Paraphernalia! Victorian Objects (2018), ed. by Helen Kingstone and Kate Lister

Sep 20, 2019 | Reviews

Abigail Boucher

Martin Heidegger made the famous mid-century distinction between objects and things: an object becomes a thing when the object breaks down or can otherwise no longer serve its intended function. In recent years, as we reappraise the very assumptions and parameters of Thing Theory, the Victorian era—with its proliferation of mass production and marketing, new forms of selling, imperial imports, and the growth of middle-class identity through purchasing power—has proved to be a cynosure of issues pertinent to contemporary material culture studies. This edited collection, rather than looking at things in Heideggerian terms of their use and utility (or, rather, their lack thereof), seeks to explore ‘disjecta’: items seen as “an auxiliary to a greater part … neither valuable enough for museums nor symbolic enough for purely literary study” (1).

What follows is an interdisciplinary collection of well-selected essays, largely historical, artistic, and literary, exploring the slippery origins, uses, meanings, and legacies of day-to-day items. “We put things back,” Kingstone and Lister write, “perhaps not in their place, but in their multifarious contexts” (6) and reify rather than undo the notion of the Victorian obsession with things. Essays are divided into five broad categories: “Collecting Objects”, “Defining Class at Home”, “Objects Becoming Things”, “Reading the Body”, and “Print Culture”. While the collection only loosely touches on contemporary ideas about museum classification, how we colonise or decolonise collections, and how we preserve, display, and talk about things, this edited collection’s ambitious scope and savvy framework illustrate the complexity and nuance of such discussions.

Part 1, “‘A Magic Cave’: Collecting Objects”, looks at the Victorian practice of collecting as essentially a negotiation between Victorians and other times, other spaces, and other cultures. It begins with Rohan McWilliam’s “The Bazaars of London’s West End in the Nineteenth Century”, tracing the rise of the term ‘bazaar’ in English to describe shopping. Examining three West End bazaars, the Soho, the Pantheon, and the Lowther, McWilliam’s case study illustrates how the bazaars’ engagement with other cultures and spaces created the West End “as a pleasure district” (17). Anne Anderson’s “The Bric-à-Bracquer’s Étagère of Whatnot: Staging ‘Artistic’ Taste in the Aesthetic ‘House Beautiful’” follows with a close study of the Victorian étagère, “an elaborate piece of furniture often positioned above the fireplace … intended for the display of precious and valuable objects [which eventually became] a battleground on which the notion of good taste was contested” (37); Anderson shows this object as a space in which the realms of taste, time, sentimentality, personal relationship, and selfhood found their expression in displayable objects. The section ends on Thad Logan’s “Rossetti’s Things: The Artist and his Accessories”, which explores Rossetti’s passion, both artistic and utilitarian, for accumulating and painting things. Logan’s study attempts to match the objects displayed at Rossetti’s Tudor House with their representation in painting and what the treatment of these objects, both in painting and in real life, says about Rossetti’s sensuality.

Part 2, “Ornaments: Defining Class at Home”, interrogates purchasing power and what that power purchases—especially when it comes to middle-class purchasers who bought objects as a way of shaping identity. Silvia Granata begins the section with “The Dark Side of the Tank: The Marine Aquarium in the Victorian House”, tracking its “locus of counter between technological, scientific, and cultural trends” (81); the aquarium served as an example of what would come to be known as “conspicuous consumption”, speaking to the middle-class identity of its owners not only through its initial expense but through their subsequent ability to tend to its contents in a way both leisured and ordered. Ralph Mills follows with “‘A chimney-piece in Plumtree-court, Holborn’: Plaster of Paris ‘Images’ and Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Material Culture”, which looks at George Godwin’s 1854 illustration of a chimney piece in the working-class neighbourhood and the significance of the inexpensive plaster miniatures of great artwork frequently purchased as ornamentation. The section concludes with Julia Courtney’s “The Secret Lives of Dead Animals: Exploring Victorian Taxidermy” and the educational, decorative, and (manifold) ideological powers conferred through the amassing of taxidermy collections.

Part 3, “Decentring Meaning: Objects Becoming Things”, engages more directly with conventional Thing Theory, going “to the heart of current debates about the relationship of object and thing. These essays consider how what objects mean can shift as their use changes and they become ‘things’” (9). Valerie Sanders’s “Objects of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century Children’s Literature: E. Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett” explores “the importance of ‘things’ as the source of narratives, mysteries, and most of all, as a means of defining human individuality” (143) in the works of the two authors, especially regarding the ‘improper’ use of objects as items of play. Francois Ropert’s “Within ‘The Coil of Things’: The Figurative Use of Devotional Objects in the Poetical Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne and Oscar Wilde” close reads the poetry of the two otherwise unconnected authors, which looks at devotional objects “as critical touchstones of changing codes in literature and as signs of decadent times” (161).

Part 4, “Object or Text? Reading the Body”, blurs the line between texts and objects, in which texts become objectified and objects can be read as textual. Heather Hind’s “Golden Lies? Reading Locks of Hair in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Tennyson’s ‘The Ringlet’” investigates hair as a body part that can be reworked as a wearable ornament, saleable commodity, and souvenir, both separate and indivisible from the person who grew it. Sophie Ratcliffe’s “The Art of Curling Up: Charles Dickens and the Feeling of Curl-Papers” looks at the normally comically portrayed ephemera in the works of Dickens in which “the curl and its associate paper, seem like a kind of threat. It’s a threat which encompasses ideas of style, masculinity, selfhood, and class” (198).

Finally, Part 5, “Objects in Circulation: Print Culture”, considers both text and thing in terms of movement and how meaning changes based on its mere circulation. Odile Boucher-Rivalain’s “Women’s Dress as a Polemical Object in the Mid-Victorian Period” breaks down the many meanings of a material object in relation to the social role played by dress in the period, especially in terms of domestic life and working conditions. Alice Crossley’s “Paper Love: Valentines in Victorian Culture” examines mass-produced items of sentiment and the many ways in which they policed social norms both publicly and privately. The edited collection ends on Peter Yeandle’s “Exotic Bodies and Mundane Medicines: Advertising and Empire in the Late-Victorian and Edwardian Press”. Yeandle explores the relationship between advertisers and newspapers as a means of mutually reinforcing socio-political propaganda with the need for consumer goods.