plenty, and love;
Who go to church on a Sunday,
And worship their Father above. (43–48)

38The poems of these skilled working-class women reveal their interest in, and perhaps their fascination with, the factory girls. While they restore them to respectability by depicting them as workers, they also tend to essentialise them when they present them as an undifferentiated group, and embellish reality while labour itself cannot be represented directly. However enthusiastic they may be about female work, these women are still disconnected from the real life of industrial workers. The following, final part of this article will explore what the interested parties themselves had to say about industrial culture. Indeed, as insiders, factory women were able to tell their own stories; seeing beneath the surface of machines and exploring the meanings of those long days of toil.

‘Factory girls’ and Industrial Desire

  • 8 The ongoing research by the author into the impressive wealth of poetry published in Victorian peri (...)

39The study of a representative number of volumes of poetry penned by factory women demonstrates that, like their skilled working-class sisters, they often rejected realistic representations of work.8 They did so in part for the reasons mentioned above, but they probably also eschewed the description of factory work because they wanted to prove that their lives were not restricted to repetitive tasks and to following orders.

40Meagan Timney offers a skilful analysis of why factory women poets did not foreground work in their poems. She argues that in such works the depiction of physical labour has given way to the higher-status representation of literary labour. They erase the female factory worker’s body and the degraded world of factory workers—one comprised of dirt, violence, rape and children born out of wedlock—and offer a more positive depiction of their role and status. In so doing, they challenge the middle-class women poets’ belief that industrial life is only a matter of resisting (or rather failing to resist) physical pain and suffering. Timney shows that the factory girl poets are also concerned with challenging social and symbolic domination. They place resistance to social invisibility at the heart of their poems by focusing on their artistic achievements. Lucy Larcom’s autobiographical blank verse poem, An Idyl of Work (1875), provides a good example of this. The American poet does not so much write about the material working conditions of the millworkers as about the mill girls’ access to culture and the role of culture in the making of class. According to Mary Loeffelholz, ‘it is the mill girls’ improvised technologies of literacy, not the technologies of manufacturing, that occupy the foreground of An Idyl of Work’ (Loeffelholz 22).

  • 9 I am referring here to E. P. Thompson’s concept of class consciousness and his understanding of cla (...)

41Building on Timney’s reflections on working-class women’s strategies to improve their status, the aim of the following discussion is to suggest that factory girls also resisted degradation and self-deprecation by celebrating the dignity of work and the communal harmony and social cohesion of their industrial environment. Their work overcomes the obsession among middle-class women poets with invisibility, marginalisation and alienation; making up for this invisibility with autobiography. In this way, they reveal the circumstances in which poems were written and offer a broader vision of the living and working conditions of industrial labourers. As primary sources, these poems offer valuable insights into poets’ lives for those interested in history from below and those seeking to explore the making of class consciousness from shared experience.9 They are also interesting as linguistic productions. Historian Patrick Joyce’s argument is relevant here. He writes that the workers’ discursive and social practices underline and reinforce harmony, not only a sense of division, among working people: ‘Consciousness, then, is the capacity, through organisations like parties and unions, to convert sectional, conflicting struggles and interests into solidaristic and political forms’ (Joyce 9). Building on the work of social historians who have focussed on the emergence of discursive productions, we shall see in the following discussion that poetical devices and choices illustrate a sense of commitment, community and fellowship.

  • 10 For a discussion of some female factory poets (‘Marie’, Mary Hutton, Fanny Forrester, and Ellen Joh (...)

42It is no surprise that only a small number of albums were written by factory women, and only a handful of those include poems about factory work.10 For most of these women, like their male counterparts, work was depicted in an allegorical way with very few autobiographical elements. A first example is that of ‘Marie’ (her dates are unknown but she was writing in the 1850s), a dye-worker from Chorley who only published poems in periodicals such as The People’s Journal or Eliza Cook’s Journal. In her verse, she depicts herself as a woman, a worker and a visionary poet, seeking to bring spiritual renewal and hope through manual work in a manner very similar to the allegories of the Chartist poets (Zlotnick 1991, 17). A second case is that of Fanny Forrester (1828–83), another dyeworker from Pendleton, who chose to ‘embrace the discourse of expressivity and the conventions of femininity and domesticity implicit in it’ (Zlotnick 1998, 22), and describe the sufferings of slave-like female workers. As for Ruth Wills (1826–1908), employed in a Leicester hosiery factory and later an invalid, factory work does not feature in her poems but she dedicated a second volume of her verse ‘to the firm of N. Corah and Sons, Leicester’ (Wills n.p.).

