Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Piece Work: Mosaic, Feminine Influence, and Charlotte Yonge's Beechcroft at Rockstone

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Piece Work: Mosaic, Feminine Influence, and Charlotte Yonge's Beechcroft at Rockstone

Article excerpt

Charlotte Yonge's fiction has generally, and with good reason, been seen to promote a conservative and domestic femininity, to reflect her position within the Oxford Movement, and to adhere to models of feminine and popular authorship (Dennis, Sturrock "Heaven and Home"; Thompson Reviewing Sex). Her novel Beechcroft at Rockstone (1887-1888), however, appears at first glance to offer a more radical perspective on the Woman Question. In this novel, the town's local doyenne Jane Mohun wants Kalliope White, the chief mosaicist for a local marble works, to join the Girls' Friendly Society, not for Kalliope's own benefit, but to provide an example for the group of girls who work below Kalliope in the mosaic department. As Jane's niece Gillian assures Kalliope, "nothing was expected from her but a certain influence in the right direction" (98). In this novel, Kalliope's ability to exert "influence" on the young women employed under her is a direct reflection of the notion of feminine influence that characterized the domestic ideal. Kalliope is portrayed as unproblematically fulfilling "woman's mission" among her fellow workers, converting the workplace into a domestic space, effecting the morality of the women who work there, counseling one against committing an "act of folly," and generally appearing "modest and ladylike" (95, 58). From the perspective of her fellow work women, Kalliope's goodness, beauty, and innate gentility make her "admired--almost worshipped by them as the glory of the workshop" (83). Although the language employed here recalls the secular veneration accorded to the ideal of the Angel in the House, Yonge crucially transforms Kalliope from the domestic goddess to the industrial goddess.

The description of Kalliope as the "glory of the workshop" suggests a more progressive and emancipated heroine that seems starkly at odds with the usual portrayal of the artistic working woman in Yonge's fiction. Characters such as Ermine Williams of The Clever Woman of the Family and Geraldine Underwood of The Pillars of the House routinely subordinate their ambitions to their domestic identity and send only their work out into the wider world to disseminate womanly influence. Equally, Kalliope's Greek heritage, her fringed hair that "consisted of little wavy curls on the temples, increasing her classical look," and her unusual name that links her to the mythological Muse of epic poetry evokes the iconographic Aesthetic woman (52). But, regardless of the more advanced portrayal of female labor that occurs here, this novel can by no stretch of the imagination be described as Yonge's foray into New Woman fiction or Aestheticism, and the portrayal of Kalliope as an industrial goddess seems particularly incongruous coming from the pen of such a well-known conservative and religious female novelist. This article argues that this seeming contradiction is in fact a much more straightforward consequence of Yonge's reflection on the exact form of work in which Kalliope is engaged. As a mosaicist, Kalliope reflects the very specific implications that attended the social conception of mosaic work. This article will begin by detailing the scope and impact of discourses concerning mosaic work in the 1860s-1880s, and will conclude by exploring the way in which Yonge draws upon the unique status of mosaic among the British art-industries.

"A NEW INDUSTRY FOR WOMEN"

A wider variety of opportunities for professional and industrial work for women was created by the efforts to improve the principles of art and design in British manufacturing that gathered speed in the second half of the nineteenth century after a number of innovations, including the Great Exhibition, the establishment of the Department of Science and Art, and the development of the national system of Schools of Art. (2) The best known and most studied of these arts, such as china and pottery painting, illustrating and wood engraving, embroidery and art needlework, and interior design, are industries that were in one way or another tied to the amateur, the private, and the domestic. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.