Theater of Cruelty

Societies that prioritize care

Communities of Care: The Social Ethics of Victorian Fiction
CARE / If you think reading 1800th-century British novels has little to do with the current political situation, you are wrong. Talia Schaffer shows how our thinking about care, help and health work already existed in the middle of the Victorian era.


During the pandemic, we paid tribute to health workers and other workers, including store employees, bus drivers, couriers, truck drivers, chefs – all whose low-status work made life possible. For once, celebrities, athletes and pop stars were not at the center, and we discovered a network of diffuse, humble and necessary care workers. They were not the only ones who showed care, but they were the ones who made the care visible. The corona made us understand the need for care.

People usually understand "care" as a sense of caring concern, and "carer" as someone who helps a disabled person (usually a home aide or a nurse). In his book, Schaffer challenges the first meaning, and radically expands the second. She believes that "caring" is an action, not a feeling, and that showing care is one of the most fundamental ways in which people relate to each other. To show care is to participate in transactions as ordinary as greeting someone sitting at the till, making a packed lunch for a child, or correcting a style. This care theory comes from the feminist philosophy of care ethics ("ethics of care").

Schaffer's concept of society is taken from sociology. She points out that societies that prioritize care, and the public space, are both characterized by these three factors: They involve discursive participation; they postulate that all subjects (humans) are equally valuable; and they operate more through purposeful actions than deep feelings.

Victorian novels

Talia Schaffer is a specialist in British 1800th century literature, and she believes that Victorian novels largely explore and build on the above understanding of care and society. She deals with novels that are relatively unknown in Norway by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Henry James and Charlotte Mary Yonge. This is nevertheless not a literary historical or -theoretical work in particular. Schaffer's agenda is the present, to which she specifically addresses herself. The 1800th-century novels are more to be considered a toolbox that can visualize what she wants to achieve. She deliberately breaks with the academic form – often addresses the reader directly, and believes this does not come at the expense of accuracy or communication. She is right about that.

Brontë challenges our assumptions about character, subjectivity and feeling.

She says that she began writing this book as a reaction to the "disastrous American election in 2016", and finished during the catastrophic summer of 2020 with the global pandemic and violent race riots following the murder of George Floyd. She describes this as staging a care agenda over and against a continuous news backdrop of astonishing evil, racism and sexism: Basic rights were trampled on, the environment was gutted, the human rights of non-whites, immigrants and trans people were abused. Furthermore: the destruction of moral norms by the authorities, in public discourse, and everyday behaviour.

The migrant care worker

Villette (1853) is Charlotte Brontë's last novel. Here, according to Schaffer, we are no longer in romance – it is a new era of professionalized medicine, paid carers and state-subsidised care institutions. But i Villette places Brontë devoted personal care in the nostalgic past and exemplifies the dismay many Victorians experienced with the introduction of paid care workers. But the novel also explores what kinds of work the new regime was built on. The main character Lucy Snowe is an early example of a modern migrant and global care worker in British fiction. By portraying such a person, Brontë challenges our assumptions about character, subjectivity and feeling and creates narrative structures that find resonance in today's migration literature.


Although Brontë's emphasis on the migrant care worker was quite new in nineteenth-century British literature, she was not the only one to write in this way. Villette is related to other mid-Victorian novels with attendants and governesses, esp Clara Morrison (1854), the early novel by Australian Catherine Helen Spence. Villette has also had an excellent offspring in the Jamaica Kincaids Lucy (1990): Experiences Lucy Snowe did themselves, become migrant markers when Kincaid rewrites them for her own Lucy persona, Lucy Potter, a century and a half later. In addition, Snowe's experiences can give us insight into reading patterns that can be found in contemporary non-fictional accounts of aid workers and carers. A good example is Lucy's description of the care worker as "furniture" – a metaphor that has become a regular occurrence in recent sociological literature.

The novel character in the role of caregiver

According to Schaffer, Lucy can be read both sociologically and literary, as she is unique and prototypical at the same time. But she herself cannot experience it this way: As soon as you step into the role of carer, this upsets the balance in your perception of yourself. Her personality clashes with what is required of her generic position – the working conditions corrode the personality. She must adapt to a place that denies her innermost feelings; it becomes an internal war even if it is brutally private. And here one can easily draw lines to today's nursing science and theories about how nurseone must be careful with this very thing.

To stage a caring agenda on and against a news backdrop of astonishing evil, racism and sexism.

Talia Schaffer's book is extremely rich and well-written and belongs to the rare class of books that are so good that everyone will be able to appreciate them, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with the political message that Schaffer does not hide in any way.

Kjetil Korslund
Kjetil Korslund
Historian of ideas and critic.

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