University of Virginia
I taught Savage’s The Factory Girl in a course called “Sex and Sentiment.” The Factory Girl landed on the syllabus just after Catharine Sedgwick’s A New England Tale (1822)—”sentiment”—and just before the anonymous Ellen Merton, the Belle of Lowell; or, Confessions of the G.F.K. Club—”sex.” In general the course tacked back and forth between stories of seduction and stories of successful female bildung. The Factory Girl falls in the latter category about as squarely as can be, and before we started reading it I had gotten interested in something that was for me a previously overlooked element of your basic antebellum good-girl profile: time discipline. In Hannah Foster’s The Boarding School, the pupils wake up at 5 am, but for no discernable reason: “the young ladies arose at five, from which they had two hours at their own disposal, till the bell summoned them at seven” (139, in the recent Norton edition of The Coquette and The Boarding School edited by Jennifer Harris and Bryan Waterman). I lectured about scheduling for scheduling’s sake—timetables as a way of organizing the soul—and read to my students from the punishment of Damiens and the rules for the house of young prisoners at the beginning of Discipline and Punish.
After this I was chuffed to discover the factory bell in Savage’s novel being used in much the same way as the breakfast bell in Foster’s: as a kind of bare minimum of virtue that truly zealous virtue has to exceed. The saintly Mary considers it sleeping in to wait for the factory bell before getting out of bed—even though this bell would have rung at daylight or before. She manages to convert her friend Nancy to her own truly ornate degree of self control: “‘Well,’ said Nancy, with a good-natured smile, ‘I will wait no longer for the factory bell to call me up'” (21). Here it was, I said: the internalization of industrial time.
One of my students raised her hand: “but how would they get up before daylight or the factory bell?” Given, that is, that there was no alarm clock. The group suddenly shifted and brightened: inquiring minds wanted to know. Roosters, cold setting in toward dawn, and drinking a lot of water before bed have all been proposed, at the time or subsequently. We talked about it for quite a while.
This just is not the kind of thing I know, and it got me thinking. My colleague Bruce Holsinger, who just published an un-put-downable piece of historical fiction, A Burnable Book (2014), reflected in a note to his readers, “After half a career spent studying and teaching the literature of the Middle Ages, I found it something of a surprise to realize I couldn’t answer a simple question posed by my younger son: ‘Did they have forks?’ (Yes, Malcolm, after a fashion, though not many of them, and mostly for serving, not eating.)”
What relationship do forks and bodily schedules have to the history we teach and write? Material like this does turn up in the kind of work I read—Foucault’s writing being a prime and field-creating example—but usually under the auspices of a thesis. My students were aiming more toward a reconstruction of daily life than a thesis. If you want your eighteen-year-old to know when people woke up and what kind of container they used to skim cream and whether they had scuffle hoes, don’t send her into the neighborhood of some professor. Send her into the neighborhood of a historical re-enactor. That seems to be the division of labor. I don’t do reconstruction; I do criticism. But why don’t I do reconstruction? And why is it that the people who do—who actually know about the forks—are the ones we say are engaged in making fiction, whether in the form of a novel or a replayed Revolutionary War battle or a Jeffersonian Village? Isn’t it sort of odd that the profession of scholarship is thesis-driven, whereas knowing details like this for their own sake would fall to amateurs? I like the profession as it is. But I wonder how it came to be that way. Cue the archaeology; cue another master narrative.