43Having direct experience of factory work did not inspire the women just cited to write poems about their working conditions, but it did induce them to look for acceptable poetical strategies to present a female perspective on paid work. In addition to the fact that this body of verse only very rarely deprecates factory work—and therefore the occupations of its authors—but rather presents work as a core social and moral value, it is also important to note that these poems regularly highlight workers’ social life. Meagan Timey has identified an interesting poem in this regard by ‘Aurora’ (a probable allusion to Aurora Leigh). It is entitled ‘In the Mill’, and was published in The Yorkshire Times in 1896. Like Barrett Browning, Aurora uses the image of the wheel to depict repetitive and meaningless labour, but interestingly she also inserts short descriptions of a factory worker’s social life that interrupt the pace of work:

At breakfast time the engine stops,
And all is hushed and still,
Except where some remain behind
To breakfast in the mill.
The breakfast done, round fly again
The rattling, whizzing wheels; […]

Round fly the wheels, the belts and drums,
With dreary, dreadful sound,
Until the time at mid
day comes
That brings the meal time round;
Then home the various workers go,
With hurrying, skurrying [
sic] steps,
Glad to escape an hour or so
From pieces, warps, and skeps.
The dinner past, then back once more

To finish out the day;
Glad when the tedious task is o’er
And toil gives place to play. (Aurora l.9–14; l.25–36, quoted by Timney 332–3)

44Here, the emotional disturbance caused by factory work is expressed through repetitive figures (successive -ING forms making physical tasks more tangible; sequences of monosyllables speeding up the poetic rhythm; alliterations in [d] on line 26 and in [p] on l. 32 hammering the poet’s anti-mechanical message). In contrast, the workers’ moments of relief are conveyed through uncut lines and run-on lines.

  • 11 See Susan Zlotnick, ‘“A Thousand Times I’d be a Factory Girl”: Dialect, Domesticity and Working-Cla (...)

45The question of factory workers’ social life is central to the poems of Ellen Johnston (1835–1873), a Scottish power-loom weaver. A study of her work will form the main subject of the last part of this section. Johnston’s verse has received significant attention from researchers but up to now has only been studied from the perspective of working-class aesthetics.11 The objective here in contrast is to focus on the important but less familiar question of the representation of the workers’ social life in her factory poems. As Susan Zlotnick has noted, Johnston’s verse should be seen as fundamentally autobiographical; indeed it probably constitutes the closest representations in existence in poetic form of the real lives of female factory workers in the Victorian period. Johnston’s poetry presents readers with a detailed picture of factory culture; one where ‘the mill rather than the home emerges as the emotional center of her life’ (Zlotnick 1991, 23). In this conception, morality is to be found at work, not at home (Zlotnick 1991, 22). Unlike Fanny Forrester, she never depicts domestic life in a sentimental way but offers a passionate and melodramatic discourse on factory life. In Johnston’s case, ‘industrial desire’ is taken very literally. The factory becomes the locus of an elaborate expression of emotions and desires, showing that factory culture is first about connecting people before it is about work.

  • 12 All the poems quoted in this article are taken from the 1867 edition of Johnston’s book of poems. B (...)

46Ellen Johnston referred to herself as ‘the Factory Girl’: a personal choice that asserts both her class and gender. She was born in Lanarkshire and worked in the textile factories of Glasgow, Belfast and Dundee. She wrote numerous poems for working-class journals and eventually, in 1867, she managed to publish her only collection of literary work, Autobiographies, Poems, Songs, and the ‘Factory Girl’, thanks to local subscriptions and to her mentor, the Owenite Dundee editor Alexander Campbell. It was published with a testimonial from Reverend George Gilfillan, a supporter of working-class poets, and sold 800 copies, a remarkable number of sales. This was followed two years later by a second edition.12

47Johnston’s poems are striking examples of the complex representations of work by industrial poets. As might be expected, Johnston wrote lots of poems about the drudgery, exhaustion, low wages and constant danger faced by workers in the jute industry. However, for her, the factory, with its dirt, noise and violence, is also, paradoxically, a place of inspiration as in ‘Lines to Edith: with C. D. Russell’s and the Factory Girls Cartes’:

’Tis not within the fragrant vale I gather summer flowers,
Nor is it in the garden fair I roam through dreamland bowers;
It is within the massive walls of factory dust and din
That I must woo my humble muse, her favour still to win. […]

It is amidst pestiferous oil that I inhale my breath,
’Midst pond’rous shafts revolving round the atmosphere of death. (Johnston 183)

  • 13 Here is a list of some of Johnston’s poems written for factory outings: (106), ‘Tennant’s Excursion (...)

