Bureaucratisation and the Rise of Office Literature: 1810-1900

  • Daniel Jenkin-Smith

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Over the nineteenth century, Britain and France underwent an ongoing process of bureaucratisation, whereby informal, customary, or patrimonial social structures were progressively transformed into impersonal administrative systems typified by delineated hierarchies and standardised procedures.
    Bureaucratic organisation clustered around an emergent workplace, the office, its tasks were fulfilled by an ever-growing clerical workforce, and, in turn, these phenomena gained a newfound position in French and British culture. The clerk in particular figured in nineteenth-century literature as an
    archetype of social ambiguity and often mind-numbing, inconsequential work, epitomised by Charles Dickens as ‘no variety of days’ – and critical analysis of this literature has since continued to focus on the clerk as a rather tragicomic social enigma.

    While I do not dispute the conclusions derived from this approach, in this thesis I shift critical attention from social issues pertaining to the clerk toward the broader aesthetic implications and context of nineteenth-century bureaucratisation – represented here through the history of a genre
    that I call ‘office literature’. Through a comparative analysis of French and British office literature (texts that give substantial attention to the portrayal of office life) I argue that this genre offers an insight into the material and conceptual development of office work and bureaucratic structures over the nineteenth century, but that this genre was also subject to its own logic of development, one determined by changing aesthetic and cultural preoccupations as much as by social factors. As such, office literature cannot simply function as a window onto historical bureaucratisation, but neither is it wholly detached from the realities of its subject-matter: rather, it represents a bundle of influences
    and preoccupations – historical, social, epistemic, aesthetic, and generic – whose predominance and interaction shift over time, and which therefore need outlining and examining before the historical pertinence of this genre can become apparent.
    Date of Award2021
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorAbigail Boucher (Supervisor) & Marcello Giovanelli (Supervisor)


    • Bureaucracy
    • white-collar
    • nineteenth-century
    • English literature
    • French literature

    Cite this