Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England

Joanna Innes writes:

Steedman’s sources, especially tax and legal records, have previously been neglected but what makes her book stand out is the quality of imagination it displays. One might describe it as an intellectual history of domestic service, because it is above all an account of the way people thought about service: how servants thought about it, how their employers thought about it, how magistrates, lawyers, tax collectors and MPs thought about it. It is history at its most conventionally intellectual when it focuses on ways in which ‘labour’ was conceptualised. In the first half of the 18th century, Steedman suggests, labour was conceived above all as a relationship. Society was divided into propertied and unpropertied; the unpropertied were compelled by material need to put their labour at the disposal of the propertied. The labour of the poor was a resource; it fell to the propertied to deploy this resource to general benefit. She argues that what evolved in the later 18th century was a new conception of labour as a ‘constitutive activity’. The ability to labour was complex. Poor people had to have energy. That energy was material: it had to be fuelled. In addition to a physiology, a physics and chemistry, labour had a mental or emotional aspect: workers had to be in good spirits. If they were depressed, they would not work so well.

(LRB 14 April 2011)

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