There are a multitude of scholarly books and monographs written by Franklin College faculty each year and one of the things we’d like to do on the blog is talk with some of these scholar/authors and learn a little more about their new works, which are such a big part of their research.
Chloe Wigston Smith is an assistant professor in the department of English who specializes in the literature and culture of the eighteenth century. She is the author of Women, Work, and Clothes in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, August 2013). The book was recently shortlisted for the Milia Davenport Publication Award (Costume Society of America), a prestigious national award. Wigston Smith and I recently had for a short conversation about the book.
Franklin Chronicles: Your book explores novels that engage the representation of women’s work with clothing and material culture. What do you mean by material culture?
Chloe Wigston Smith: I’m interested in novels that represent women’s labor. Much of women’s work in the 18th century was associated with clothing, whether or not women were seamstresses, milliners, laundresses. So if you were an actress on the stage, your profession was connected to dress – the stage costuming that you wore, for example. Let’s say you were involved in more illicit activities, such as shoplifting or pocket picking, most of the objects that you were stealing were clothing items or accessories. Clothes were extremely expensive in the period – the materials that were used to make clothes were very valuable and they were seen as moveable goods. Wills in the 18th century commonly included clothing, jewelry, watches and accessories. So it’s quite different from the way most of us think of clothes today. In general, 18th century people owned fewer items and dress was viewed as less expendable and mass-market.
My book looks at women’s labor in novels, as well as the perceptions of their labor, fashions, and bodies. The novels represent a more progressive vision of the possibilities of women’s work in the eighteenth century, that I see as being distinctive from perceptions of clothing and women’s sexuality that circulated in the culture at large, as reflected in non-fiction writing, in trade debates, in court trials and testimony, in visual culture, and other genres in the period.
FC: So this material culture and the novels you discuss are all British?
CWS: Yes. I’m interested in the works of widely known authors like Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding, as well as writers like Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, John Cleland, Frances Burney and Mary Robinson. It groups together respectable novels about moral heroines with racier tales of seduction and crime.