Bureaucratisation and the Rise of Office Literature: 1810-1900

  • Daniel Jenkin-Smith

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Abstract

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)

Keywords

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

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