Books: I work, therefore I am

Click to follow
The Oxford Book of Work

ed Keith Thomas

Oxford pounds 20

`I have made a great heap of all that I found." This description, by the eighth- century monk Nennius of his early history of Britain, has always seemed to me to stand as a warning to all prospective anthologists. All too disgracefully often, modern anthologies reveal a lack of organisation or any thought of guiding principles. Perhaps they really are only designed to be taken up in an idle moment, and certainly the weight alone of the volumes in the present Oxford series discourages all idea of reading them at a sitting, or in any position other than perched over a lectern.

Anthologies, Keith Thomas tells us in the preface to his Oxford Book of Work, are, after all, no more than collections of quotations. Thomas, who is a historian and the author of one of the few truly seminal historical works of the second half of this century, Religion and the Decline of Magic, once referred to his working routine when researching his books, of filling up large envelopes with bits of paper on which were noted quotations from his documentary sources. He waited until the envelope was full, and then emptied it on to his desk, and began writing. This might make one fear the worst for his abilities as an anthologist, but happily, Thomas's historical perspective has produced an extremely lively and enlightening treatment of a subject which is central to everyone's experience, but which is nevertheless surprisingly difficult to illuminate in all its human dimensions.

For a start, how is work to be defined? One dictionary calls it "an expenditure of energy, striving, application of effort or exertion to a purpose". Yet energy can be expended just as easily on leisure activity as on work. Nor is it accurate to describe work as paid employment. Plenty of people, like slaves, houseworkers, schoolchildren or the retired, have received no remuneration for their labour. Thomas favours the definition given by the Victorian economist, Arthur Marshall, who said that labour is "any exertion of mind or body undergone partly or wholly with a view to some good other than the pleasure derived directly from the work". This recognises the element of compulsion in all work, though as Thomas says it would also, for instance, make physical exercise count as work if it were done for health rather than pleasure. I prefer Tom Sawyer's simpler dictum that "Work consists of whatever the body is obliged to do ... Play ... of whatever a body is not obliged to do."

Work may be said to be a uniquely human quality. Other species follow instinct rather than a conscious plan, but only men and women have had to work in order to ensure their survival. A strong underlying theme of much of Thomas's book is the development of the human realisation that work is almost as much of a physical and emotional necessity as it is an economic one. Medieval schoolmen may have looked upon work as a sacred duty and the source of all human wealth and comforts, but they also saw it as the primal curse, the tedious necessity inflicted on sinful mankind. While early modern commentators like Sir Dudley North in the 17th century retained the conviction that if labour was enjoyable then it could not be counted as work ("It is incident to the true nature of work not to delight in it"), work was also increasingly commended as an antidote to suffering. "The labour we delight in physics pain," Shakespeare had written in Macbeth, a theme which would be reiterated by numerous writers in succeeding centuries. "The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment," Johnson noted similarly in an issue of The Rambler, and even hard physical toil could produce a kind of satisfaction which might be construed as some poor recompense for the harshness of working conditions. Thomas has found a wonderfully evocative description by Alfred Williams of labouring conditions in a railway factory earlier this century which comments on the "delightful feeling" experienced "after a good sweating at work" when "every nerve and tissue seems to be aglow with intensest life".

is divided into nine broad sections, and within each section there are narrower themes dealing with everything from "Work as Social Discipline" to a "Defence of Idleness". The mixture of poetry and prose, imaginative writing and the more strictly historical, works well, though, as Thomas says, work is rarely a dominant theme in literature; more often, it exists as a determinant of character or setting. The section entitled "All Manner of Occupations" notes that a 1980 classification of occupations published by the Office of Population Censuses listed more than 23,000, and Thomas does his best to make a representative selection, but his omission of some of the more obvious and traditional female occupations, like nurses or midwives, points up the main weakness of the anthology as a whole. A section dedicated to "Women's Work" confirms what Robert Graves once expressed in the title of his poem, "Man Does, Women Is" - that women have for centuries been confined to the home, and that if they have worked at all, it has nearly always been work of low status and low remuneration.

But fails to reflect the enormous transformation in women's employment that has taken place in the course of the 20th century. Whether this is because Thomas failed to find adequate literary representation of this revolution isn't clear. Thus he gives us "Cassandra," Florence Nightingale's famous and vehement protest against Victorian society's suffocation of women within the family which destroys their capacity to work, but not Olive Schreiner's equally well-known clarion call from her 1911 Woman and Labour in which women demand to "take all labour as their province". In an anthology as thoughtful as this one, that's a regrettable omission.