48The specificity of Johnston’s verse also concerns her representation of the working-class social calendar. She aims to show that fraternity is a central value in industrial culture. The happy moments of industrial life inspire numerous poems for specific venues and audiences. For example, Johnston composed poems for factory-organised trips or for ceremonies and often recited or sang them on such occasions (Rosen 217–19).13 These poems are about fraternity and paternalism; attitudes often celebrated in poems by factory girls. What Patrick Joyce writes about paternalist fiction is transferrable to poetry: ‘paternalistic fiction . . .  represented a powerful aspiration to realise in the sphere of work that sense of fraternity so widely evident in popular values at the time’ (Joyce 122). While Johnston seized the opportunity of factory outings to display her own poetical skills and her strong sense of self-worth as a factory worker, as a woman and as a poet, she mostly aimed to show that industrial culture is about shared happiness and the desire to be together.

49In ‘Galbraith’s Trip’, Johnston describes an outing of six hundred co-workers from Galbraith’s spinning and weaving mills, with the group taking a boat from Glasgow down the Clyde to Rothesay. The poem stresses the sense of community created by this social event:

Joy and contentment beamed on every face,
With singing, dancing, music everywhere;
No matter where we went, we still could trace
The sweet endearments of enjoyment there;
No gloomy care, with chilling breath, did nip
The hearts of those that were at Galbraith’s trip. (Johnston 108)

50The sense of fraternity emerges not only from such shared moments with co-workers but also from the interaction of the different levels in the factory hierarchy; this is where paternalism plays a key role. This can be seen in the following lines that rhetorically mirror the integration of masters and workers and their fraternal bonds: ‘Our honour’d Provost’s humble sons of toil,/ Linked hand and heart in union’s social sway;’ In the closing lines that are typical of paternalistic verse, the poet offers her thanks to the factory’s masters:

We landed safe, and now our trip is o’er,
And we have all resumed our work again,
And may our labour flourish on the shore,
Jewelled with records of our masters’ fame;
Tho’ time around their brows her wreaths doth knit,
Long may they live to see their workers’ Trip.

  • 14 This is precisely the message conveyed in Ruth Wills’s poem, ‘A Celebration’, about a festival orga (...)

51For Johnston, these factory events contribute to strengthening industrial bonds, both now and in the future. The spiral of work is broken as the poem ends with the prospect of future outings; masters accruing not wealth and profits, but the well-being of their employees.14

52By comparison, ‘St Leonard’s Works Excursion’, a poem by Mrs D. H. Gordon, aka ‘Violet’, offers a striking example of a poet who has fully integrated her subaltern position. She was a linen worker in Dunfermline Erskine Beveridge & Co, the leading centre of fine linen manufacture in Scotland. Her work articulates her unconditional loyalty and devotion to her benefactor, thereby reinforcing the conventional social and economic categories of Victorian society:

An’ syne, when the dance was commencing’
The ‘maisters’ were first tae begin –
Nae wonder the ‘workers’ a’ like them,
Sae friendly, sae gracious, an’ kin’. […]

May the business o’ Be’ridge & Co.
Still steadily increase each year!
May prosperity circle a’ centre
Roond them, an’ roond a’ they hold dear. (Mrs Gordon 21)

53While ‘Violet’’s poem underlines her subordinate position and Johnston’s perpetuates paternalism, the work of both women also indicates that industrial culture includes alternative, and often unconscious, strategies to celebrate the position of the female industrial worker.

