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Ancillary narratives: maids, sleepwalking, and agency in nineteenth-century literature and culture

Thomson, S. (2015) Ancillary narratives: maids, sleepwalking, and agency in nineteenth-century literature and culture. Textual Practice, 29 (1). pp. 91-110. ISSN 1470-1308

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1080/0950236X.2014.955820

Abstract/Summary

The limited coverage of servants in nineteenth-century literature may plausibly be ascribed to the tenuous nature of the roles they play in primary texts, and especially to the problematic nature of their agency. This idea is implicit in the arguments of Bruce Robbins, whose The Servant’s Hand remains the most cogent approach to giving servants a palpable role in critical narrative: for Robbins, the agency that acts through the servant ‘prosthesis’ rebounds on the master, granting the servant figure a sometimes exorbitant textual agency. The figure of the sleepwalking maid, and the analogies between sleepwalking and domestic service implicit in it, will help to complicate this picture. In anecdotes of spontaneous sleepwalking, and their subsequent appropriation by mesmerists, maids are cast as non-agents in terms of ownership of narrative: their subjectivity is immaterial to the public fate of the story which their acts generate. But this apparent non-agency is itself derived from their spontaneity; from an autonomous, albeit unconscious, self-will. As such, sleepwalking subjectivity is a gift to paternalism; a mastery it does not have to produce. In conclusion, it is this undetermined quality, rather than a simple lack of agency, that characterizes the maid in the novel, and which continues to exclude domestic servants from critical narrative.

Item Type:Article
Refereed:Yes
Divisions:Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Literature and Languages > English Literature
Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Science > Minority Identities
ID Code:33888
Publisher:Taylor & Francis

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