In The Labors of Modernism, Mary Wilson analyzes the unrecognized role of domestic servants in the experimental forms and narratives of Modernist fiction by Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Nella Larsen, and Jean Rhys. Examining issues of class, gender, and race in a transatlantic Modernist context, Wilson brings attention to the place where servants enter literature: the threshold. In tracking their movements across the architectural borders separating indoors and outdoors and across the physical doorways between rooms, Wilson illuminates the ways in which the servants who open doors symbolize larger social limits and exclusions, as well as states of consciousness. The relationship between female servants and their female employers is of particular importance in the work of female authors, for whom the home and the novel are especially interconnected sites of authorization and domestication. Modernist fiction, Wilson shows, uses domestic service to tame and interrogate not only issues of class, but also the overlapping distinctions of racial and ethnic identities. As Woolf, Stein, Larsen, and Rhys use the novel to interrogate the limitations of gendered domestic ideologies, they find they must deploy these same ideologies to manage the servant characters whose labor maintains the domestic spaces they find limiting. Thus the position of servants in these texts forces the reader to recognize servants not just as characters, but as conditions for the production of literature and of the homes in which literature is created.
'… this is an intellectually vigorous and focused work that successfully combines analyses of class, race, gender and architecture in the work of these modernist writers.' Times Literary Supplement ’… there may be aspects of postcolonial critical discourse, as well as modernist literary texts, that we will now have to read differently in light of Wilson’s excellent and thoroughly enjoyable book.’ Modernism-Modernity '… lively and instructive …' Woolf Studies Annual ’I find Wilson’s aim in this project worthwhile, its breadth exciting and its argument provocative. Her intense focus on domestic service and her interdisciplinary array of sources open modernist studies up to new interpretive and critical possibilities.’ Virginia Woolf Bulletin 'Wilson adds an important layer of historical context to an otherwise largely literary study in her treatment of early 20th-century conduct-books for servants, along with guide-books written to instruct upper-class women in the management of their domestic help.' MAKE Literary Magazine
Contents: Introduction: reading, writing, serving: the thresholds of modernism; Cooks at the threshold: domestic disturbances and modernist rewritings in the writing of Virginia Woolf; Writing at the margins: Stein's servant protagonists and the modernist form of Three Lives; 'Working like a colored person': race, service, and identity in Passing; Women in the attic: domestic servants, imperial paranoia, and modernist domesticity in Wide Sargasso Sea; Conclusion; Bibliography; Index.