54Instead of making Johnston mute and powerless, factory work stimulates her creativity; making her feel more alive and sending emotions coursing through her poems. Her workers never resemble the robots depicted by middle-class poets. ‘A Thousand Times I’d Be a Factory Girl’, Johnston writes in ‘An Address to Napier’s Dockyards’ (12), as she realises how fulfilling her working life and environment are. Although she sometimes falls prey to depression, she soon finds solace in fraternity and friendship with her co-workers and, more interestingly, with her masters. Patrick Joyce explains that ‘master’ is a complicated notion in popular discourse (Joyce 122, Rosen 218). Johnston is no exception to the rule as her use of the word covers a wide range of meanings from employer to expert, from owner to highly regarded teacher, from workman to lover.

55For example, in ‘Kennedy’s Dear Mill’, she intertwines love for millwork, for the Kennedy factory in Belfast and for her master, Kennedy himself:

Thou hast a secret spell
For all as well as me;
Each girl loves thee well
That ever wrought in thee.
They may leave thy blessed toil;
But, find work they will,
They return back in a while
To Kennedy’s dear mill. (Johnston 19)

56In this stanza, ‘thou’ refers to the mill as well as its master to whom workers feel drawn as by uncontrollable fascination—a mixture of fraternity, paternalism and domination:

We feel no coward fear
When our dear master comes
And when he’s standing near,
And gazing on our looms,
He hails us with a smile
That is a brother’s still
No haughty lord of toil
Owns Kennedy’s dear mill (20)

  • 15 For example, Johnston wrote in her autobiography that she had to leave Dundee’s Verdant Factory as (...)

57Johnston was fired several times15 but each dismissal resulted in new poems, celebrating her attachment to her masters, her work and even the machines. In ‘The Factory Girl’s Farewell’, a poem of adieu to Galbraith mill in Glasgow, she addresses the male power-loom operatives first, and then she takes leave of the mill itself by naming the different workshops and by giving thanks to the foremen, her ‘masters’. Depicted in terms which are both fraternal and erotic, the all-male environment of the poem contrasts strongly with middle-class poets’ representations of factories that fall prey to sinister male forces. There is no sign here of isolation, danger or sexual promiscuity—all familiar tropes in industrial novels—because, for her, male power is protective:

Farewell John Fairlie and James Weir
‘Dick’, ‘Tom’, and ‘Jim’, and Number One,
The Brothers Lambert, not long here,
And likewise Samuel Sunderland
Whose sunny smile and swelling song
Oft bound me in a mystic spell,
And smoothed me with its melting tone:
So Galbraith’s bonny mill, farewell! (Johnston 95)

58This lively description reveals that friendship is central to creating bonds and smoothing over turbulent relationships. She insists that friendship with men, and particularly those higher in the hierarchy, is possible precisely because this friendship emerges from the workplace. ‘Lines to Mr James Dorward, Powerloom Foreman, Chapelshade Works Dundee…’ is written in Lowland Scots, which helps capture the friendship and the strong link uniting the co-workers. In The Industrial Muse, Martha Vicinus suggested that dialect ‘came to be the literary language of the well-established factory workers who sought a reflection of their ideals and customs’ (Vicinus 187). Here Johnston thanks Jamie for helping a friend in need of a job in a Dundee mill, presented as a place of lasting content: ‘Pale poverty stood at my door, my hope on earth was fled,/ Until I found a resting-place within the Chapelshade’ (7–8). Work has brought happiness: ‘I’m happy as a queen, Jamie, in the bonny Chapelshade’ (19). The strong expressions of gratitude contrast with the laconic depiction of poverty, a sign that work has revived her emotional life.

59Johnston goes further in destabilising the gender, social and literary codes, when she praises her male co-workers in erotic terms. H. Gustav Klaus has already underlined the erotic potential of the male worker in Johnston’s poems: ‘To have focused on the male component of the working class and endowed it with redemptive faculties for labour as a whole was thus a deliberate choice connected . . .  with the glamorisation of the male body’ (Klaus 42). ‘Lines to a Lovely Youth, a Boatbuilder Leaving the Town’ is a vivid example of Johnston’s erotic reconstruction. This poem is a blazon, a traditionally male poetical genre, which underlines the objectifying power of the female gaze; drawing up an inventory of the different parts of the face and upper body of the manual labourer. The focus on the desirable body of the male factory worker shows that manual labour serves to celebrate men’s bodies and stature: neither broken nor diminished by manual work, they are turned into superior objects of desire, paradoxically recovering a form of humanity:

