IPP KNL | Prof. Dr. Marion Gymnich (Uni Bonn): "Just like Downton Abbey? The literary figure of the domestic servant in British novels from the nineteenth century"
May 04, 2022
from 02:00 to 04:00
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Since the last decades of the twentieth century, a considerable number of historical novels, including Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989) and Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (2002), as well as television series like Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-1975) and Downton Abbey (2010-2015) have presented domestic servants as highly individualised main characters. In nineteenth-century literature, the situation is quite different. Many nineteenth-century classics depict everyday life in the kind of affluent household where many domestic servants were employed. For the most part, however, servants are hardly visible, let alone individualised in novels by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Anne Brontë or Charles Dickens. Somewhat paradoxically, domestic servants are nevertheless sometimes shown to have a remarkable impact on the plot, primarily by using strategies that range from gossiping about their employers to blackmailing them. In this way, they have ascribed an agency that becomes increasingly prominent in sensation fiction from the 1860s, for instance in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). The lecture will argue that interesting insights into attitudes, concerns and conflicts of the time can be gained by focusing on the marginalised figure of the domestic servant in approaches to nineteenth-century novels, especially if these novels are juxtaposed to the reality of servants’ lives in nineteenth-century Britain.
// Prof. Dr. Marion Gymnich is a professor of English Literature and Culture at the University of Bonn. Since 2019, she has been principal investigator (PI) and co-speaker of the Cluster of Excellence “Beyond Slavery and Freedom” at the same university. She studied English Studies, German Studies and Slavic Studies at the University of Cologne and holds a PhD in English Literary Studies from the University of Cologne. From 2002 to 2006, she was the coordinator of the IPP at the Justus Liebig University Giessen.