Ancillary narratives: maids, sleepwalking, and agency in nineteenth-century literature and culture

  • Stephen Thomson
  • Textual Practice, November 2014, Taylor & Francis
  • DOI: 10.1080/0950236x.2014.955820

servants, sleepwalking, and who counts in stories

What is it about?

The limited coverage of servants in nineteenth-century literature may plausibly be ascribed to the tenuous nature of the roles they play in primary texts, and especially to the problematic nature of their agency. This idea is implicit in the arguments of Bruce Robbins, whose The Servant’s Hand remains the most cogent approach to giving servants a palpable role in critical narrative: for Robbins, the agency that acts through the servant ‘prosthesis’ rebounds on the master, granting the servant figure a sometimes exorbitant textual agency. The figure of the sleepwalking maid, and the analogies between sleepwalking and domestic service implicit in it, will help to complicate this picture. In anecdotes of spontaneous sleepwalking, and their subsequent appropriation by mesmerists, maids are cast as non-agents in terms of ownership of narrative: their subjectivity is immaterial to the public fate of the story which their acts generate. But this apparent non-agency is itself derived from their spontaneity; from an autonomous, albeit unconscious, self-will. As such, sleepwalking subjectivity is a gift to paternalism; a mastery it does not have to produce. In conclusion, it is this undetermined quality, rather than a simple lack of agency, that characterizes the maid in the novel, and which continues to exclude domestic servants from critical narrative.

Why is it important?

The article is part of an ongoing project on narratives of sleepwalking that is very much concerned with questions of agency. Sleepwalking, as it is understood in the common 'we are sleepwalking towards...' news headline, signifies purposive-seeming and possibly highly efficient action in which we are implicated, yet which may run against our wishes. It serves thus as a shorthand for a variety of aporias of agency. This article considers the role of the sleepwalking maid in nineteenth-century literature and culture as a figure constitutionally debarred from narratives of history. As such it throws light on the continued elision of servants from discussions of nineteenth-century literature; and, by extension, questions some of the norms of contextualisation in literary criticism.

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The following have contributed to this page: Stephen Thomson