O who could gaze upon thy handsome form
And meet those glances of such starlight brightness,
Thy glowing cheeks, like rose of summer’s morn,
Thy ruby lips, and teeth of pearly whiteness –
O who could look on such a form as thine
And feel no love around her bosom twine? (Johnston 51)

60The eroticisation of the male body is not limited to the body of industrial workers as the foremen’s and the master’s bodies are also singled out for the poet’s attention, for example in ‘Lines Most Respectfully Dedicated to James Kennedy, Esq., of Bedford Street Weaving Factory, Belfast’. Here, Johnston praises Kennedy’s partner for his physical magnetism, stressing thereby that she is totally fulfilled, morally and sensuously:

Thy partner in the ‘firm’, he too is all
In face or form that woman can admire –
So graceful and so pleasant – young and tall –
With eyes that burn like cupid’s melting fire;
They pierce my bosom like a two-edged dart,
Leaving a sunshine gleaming in my heart.
The first time I beheld him gently glide
In prince-like glee around our little shed,
I thought I would have sunk down by his side. (Johnston 67)

  • 16 While true of the social historians of the 1960s-’80s, this remark is not the case for the more rec (...)

61Ellen Johnston’s erotic reconstruction of factory culture certainly protects her from the violence and dehumanisation of industrial labour. However, seen from a political perspective, it is clear that industrial desire also functions to empower female workers, whose role in class politics was too often overlooked by many social historians.16 And indeed Johnston’s industrial desire supports the idea that class consciousness is not only a question of economic domination, but also a matter of social relationships. By emphasising strong emotional connections to industrial culture, her poems re-humanise workers and give them a sense of pride and worth. Factory girls are not the immature, marginalised and victim-like creatures presented by the women poets who perceived female factory workers from outside. For Johnston, whose poetic persona was fashioned out of the image of the factory girl, they could also be proud, strong, independent and respected by their peers.


  • 17 Anon., ‘The Factory Poetess’, from The Working Man, May 5th, 1866. Cited by Boos 2008, 231.

62It is the factory girls’ expression of emotion, feeling and desire for co-workers and supervisors that illuminates their perception of industrial culture. Factory culture constructs and is constructed by the emotional life of industrial women poets, precisely because their culture is not only about work, about obeying orders or about being victims of industrialisation. Their poems are also often about emotional tension, satisfaction, longing, sometimes love. The poetical testimony of these factory girls is highly significant when it comes to understanding the true emotions of the factory workers ‘amid the din of the factories and the noise of the workshops’, as a contemporary journalist put it.17

63This article has argued that the study of the poetic voices of these women poets from different social backgrounds indicates that that there is no clear-cut and unique response to industrialisation and mechanisation among Victorian women poets. However, what these Victorian women poets of all classes have in common is a strong emotional engagement with industrial culture; one that ignites passionate feelings and reactions. The most emotionally-charged poems were written in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s, three decades during which industrialisation altered the lives of women and children as much as those of men.

64In the last quarter of the century, the tone changed significantly for all women poets. Passions died down while humour, irony and cynicism came to the fore in factory poems. Many factors are at work here. Economic change and legal developments are part of the explanation. Darwinism also doubtlessly played a major role in the construction of a new perception of factories; one that placed the machine at the centre of late nineteenth-century factory poems. The evolution of machines contributed to directing women’s attention toward the question of social progress. It can be noted that there are a number of late-Victorian poems in which machines play a major role in the evolution, or rather regression, of humankind. There was agreement among women poets of this period that modern techniques had evolved too quickly, causing the emergence of all sorts of bizarre inventions and social misfits: Charlotte Oates’s ‘up-to-date woman’ on a bike (Oates, ‘A Cynics Opinion in the New Woman’ 248); Lady Dufferin’s ‘whizzing things with wheels’ that replace the ‘old British thimble’ (Lady Dufferin, ‘Mrs. Harris’s Soliloquy While Threading her Needle’ 213–14); or even Fabian poet May Kendall’s ‘Conquering Machine’, a warning to readers against ‘The Automatic Soul’ (Kendall, ‘The Conquering Machine’ 29).

65However enthusiastic the late-Victorian women poets may seem at first in their poems about mechanically produced things, they were also quick to point out the limits of technical evolution in terms of social progress. They denounced machines that standardise identities and create genderless monsters and uprooted lives. In a sense, class, subjectivity and desire had disappeared from these later poems that tended to converge toward one goal: the denunciation of automation and of manufactured objects. But in so doing, their poems also silenced the voices of factory workers.

