Communities of Care: The Social Ethics of Victorian Fiction Book Review

Sophie Ritson reviews Communities of Care: The Social Ethics of Victorian Fiction by Talia Schaffer (Princeton UP, 2021).

Book cover of Schaffer's Communities of Care
Book cover of Communities of Care. Credit: Princeton UP.

In Summer 2023, as just over 20,000 NHS workers vote to strike over repeated pay cuts, gruelling long hours, and an absence of a formal pay offer from government officials, Talia Schaffer’s Communities of Care: The Social Ethics of Victorian Fiction offers the Medical Humanities a renewed and urgent engagement with care. With foundations in both the Victorian world and today’s society, Schaffer’s book creates an inter-relational care-centred ethic that provides readers with a new lens with which to examine literary and cultural understandings of care. Primarily a study of caregiving in the Victorian realist novel, Schaffer’s monograph aims to understand the dynamics of care in the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Charlotte Yonge, George Eliot, and Henry James. On a broader level however, Schaffer uses nineteenth-century fiction alongside medical history to evolve an ethical framework that seeks to emphasise our fundamental dependence and relationality to others, human and nonhuman alike. Most importantly, Schaffer theorises active practices of care that prioritise the simple but urgent necessity to think through the needs of others. Thus, where the various needs of NHS staff have been left unmet due to sustained underinvestment, Communities of Care comes as a tool for theorising the affective dimensions of working in a health system that frequently neglects the needs of both caregivers and those cared-for.

Care, Performativity, and Labour

Central to Schaffer’s study is her reconceptualization of care and caregiving. For Schaffer, care is an ‘action, not a feeling,’ one that primarily ‘meets another’s need’ (p. 24, p. 3). With this emphasis on action, caregiving becomes a ‘performative process, regardless of […] private feeling,’ that relates a carer to their ‘cared-fors’. A term used by Schaffer, ‘cared-for’ describes the positionality of the person receiving care within the paradigm of a care-centred relationship (p. 52). Whilst Schaffer demonstrates that care can correlate, or lead to, personal feelings, she also shows the advantages of reading feelings separately from actions, which helps us to understand the effects of emotional labour on a caregiver and provides an examination of how subjectivity develops in a relational context. Particularly relevant to the striking NHS workers, Schaffer’s concept of care refocuses the sometimes-reductive emotional aspect of ‘caring’ to think instead about the hard work, emotional labour, and sustained performativity that often splits a caregiver’s sense of self into an inner and outer being.

Salient to this concept of care, Schaffer traces the dynamics of care communities by analysing the fictional representations of care and care figures in nineteenth-century literary discourses. Taking four Victorian novels as case studies, Brontë’s Villette (1853), Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe (1853), Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876), and James’s The Wings of the Dove (1902), Schaffer demonstrates the shifting assumptions that emerged in the Victorian period alongside the growing professionalisation of medicine and the increasing scientific consensus around the ‘normate’ body. That is, as medical professionals diagnosed illness in their respective patients, this standardised a ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ body that any form of deviancy was defined against. For each author, Schaffer writes, the Victorian novel exemplifies a ‘nostalgia for the enmeshed community’ as doctors, paid nurses, and the medical gaze remoulded the care community, often depicting care communities as idyllic artifacts and paid care work as a dystopic reality (p. 75). From this, Schaffer identifies five key elements of a care community that create a ‘fluid, networked, decentralised’ group: discursive participation, egalitarian status, performative acts, affiliation, and a unique temporality (p. 147). That is, each member of a care community must have equal status, in which every individual relates to the group. At the same time, members must communicate their needs so that others can change their behaviour to accommodate those needs, which often requires or results in a repetition of performative acts that reiterate care. Temporality encompasses each of these elements: the care-giver, as Schaffer notes, must often engross themselves in another’s timeframe to provide adequate care, requiring an openness to non-linear temporalities (including what feminist disability scholars have called ‘crip time’).

Villette Revisited Through a Critical Lens of Care

Schaffer’s reading of Brontë’s Villette through the lens of care appealed to me for its innovative new way of assessing Lucy Snowe as a caregiver, rather than an ‘unreliable narrator’ (Booth 1983). By examining Lucy Snowe as a global migrant caregiver, a role popular for independent women of the mid-1900s, her often elusive, performative, and pseudo-stoic narrative becomes a psychological coping mechanism, rather than an unreliable embodiment of a deeper self. Drawing on Arlie Hochschild’s concept of ‘emotional labour’, Schaffer notes that Lucy’s caregiver role ‘unbalances the sense of self’ and consequently changes Villette’s narrative arc (Hochschild, 2003, p. 89). In comparison to the stereotypical bildungsroman, in which a character overcomes a personal or social issue as they grow up, the bleak tone of Villette augments Lucy’s subjective account of the emotional trauma individuals undergo in professionalising medicine, mourning a loss of true emotional connection in early nineteenth-century nursing practises that were firmly rooted in empathy, intimacies, and care. Schaffer’s focus on Lucy’s narrative performativity through emotional labour helpfully reconceptualizes her subjectivity in terms of inter-relationality. It also provides a carefully perceptive account of the detrimental impact of caregiving that is often overlooked by policymakers today. As Schaffer surmises, ‘instead of asking who a character truly is, we might start asking who cares for whom, and how – a question that may lead us to disregard the boundaries of the text’ (p. 12). Schaffer’s analysis of Villette is a perfect example of how reading a literary text through the critical lens of care can provide a rich, unique, and interpersonal reading experience, that carves out a creative space for marginalised voices to be heard, understood, and cared for by the listener.

