Bodies and Things in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture

May 11, 2014 | Reviews

Before the critical method of ‘thing-theory’ surfaced in nineteenth-century studies, the presence and circulation of objects often motivated discussions of Marxism, cultural materialism, and an itemizing tendency associated with later-Victorian realism. Editor Katharina Boehm along with most of the contributors to Bodies and Things in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture are quick to differentiate their approach from these familiar pathways, citing in their place the influential work of Bill Brown, who contributes an epilogue to the book, and Elaine Freedgood, whose book The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel seems to be a touchstone for several of the essayists. Bodies and Things, following Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, also challenges a binary division between subjects and objects, animate selves, and inanimate things, and undergirding the book at least implicitly is Heidegger’s rejection of an unmediated presence of objects of any kind: apprehension, in other words, is always a discriminating catalogue of personal and cultural perceptions.

Paired with Boehm’s introduction is its first essay, Isobel Armstrong’s “Bodily Things and Thingly Bodies: Circumventing the Subject-Object Binary.” Armstrong opens with a dazzling reading of Jane Eyre’s uneven resistance to objectification, and expands into how the nineteenth-century novel’s “crowded world of furniture, of chairs and tables, sofas and sideboards, stools and dressing tables, proliferates meanings” (p. 21). In her concise intellectual history of the transformation from the fetish to thing-theory, Armstrong attends to the way that commodification normalizes violence through the various modes of appropriation and colonialism that designate haves and have-nots, rulers and subjects. Along the way she locates some of the signal preoccupations of the Victorian novel in debates over the limits of materialism: “what are the boundaries of our being?” and “Are we entitled always to make objects our own, to think in terms of property, of subject and object for our own privileged subjectivity?” (p. 31).

The rest of the collection is divided into three sections, “Spaces,” “Practices,” and “Performances.” In “Spaces,” Kirstyn Leuner’s essay on Mansfield Park argues that Fanny’s management of personal possessions and domestic spaces shrewdly enables her class rise from orphan cousin to Edmund Bertram’s wife, and Catherine Spooner looks at the ostensible linkages between personal accouterment and identity in Trollope’s “The Turkish Bath,” deftly aligning Trollope with the sensation tradition in showing how clothing and deportment can strategically miscue their observers. More conceptually ambitious is Muireann O’Cinneide’s “Travellers’ Bodies and Pregnant Things: Victorian Women in Imperial Conflict Zones.” Reading two captivity narratives by British women in Afghanistan and India, O’Cinneide conjoins the status of domestic objects in captivity situations and the narrative occlusion of pregnancy (in both texts, babies are born without textual warning and in the midst of war zones). “[Harriet] Tytler,” she writes, “rhetorically replaces her otherwise textually absent pregnant body with an excess of absent things,” and the textual existence of objects “metonymically transfer bodily loss and destruction into the realm of material things” (p. 97). Writing about personal objects instead of fraught subjects including pregnancy, childbirth, murder, and rape, suggests a number of deflective agendas – psychoanalytic, editorial, moralistic. But seeing those personal objects as encoded embodiments of real bodily trauma can appear a rather too-expedient application of thing-theory.

Essays by Samantha Matthews and Kate Hill challenge a subject-object binary in reading the Victorian woman’s album as “an allegory for its owner’s hidden emotional and imaginative life” (p. 109), and the museum exhibition of the bodily relic (locks of hair, mummified remains) as materially betwixt and between the human-thing divide. Anne Anderson argues that female aesthetes sought to identify with rarified antiques as a way of underlining their distinctiveness from commodity culture, and another essay on collecting, “‘Books in my Hands – Books in my Heart – Books in my Brain’: Bibliomania, the Male Body, and Sensory Erotics in Late-Victorian Literature,” by Victoria Mills makes provocative claims about dandy-aesthete book collectors in fiction by Wilde, Huysmans, and Gissing in a refreshingly phenomenological take on the conventional habit of reading queer desire as mental sublimation. Finally, Stefania Forlini cogently exemplifies the ontological ambiguity of bodies and/as things in her study of fin-de-siècle mechanical automata.

I missed in this collection an examination of the “object autobiography”: narratives written from the perspective of inanimate things. Brown notes its existence in eighteenth and nineteenth century England and France (p. 221), but does not elaborate on these now esoteric texts, which include The Confessions of a Decanter (written by mid-century temperance reformer Clara Lucas Balfour), and The Autobiography of a Slander (1887), in which Edna Lyall (Ada Ellen Bayly) represents in first-person the treacherous path of a slander as it wreaks havoc from England to Czarist Russia. Personal predilections aside, Bodies and Things misses a more formative connection in failing to nod to Ruskin, Morris, and the Arts and Crafts movement. While cultural materialism has explored these subjects in detail, Ruskin’s claim (for instance) that handiwork materializes a worker’s satisfaction – even joy – seems like a missed opportunity for an analysis of the collusion between materiality and subjective embodiment in in Victorian culture.

Part of this complaint reflects the risk inherent in the subject: an examination of bodies and things in nineteenth century literature and culture does not suggest obvious limits to the frame, so that the contribution of ‘thing-theory’ to existing critical paradigms is not always clear, and there are moments in many of the essays that do not need thing-theory to articulate what we already know. Here are a few examples: “Fanny’s exit from her dressing room coincides with her elevation in social status and the opportunity to wed a landed gentleman” (p. 61); “The materiality of a woman’s body … becomes an essentially politicized construct that facilitates overarching narratives of justified imperial violence” (p. 91); “museums sought to collect particular objects and subject those objects to particular regimes of meaning” (p. 158). These gripes are not serious, but because things are everywhere in the nineteenth-century text, and because the variety of things studied in this collection is so capacious (places, spaces, bodies, practices, objects, performances), there is a special obligation for the authors to pin down exactly how their observations constitute a new interpretation. When they do not do that, we are reminded of the experience of being so close to an exciting critical approach that we cannot see the forest for the things.