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Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Aurora Leigh. 1856. Oxford: OUP, 1993.

Barrett Browning, The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1994.

Boos, Florence. ‘The Poetics of the Working Class’. Victorian Poetry 39.2 (2001): 103–10.

Boos, Florence. ‘The “Queen” of the “Far-Famed Penny Post”: “The Factory Girl Poet” and Her Audience’. Women’s Writing 10.3 (2003): 503–26.

Boos, Florence. Working-Class Women Poets in Victorian Britain. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2008.

Burnett John, David Vincent, and David Mayall, eds. The Autobiography of the Working-Class, 1790–1900: An Annotated Critical Bibliography. New York: New York UP, 1984.

Carlisle, Janice. ‘Introduction’. Factory Lives: Four Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiographies. Ed. James R. Simmons. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2007: 11–76.

Dufferin, Lady. Songs, Poems, and Verses. London: John Murray, 1894.

Falke, Cassandra. Literature by the Working Class: English Autobiographies, 1820–1848. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2013.

Honeyman, Katrina. Women, Gender and Industrialisation in England, 1700–1870. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Jarrige, François, ed. Dompter Prométhée: Technologies et socialismes à l’âge romantique (1820–1870). Besançon: Presses universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2016.

Johnson, Patricia F. Hidden Hands: Working-Class Women and Victorian Social Problem Fiction. Athens: Ohio UP, 2001.

Johnston, Ellen. Autobiographies, Poems, Songs, of Ellen Johnston, the ‘Factory Girl’. Glasgow: William Love, 1867.

Joyce, Patrick. Visions of the People: Industrial England and the Question of Class 1848–1914. Cambridge: CUP, 1991.

Klaus, Gustav. H. Factory Girl: Ellen Johnston and Working-Class Poetry in Victorian Scotland. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1998.

L. E. L. The Poetical Works of Laetitia Elizabeth Landon. Philadelphia, PA: Jas. B. Smith & Co, 1859.

Landry, Donna. The Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women’s Poetry in Britain, 1739–1796. Cambridge, CUP, 1990.

Loeffelholz, Mary. ‘“A Strange Medley-Book”: Lucy Larcom’s An Idyl of Work’, The New England Quarterly 80.1 (2007): 5–34.

Masters, Charles Walter. The Respectability of Late Victorian Workers: A Case Study of York, 1867–1914. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010.

Moine, Fabienne. ‘Poèmes et vie d’Ellen Johnston, “Factory Girl” à Glasgow : de la détresse industrielle à la poétisation de la condition ouvrière’. Vivre la ville en Ecosse. Dir. Rosie Findlay, Trin Tran et William Findlay. Tours: Presses universitaires François Rabelais, 32 (2005): 55–69.

Mrs A. Jones. Poems and Songs, Written in Spare Moments. Preston: R. Parkinson & Co., 1890.

Norton, Caroline. A Voice from the Factories, published with William Dodd, The Laboring Classes of England: especially those engaged in agriculture and manufactures; in a series of letters. Boston: Putnam, 1847.

Oates, Charlotte. Miscellaneous Poems, Songs and Rhymes. Bradford: J. S. Toothill, 1898.

Raw, Louise. Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and Their Place in History. London: Continuum, 2011.

Reilly, Catherine W. Late-Victorian Poetry 1880–1899: An Annotated Biobibliography. New York: Mansell, 1994.

Reilly, Catherine W. Mid-Victorian Poetry 1860–1879: An Annotated Biobibliography. New York. Mansell, 2000.

Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. New Haven & London: Yale UP, 2001.

Rose, Sonya O. Limited Livelihoods: Gender and Class in Nineteenth-Century England. Berkeley: California U.P., 1992.

Rosen, Judith. ‘Class and Poetic Communities: The Works of Ellen Johnston, “The Factory Girl”’, Victorian Poetry 39.2 (2001): 207–27.

Simmons, James R., ed. Factory Lives: Four Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiographies. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2007.

Stone, Marjorie. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1995.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the British Working Class. 1963. New York: Vintage, 1966.

Timney, Meagan. ‘Of Factory Girls and Serving Maids: The Literary Labours of Working-Class Women in Victorian Britain’, PhD. Halifax: Dalhousie University, 2009.

