Victorian Liberalism and Material Culture: Synergies of Thought and Place (2018) by Kevin A. Morrison

Sep 20, 2019 | Reviews

Zan Cammack

There has recently been a steady output of works examining the Victorian obsession with collecting things, setting up what Deborah Cohen describes as “household gods” in her work of the same name. And yet, Kevin Morrison’s work, Victorian Liberalism and Material Culture, suggests that “places such as the gentlemen’s club and the office have been relatively neglected by material culture scholars” (18). His central argument is that the architectural space and decorative interiors of places of work serve as “key conceptual metaphor[s]” for the larger output of some of liberalism’s key thinkers in the Victorian era, namely John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, John Morley, and Robert Browning (3). Morrison begins by considering the architectural imagery used by these authors to consider interiority of thought. Mill, for instance, described the mind as an “inward domain;” Arnold conceptualized “a frame of mind;” Morley worked to broaden the mind as opposed to the “cramped” or “narrow” schools of thought outside of liberalism; and Browning considered the mind an “inner chamber of the soul” (10). Victorian Liberalism, therefore, undertakes a study of the physical place of intellectual work for these individuals, articulating a transactional analysis of the writing or thoughts produced in each space.

In his first chapter, Morrison argues that John Stuart Mill’s intellectual individuality evolved alongside his changing workspace as he was promoted within the East India Company (EIC). Mill’s philosophies were initially largely informed by his father’s work, but as his promotions were accompanied by increased private space in East India House, he demonstrated an individuation of thought. Morrison points out that from the period of Mill’s placement in his eventual thirty-by-eighteen-foot office, we can trace an “increased physical and psychological freedom” in his production (54). Mill’s greatest works were largely penned in this office, where he had space to effectively contemplate ideas and execute work: from company-based work such as policies in relation to India to his individual intellectual works like On Liberty.

The space at East India House—both physically and intellectually—proved sufficient for Mill, who ultimately let lapse his membership at the prestigious Athenaeum club; Arnold, on the other hand, valued his membership at the intellectual club as a space of “beatitude” (80). Of particular interest in this second chapter of Victorian Liberalism is Morrison’s emphasis on the club’s evocation of Hellenistic ideologies through architecture. From the bas-relief frieze on the building’s exterior, which echoed the Parthenon’s structure, to the temple-like propylaeum entrance to the club, the physical building created a literal and metaphorical space for members to “shed temporarily [their] vested interests and partisan leanings” and instead embrace the opportunity to enter an intellectual space (96). One of Morrison’s most crucial observations to bolster his argument that the materiality of the Athenaeum influenced Arnold’s thought (and, to my mind, an observation that Morrison could have made much more of) is that after Arnold gained membership to the club, his writing output shifted from primarily poetry to prose, such as Culture and Anarchy. Arnold’s work produced during his club tenure grows to reflect culture as a vital to liberal thought in a place that was inherently, intentionally, and materially without political or religious biases.

Whereas Arnold’s intellectual surroundings were based in a communal club, John Morley preferred the “impersonal domesticity,” as Morrison terms it in his third chapter, of his own home in South Kensington (134). Much of the material from which Morrison initially draws his analysis of Morley’s home interiors comes from ‘at home’ feature pieces published on this MP for Newcastle upon Tyne. In these accounts, Morley’s workspace is frequently described as relatively sparse in its decoration—with a distinctive lack of bric-a-brac common to the Victorian domestic space—and as making heavy use of whiteness on the walls. These descriptions lead Morrison to envision Morley’s rooms as proto-modernist spartanism that mirrored the man’s nearly ascetic aversion to cluttering material goods that in turn reflected the “cramped and narrow [tower] … of the Evangelical creed” (141). And while Morrison’s latter part of this analysis rings true, he reveals the faultiness of his initial assumptions about the spartanism of the home after he came across a photograph of Morley in his home library that belies a contemporary interpretation of the ‘at home’ features; the library is still distinctly Victorian in design and elements (the photograph depicts a mantle shelf positively laden with minutia) and was only considered restrained in the context of the articles’ original readership.

In Morrison’s final chapter, he considers Robert Browning’s Florentine home, Casa Guidi, and its aggressively furnished interiors—a stark contrast to Morley’s pared-down domestic space. This chapter is much less concerned with architecture than with objects. Though there are effective descriptions of the Brownings’ home in terms of its spatial awareness, Morrison is much more interested in the idea that R. Browning collected objects around him that evoked the thoughts and liberalism of the Italian Renaissance and was deeply invested in the furnishing of his space in a way that reflected his eclectic interest in this period. R. Browning is described by Elizabeth Barrett Browning as “seeing things passionately” and having transactional interplay with objects (185). His fascination with materiality, particularly if objects came under his purview with their own histories embedded in them—he had a penchant for second-hand furniture, for instance—influenced his poetry particularly. It was a way of making the objects he collected around him less about the objects themselves; surrounding himself with “artefacts from other times and places engendered the epiphanic experience of being among objects that, in bearing their historicity, enabled the imaginative and affective dissolution of the barrier separating past from present” (220).

Morrison’s particular strengths in this work lie in the meticulous research, not only of each individual’s written works but also the research dedicated to the physical places and objects under discussion. Floor plans, photographs, and illustrations serve as essential supplements to the already keenly cultivated word-pictures he is able to construct from archival documents. A floor plan annotated by Morley’s own hand, for instance, is just one example of the vibrancy that Morrison’s account can provide. This work shines brightest when he is able to articulate specific interactions between the material items under discussion and the larger ideologies developing by the authors. The chapter on Arnold best delineates these transactional exchanges and absolutely delivers on the book’s thesis.

There are a few missed opportunities, however. For example, one cannot help noticing a disconnect between the detailed description of the exterior sculptures on East India House and Morrison’s fleeting acknowledgement that Mill would have passed beneath these symbolic images every day with no further commentary on how these images might have influenced the author (40). And while Morrison acknowledges that his work focuses on “liberal masculinity” rather than other gendered considerations of intellectual spaces (12), the chapter on R. Browning relies heavily on accounts drawn from E. B. Browning’s correspondence and her own ideas. But then again, this might provide an open opportunity for further exploration of the intellectual spaces of women writers like E. B. Browning and George Eliot.

Victorian Liberalism and Material Culture opens an exciting avenue of study into how architectural detail and design can influence intellectual development of thought. It also opens opportunities to examine spaces of other authors’ homes and working spaces, such as Wilkie Collins’s Harley Street home, which he makes particular note of while writing The Woman in White. At the very least, Morrison’s work alerts us to possible influences of spatial materiality on individual intellectual output.