Work Ethics: Rethinking Literary Labour in the Long Nineteenth Century

6 October 2012

Magdalene College, Cripps Court, 1-3 Chesterton Road, Cambridge, CB4 3AD


Marcus Waithe (Faculty of English / Magdalene College)
Claire White
(Dept. of French / Peterhouse)



Registration for this conference is now closed.



La Bruyère discovered the world’s erroneous estimate of literary labour: ‘There requires a better name to be bestowed on the leisure (the idleness he calls it) of the literary character, and that to meditate, to compose, to read and to be tranquil, should be called working.'

— Isaac D’Israeli, The Literary Character of Men of Genius, Drawn from their Own Feelings and Confessions (1818)


Should writing ‘be called working’, as La Bruyère argued? How have writers projected and problematised their labours against a changing understanding of what it means to ‘work’? Have they operated at a remove from dominant modes and measures of productivity or sought an accommodation? In what sense is literary activity poised between labour and idleness?

This symposium brings together researchers from across the humanities to address the enduringly troubled relationship between writing and ‘work’. It raises questions that are topical when cuts in public spending are prompting scrutiny of what we mean by ‘cultural production’. At the same time, this is a debate with deep historical roots. By taking the long view, this event aims to shed fresh light on some unusually persistent problems. Papers will focus on Western European writing between c. 1790-c. 1910, a formative period in our understanding of the terms of labour, writing and idleness. Against the emergent pressures of labour politics and developing paradigms of industrial production, the conditions of ‘literary labour’ were being scrutinised and reformulated with new urgency.

This event will explore new connections between social history and literary history, focusing less on the depiction of work in others, than on the representation, and self-representation, of writers as ‘workers’. As such, it responds to recent critical interest in the testimony of writers, in the formal qualities of the writing process, and in the scope for its reform or restoration as ‘work’.


Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH),  University of Cambridge.


Accommodation for non-paper giving delegates

We are unable to arrange accommodation, however, the following websites may be of help.

Visit Cambridge
Cambridge Rooms

University of Cambridge accommodation webpage

NB. CRASSH is not able to help with the booking of accommodation.


Administrative assistance:


Sat, 6 October 2012


9.30 - 10.00


10.00 - 10.10


Marcus Waithe (English, Cambridge) & Claire White (French, Cambridge)

10.10 - 11.20


  • Nicholas White (French, Cambridge)
    Love’s Labours: Heterosociality in French Fiction at the End of the Nineteenth Century
  • Richard Hibbitt (French, University of Leeds)
    ‘Le loisir sans fortune’: Baudelaire and the Dilettante Work Ethic
Chair: Dr Claire White (French, Cambridge)

11.20 - 11.40


The Gallery

11.40 - 12.50


  • Marcus Waithe (English, Cambridge)
    ‘Strenuous Minds’: Walter Pater and the Labour of Aestheticism
  • Morag Shiach (English, Queen Mary, University of London)
    Labour material and immaterial: a modernist perspective
Chair: Dr Alex Houen (English, Cambridge)

12.50 - 13.50 


The Gallery

13.50 - 15.00 


  • Claire White (French, Cambridge)
    George Sand: Lines of Work
  • John Hughes (Divinity, Cambridge)
    The Divine Word: The Politics of Intellectual Labour in Carlyle's Sartor Resartus
Chair: Dr Marcus Waithe (English, Cambridge)

15.00 - 15.20 


The Gallery

15.20 - 16.30


  • Ross Wilson (Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, University of East Anglia)
    Browning’s Hammer
  • Richard Salmon (English, University of Leeds)
    Literature and the Labouring Class: Narratives of Self-Culture, 1830-1859
Chair: Dr Jan Schramm (English, Cambridge)

16.30 - 17.00

Concluding discussion

17.00 - 17.45

Drinks reception in The Gallery