Vicinus, Martha. The Industrial Muse: A Study of Nineteenth Century British Working-Class Literature. London: Croom Helm, 1974.

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Wightman, Margaret Theresa. The Faithful Shepherd and Other Poems. Edinburgh and Glasgow: John Menzies, 1876.

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1 See François Jarrige ed., Dompter Prométhée: Technologies et socialismes à l’âge romantique (1820-1870) (Besançon: Presses universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2016) and in particular Jarrige’s introduction “Machines et socialismes à l’ère industrielle” 7–53.

2 The 1833 Factory Act (3 & 4 Will. IV c.103), also known as Althorp’s Act, stated that no child under nine years of age could work in textile employment; children of 9-13 years could work up to nine hours a day and those of 13-18 years up to 12 hours a day.

3 House of Commons, ‘Children’s Employment Commission: Second Report (Trades and Manufactures)’ & Appendix, Parliamentary Papers, 1843, 13–14.

4 However, in her introduction to Factory Lives: Four Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiographies, ed. James R. Simmons (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2007), Janice Carlisle gives the example of a former child labourer who considered Barrett Browning’s poem to be an inspiring and comforting kind of autobiography in verse (39).

5 See Donna Landry, The Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women’s Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796 (Cambridge: CUP, 1990). For Landry, poems were gradually replaced by prose autobiographies from the 1830s. On working-class autobiographies, see the four Victorian industrial autobiographies edited by James R. Simmons in Factory Lives: Four Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiographies; see also David Vincent, Bread, Knowledge, and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography (London: Europa Publications, 1981); Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven & London: Yale UP, 2001); Cassandra Falke, Literature by the Working Class: English Autobiographies, 1820-1848 (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2013). Female autobiographies represent only 70 autobiographies out of the 783 listed in The Autobiography of the Working-Class, 1790-1900: An Annotated Critical Bibliography, eds. John Burnett, David Vincent, and David Mayall (New York: New York UP, 1984).

6 For more information about the role of patronage in the publication of volumes of poetry, see Martha Vicinus, The Industrial Muse: A Study of Nineteenth Century British Working-Class Literature (London: Croom Helm, 1974) 159–79. George Washington Bethune, Mary and William Howitt and the Scottish editors D. E. Edwards and George Gilfillan were among the major middle-class patrons. But there were also editors from a working-class background such as Eliza Cook or Ben Brierley. On these editors, see for example Florence Boos, ‘The Poetics of the Working Class’, Victorian Poetry 39/2 (2001) :103–10.

7 See for example what Louise Raw writes about the social perception of factory girls in the first chapter, ‘Angels in the House and Factory Girls’ in Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and Their Place in History (London: Continuum, 2011) 27–54.

8 The ongoing research by the author into the impressive wealth of poetry published in Victorian periodicals hopes to reveal unsuspected poetical treasures about women’s working conditions in factories.

9 I am referring here to E. P. Thompson’s concept of class consciousness and his understanding of class as a ‘relationship’ not as ‘structure’ in The Making of the British Working Class (1963). While Thompson’s study neglects women’s role in the making of politics, this article aims to prove that factory girls were agents of transformation through poetry writing.

10 For a discussion of some female factory poets (‘Marie’, Mary Hutton, Fanny Forrester, and Ellen Johnston), see Meagan Timney’s PhD, ‘Of factory girls and serving maids: the literary labours of working-class women in Victorian Britain’ as well as Boos’s anthology: Working-Class Women Poets: an Anthology (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2008). For further references to factory poets, see also Catherine W. Reilly’s two biobibliographical volumes: Late-Victorian Poetry 1880–1899: An Annotated Biobibliography (New York: Mansell, 1994) and Mid-Victorian Poetry 1860–1879: An Annotated Biobibliography (New York. Mansell, 2000).