‘What can the Nineteenth-Century Novel do for us?’: ‘Care-ful’ Reading and Critical Care

Of course, this Victorian focus raises the question that Schaffer herself anticipates: why should we use Victorian fiction to understand care and caregiving today? From her historicist perspective, Schaffer turns this question back onto the reader, asking ‘what can the nineteenth-century novel do for us?’ (p. 61). This draws attention to the pervasive cultural and social narratives that influence our understanding of care relations today. Importantly though, Schaffer’s approach also demonstrates the value of careful, sustained attention to the complexities of literary representation. Schaffer notes that her occupation as a literary analyst makes her ‘a close observer of textual representation,’ which she turns into a ‘reparative reading’ that could be used as a rigorous and persuasive protocol (p. 20). This leads to Schaffer’s deliberation between what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick influentially called ‘paranoid reading’ and ‘reparative reading,’ in which paranoid reading entails approaching a text defensively, and reparative reading searches for the positive aspects of a text (Sedgwick 2003). For Schaffer, paranoid reading is a ‘diagnostic medical gaze’ whereas reparative reading is a critical practice of caregiving that cares for the text itself (p. 4). In this sense, reparative reading affords a useful way of analysing the limitations of older texts or modes while also creating an affective ‘bridge’ to the past in any form of writing.

Hence, one of Schaffer’s greatest achievements in Communities of Care is her contribution to recent debates in literary studies on the practice and politics of criticism. By applying care ethics to both Victorian novels and to the practice of literary criticism itself, Schaffer theorises a ‘care-ful’ reading praxis in which ‘all literary criticism, whatever its form, enacts care for its primary text’ (p. 213). That is, all literary texts are intertextual because all texts are built upon by previous writers and future readers. This theory derives from two key moments of interest to Schaffer: firstly, moments where readers feel the need to leap in and help a fictional character; and secondly, moments where readers become ‘co-makers of meaning’ when reading texts (p. 189). As Schaffer exemplifies, journalism makes demands on multiple actors, in which an article is written by an author, collaboratively re-shaped with an editor, and published by a printer. Not only does Schaffer conceptualise a self that is inter-relational in terms of reading and writing, but she presents a temporality that negates linear time and replaces it instead with a complex web of inter-relationality between textual and human actors. This comes to fruition at the end of Communities of Care, where Schaffer enlists the reader as a caregiver, inviting us to take over the narrative and continue caring outside of the text itself.

As a self-defined pragmatist, Schaffer promotes this idea of ‘care-ful’ and ‘critical care’ in academic research. She pushes for community and cooperation between scholars, rather than competition, exemplifies the intertextual community care that citations share as a critical system, and most importantly, she advocates for mutual correction and co-authorship as a fundamental academic praxis. For Schaffer there are three primary ways in which this can be achieved in academic research: to see critique as care; to view citations as caregiving; and to value service work throughout academic institutions. Hence, in Communities of Care, Schaffer presents a pragmatically adept vision for the possibilities of academic research, institutionalised caregiving, and care ethics, which begs the question: what is the best course of action to make the work its best self?  Especially for the Medical Humanities, Schaffer’s theory of care makes a useful contribution to interdisciplinary praxis, offering a way of learning that asks what the other needs. What might students and scholars in the Arts and Humanities need from a medical student to understand the Medical Humanities better, and vice versa? Yet, as Schaffer repeatedly advocates throughout Communities of Care, to facilitate this ‘care-ful’ critique in the Medical Humanities, we need to implement constant discursive communication between all individuals, to recognise each need with equal status, and to think deeply about how we can meet the needs of the research itself.

Schaffer’s book is a wide-ranging theorisation of care in its multitude of forms by foregrounding the difficult side of caregiving, challenging rigid historical boundaries by exploring the Victorian foundations of care communities today, and advocating for the meeting of another’s needs in everyday life. Where the authors of Victorian fiction yearned for the return of care communities after the mid-century professionalisation of medicine, Schaffer not only demonstrates that care communities are alive everywhere today, but also continually creates her own care community by meeting the needs of her readers as we read her book. For me, Schaffer’s text importantly provides a pragmatic and care-centred form of reading that emphasises its importance to the Arts and Humanities and builds connections with others by creating spaces for marginalised voices.

Finally, to answer Schaffer’s question ‘what can the nineteenth-century novel do for us?’ (p. 61). For those cared-for, Victorian novelists have provided a reconceptualisation of care as an action in an effort to reconsider what an individual actually needs. However, perhaps the most urgent and prevalent answer today is that reading Victorian authors can support the current medical caregivers, doctors, and nurses who are continuing to strike in a plea to have their voices heard and needs met by government officials.


Booth, Wayne C. 1983. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2003. The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling. 2nd ed. California: University of California Press.

Schaffer, Talia. 2021. Communities of Care: The Social Ethics of Victorian Fiction. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2003. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press.

About the Author

Sophie Ritson is an MA student as Durham University in English literary Studies. Her research interests include Victorian literature, neurodiversity and the humanities, and representations of gynaecology from the Romantic era to early Modernist literature. This article was written under the inspiration of Dr Fraser Riddell, who Sophie thanks for all his help throughout her writing journey.

One thought on “Communities of Care: The Social Ethics of Victorian Fiction Book Review

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.