One of the most recurrent and controversial subjects of nineteenth–century discourse was work. Many thinkers associated work with honest pursuit of doing good, not the curse accompanying exile from Eden but rather “a great gift of God.” Sincerely undertaken work comprised a mission entailing a commitment to serve others and promote a better future for all.
Satisfaction with what work could do for individuals had its counterbalance in the anger and dismay expressed at the conditions of those whom Robert Owen, in 1817, first called the “working class.” What working–class people confronted both at the labor site and at their lodgings was construed as oppressive, and the misery of their lives became the subject of sentimental poetry, government report, popular fiction, and journalistic expose. Perhaps as heated as the discussion about conditions of lower–class workers was the conversation about separate spheres of work for men and women. This conversation, too, found its way into the literature and public discourse of the day.
In The Voice of Toil, the editors have collected the central writings from a pivotal place and time, including poems, stories, essays, and a play that reflect four prominent ways in which the subject of work was addressed: Work as Mission, Work as Opportunity, Work as Oppression, and (Separate) Spheres of Work. The resulting anthology offers a provocative text for students of nineteenth-century British literature and history and a valuable resource for scholars.
The text includes readings from John Wesley, William Blake, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, Florence Nightingale, William Morris, Joanna Baillie, Friedrich Engels, Matthew Arnold, Angela Burdett–Coutts, John Stuart Mill, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Bernard Shaw and many others.