11 See Susan Zlotnick, ‘“A Thousand Times I’d be a Factory Girl”: Dialect, Domesticity and Working-Class Women’s Poetry in Victorian Britain’, Victorian Studies 35.1 (1991); H. Gustav Klaus, Factory Girl: Ellen Johnston and Working Class Poetry in Victorian Scotland (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1998); Judith Rosen, ‘Class and Poetic Communities: The Works of Ellen Johnston, “The Factory Girl”’, Victorian Poetry 39.2 (2001); Florence Boos, ‘The “Queen” of the “Far-Famed Penny Post”: “The Factory Girl Poet” and Her Audience’, Women’s Writing 10.3 (2003) and the chapter dedicated to Johnston in the anthology Working-Class Women Poets in Victorian Britain; and my own article, ‘Poèmes et vie d’Ellen Johnston, “Factory Girl” à Glasgow : de la détresse industrielle à la poétisation de la condition ouvrière’, in Rosie Findlay, Trin Tran & William Findlay (dir.), Vivre la ville en Ecosse (Tours: Presses Universitaires François Rabelais), n° 32, 2005, 55–69.

12 All the poems quoted in this article are taken from the 1867 edition of Johnston’s book of poems. But a large part of her poems were published in local periodicals at least one decade earlier.

13 Here is a list of some of Johnston’s poems written for factory outings: (106), ‘Tennant’s Excursion’ (109), ‘Kennedy’s Factory Forever’ (217), written on the occasion of a trip to the Giant’s Causeway, and ‘Linfield, the Boast of Green Erin’ (219) sung during a visit to Belfast’s Botanic Gardens.

14 This is precisely the message conveyed in Ruth Wills’s poem, ‘A Celebration’, about a festival organised by Corah and Sons on the occasion of the opening of their new factory. According to Wills, the festival is uniting ‘wise brain and working hand’:
May workers and employers
Each for the other care,
And in a generous spirit,
Each other’s burden bear (121)

15 For example, Johnston wrote in her autobiography that she had to leave Dundee’s Verdant Factory as she ‘was discharged by the foreman without any reason assigned or notice given’ (14). She decided to sue the foreman and won the case, pocketing one week’s salary. Johnston often accuses the other factory girls of being jealous of her literary success and of sending anonymous letters to her foremen, leading to her summary dismissals.

16 While true of the social historians of the 1960s-’80s, this remark is not the case for the more recent generation. See for example: Sonya O. Rose, Limited Livelihoods: Gender and Class in Nineteenth-Century England (Berkeley: California U.P., 1992) and Katrina Honeyman, Women, Gender and Industrialisation in England, 1700–1870 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

17 Anon., ‘The Factory Poetess’, from The Working Man, May 5th, 1866. Cited by Boos 2008, 231.

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Fabienne Moine, « Voices in the Machine: Class, Subjectivity and Desire in Victorian Women’s Factory Poems », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 87 Printemps | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2018, consulté le 21 janvier 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.3550

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Fabienne Moine

Fabienne Moine is Professor of British Studies at the University of Paris Est Créteil. She is the author of a doctoral thesis on the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and has written several articles on Victorian women’s poetry combining her interests in nineteenth-century gender studies and in the poetical forms of social history. She completed a book in French in 2010 on Victorian women’s poetry and the cross-fertilization of genre and gender: Playing with Genre and Gender: The Poetry and Identity of Victorian Women Poets (L’Harmattan). Her second book, Women Poets in the Victorian Era: Cultural Practices and Nature Poetry (Ashgate 2015; Routledge 2016) views Victorian women’s poems about the natural world as sites of resistance to the forces of economic, social and cultural domination. She is currently working on the representations of work, economy and non-market exchanges in Victorian women’s poetry.
Fabienne Moine est professeure de civilisation britannique à l’Université Paris Est Créteil. Elle est l’auteure d’une thèse sur la poésie engagée d’Elizabeth Barrett Browning et a écrit plusieurs articles sur la poésie des victoriennes selon une approche qui associe les questions de genre et les formes poétiques de l’histoire sociale. Elle a publié deux ouvrages : Poésie et identité féminines en Angleterre 1830-1900 : Le Genre en jeu (L’Harmattan, 2010) qui analyse la façon dont la poésie des victoriennes remet en question les représentations des rapports de genre. Dans Women Poets in the Victorian Era: Cultural Practices and Nature Poetry (Ashgate 2015 ; Routledge 2016), elle explore la façon dont certaines questions politiques et sociales sont représentées au sein des poèmes naturalistes, scientifiques et animaliers des victoriennes. Dans ses recherches actuelles, elle analyse les représentations du travail, des formes économiques et des échanges (formels ou informels) au cœur des poèmes des victoriennes.

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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