New slant on the working weak : BOOKS : SEXUAL POLITICS

Despite `equal' opportunities, our view of work and gender is slow to change. Michle Roberts discusses a new anthology
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The Independent Culture
ANTHOLOGIES can provide unusual peepholes through which to gain odd new perspectives on literature we think we know well: War and Peace reduced to a single episode of jam-making, the fat pages of Ulysses boiled down to the juices of fried kidneys in Bloom's sputtering pan. Anthologists' intentions may be encyclopaedic, pedagogical or subversive, and their results comic, surreal or titillating. Certainly, while glossing known texts they can illuminate obscure ones. Man Does, Woman Is: An Anthology of Work and Gender offers a collection of pieces on work in order to argue a thesis. As you'd imagine, literary quality and interest vary as a result.

The book's editor, Marion Shaw, asserts that although work is not usually associated with literature, with the convention of reading as a leisured activity, yet "work is everywhere in literature, perhaps not often as the dominant narrative or theme but omnipresent nevertheless. Work exists in the interstices of other plots as a cause of joy or despair, as a determinant of character and setting, an economic dynamic, a source of and a foil to the aesthetics of leisure, and a condition of the forms literature takes. This anthology seeks to bring to the surface some of this submerged writing about work in poetry and novels, and occasionally in non- fiction writing also. It thus acknowledges one of the great commonplaces in our lives."

Shaw goes on to argue that perhaps the greatest commonplace organising both how we work and how we think about it is the clichd assumption of the gendered division of labour:

"Countless arguments have been adduced to prove that women should be denied access to areas of employment which might make them equal to and independent of men ... But of all arguments, none has been more invidious - because it seeks to flatter - and pervasive - because it enters into the emotional relations between men and women - than the notion that women do not really have to do anything but should just simply be. They are the inspirers not the inspired, the muse and not the poet, the presence and not the activity."

Accordingly, the anthology marshals plenty of examples of how people have been used to thinking that women are more gifted at prostitution than at whale-harpooning, better at wiping children's bottoms than putting paint on canvases, and so on. In fact, as the editor herself admits, the book disproves her thesis at the same time as proposing it, being packed with moving examples of women's struggles in "masculine" fields - let alone capacity to work 14-hour days as a matter of course both inside and outside the home.

The selection of non-fiction pieces demonstrates how quickly most of these become dated and dull. It's something to do with their language (pompous and preachy), and their perspective de haut en bas. If you want to discover a patriarch slyly blaming women for the way that independent work leads to dangerous separation from male control and subsequent vulnerability to temptation, far better to skip the various glum ideologues quoted and home in on glorious Milton, as Shaw lets us do. We don't need the point hammered home via numerous examples.

The best pieces charm because they are charged with feeling, passionate or pathetic. In the section entitled "Men's Toil" we can sympathise with Walter Scott, battling to write despite the recent death of his wife: "Well but if I lay down the pen as the pain in my breast hints that I should, what am I to do? If I think - why I shall weep - and that's nonsense - and I have no friend now - none - to receive my tediousness for half an hour of the gloaming."

Flaubert was luckier, having Louise Colet to let off steam to: "At six o clock tonight as I was writing the word `hysterics', I was so swept away, was bellowing so loudly and feeling so deeply what my little Bovary was going through that I was afraid of having hysterics myself."

Mrs Gaskell's letters, as racy as Flaubert's, show her wrestling not just with punctuation but with the domestic conundrums of her correspondent: "I think you would be sorry if you began to feel that your desire to earn money, even for so laudable an object as to help your husband, made you unable to give your tender sympathy to your little ones in their small joys and sorrows; and yet, don't you know how you - how every one, who tries to write stories must become absorbed in them (fictitious though they be) if they are to interest their readers in them."

This section, "Women's Labour", whizzes through maternity and housework and into some unexpected areas. We meet Mrs Seacole, determined to fight colour prejudice and get taken on as a nurse in the Crimea: "Many a long hour did I wait in his great hall, while scores passed in and out; many of them looking curiously at me. The flunkeys, noble creatures! marvelled exceedingly at the yellow woman whom no excuses could get rid of nor imper- tinence dismay, and showed me very clearly that they resented my persisting in remaining there ... Once again I tried, and had an interview this time with one of Miss Nightingale's companions. She gave me the same reply, and I read in her face the fact that had there been a vacancy, I should not have been chosen to fill it."

The voyage out may be that of the valiant servant into dirty places, as Hannah Cullwick's diary attests: "Clean'd the windows in the hall and passage and clean'd the hall and steps on my knees, the back stairs, then I was got to the passage. I took the matting out and shook it. Swept the passage and took the things out of the hole under the stairs...It's a dark hole and about 2 yards long & very low. I crawl'd in on my hands and knees and lay curl'd up in the dirt for a minute or so and then I got the handbrush and swept the walls down. The cobwebs and dust fell all over me and I had to poke my nose out o'the door to get breath ... I was very black as I could be."

The labour of poor women and poor men is amply documented, as well as that of working-class children forced down mines and up chimneys, and that of black people. Work, for Toni Morrison's Paul D, is chain-gang slavery: "With a sledge hammer in his hands and Hi Man's lead, the man got through. They sang it out and beat it up, garbling the words so they could not be understood, tricking the words so their syllables yielded up other meanings ... The eyes said `Steady now' and `Hang by Me'." Sojourner Truth's fiery lament "Ain't I A Woman" points out the hypocrisy of racist attitudes ascribing daintiness to white women served hand and foot by slaves.

It's examples like these that show up the flaws in the anthology's argument and structure. Class, race and age inflect our experience of work in complicated ways that both cut across gender divisions and connect with them. Still, despite an irritating title, the book affords some stimulating reading, which becomes relax-ing in its final section, on "Engineering Idle-ness", where Sappho lounges next to Larkin, one neglecting her loom out of lust and the other resigned to his "loaf-haired secretary".

! `Man Does, Woman Is: An Anthology of Work and Gender' ed Marion Shaw, Faber £15.99