The Victorian Barmaid: Her role and social status as reported in newspapers of the time

Allan Boughey
Edinburgh Napier University

“The Victorian barmaid was not, like Clark’s reading of Manet’s
subject, an alienated whore, but an assertive and competent

She stares out at us impassively professional: detached,
disinterested, diffident, demure; the wares of her vocation
(champagne, exotic spirits, imported beer) arranged around her to
tempt us. Behind her, in the mirror, we view her from a different
perspective as she leans boldly across the bar counter towards a
shadowy male figure: now, she is the goods on offer. The central
figure of Edouard Manet’s 1882 painting, A Bar at the
Folies-Bergere, she is presented to us in wholly contradictory terms.
She – thought to be based on a real barmaid called Suzon – is
clearly a working girl. But what type of work does she do; which
version of her is true: the aloof, well-dressed young woman with a
pose at her breast or the pushy, thrusting figure locked in covenant
with the blurry, sinister patron? This paper will analyse
representations of the late Victorian barmaid and seek to address
whether she was little more than a prostitute, as the art historian
T.J. Clark asserts , or whether she was part of a largely respectable
new female profession – a symbol of modernity – as Bailey
suggests. By exploring contemporary Victorian documentary sources,
notably British newspapers, and literature from the period as well as
modern theory and readings of history, it will examine the role and
social standing of the fin de siècle period barmaid. The primary
research materials are newspapers of the Victorian period. These not
only illustrate the differing ways that society viewed the barmaid
but, through letters sent to newspapers, reveal her true voice.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900