Dianne F. Sadoff and John Kucich
Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Moveby John Plotz
What fueled the Victorian passion for hair-jewelry and memorial rings? When would an everyday object metamorphose from commodity to precious relic? In Portable Property, John Plotz examines the new role played by portable objects in persuading Victorian Britons that they could travel abroad with religious sentiments, family ties, and national identity intact/i>
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What fueled the Victorian passion for hair-jewelry and memorial rings? When would an everyday object metamorphose from commodity to precious relic? In Portable Property, John Plotz examines the new role played by portable objects in persuading Victorian Britons that they could travel abroad with religious sentiments, family ties, and national identity intact. In an empire defined as much by the circulation of capital as by force of arms, the challenge of preserving Englishness while living overseas became a central Victorian preoccupation, creating a pressing need for objects that could readily travel abroad as personifications of Britishness. At the same time a radically new relationship between cash value and sentimental associations arose in certain resonant mementoesin teacups, rings, sprigs of heather, and handkerchiefs, but most of all in books.
Portable Property examines how culture-bearing objects came to stand for distant people and places, creating or preserving a sense of self and community despite geographic dislocation. Victorian novelsbecause they themselves came to be understood as the quintessential portable propertytell the story of this change most clearly. Plotz analyzes a wide range of works, paying particular attention to George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, Anthony Trollope's Eustace Diamonds, and R. D. Blackmore's Lorna Doone. He also discusses Thomas Hardy and William Morris's vehement attack on the very notion of cultural portability. The result is a richer understanding of the role of objects in British culture at home and abroad during the Age of Empire.
Dianne F. Sadoff and John Kucich
"An intelligent, thought-provoking contribution to the current critical discussion of economics and the novel, this volume examines the 19th-century proliferation of 'portable property'i.e., objects that are endowed with sentimental value and function as reminders of Englishness abroadand their elaboration in, and homology to, the realist Victorian novel. . . . With this analysis, Plotz makes a fascinating contribution to the history of the novel, economic literary theory, and postcolonial criticism."D.K. Kreisel, Choice
"Plotz . . . offers a richly contextualized reading of the portability of value. As in his previous work, Plotz resists narrow ideological solutions to interpretive problems, and the complexity of his approach to Victorian culture pays off in extremely useful, often surprising readings."Dianne F. Sadoff and John Kucich, Studies in English Literature
"[T]his is a fine and subtle piece of work with something important to say about the ways in which particular kinds of 'English' culture were both constructed and perpetuated by the realist novel in the mid-Victorian period."Clare Pettitt, Victorian Studies
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Portable Property Victorian Culture on the Move
By John Plotz Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Introduction The Global, the Local, and the Portable
ONE UNIVERSALLY acknowledged truth about the Victorians is that they loved their things. Deborah Cohen has recently argued that in nineteenth-century England moral uplift came for the first time to be associated with the accumulation and harmonious arrangement of possessions; home-decoration turned into a saintly affair. The objects that pack Victorian parlors-aquaria, terraria, globes, books, and beetle collections among them-might seem to make bourgeois life into a collector's paradise, an alternative to ever quitting the home. However, the titles of popular works such as Friedrich Ernst's The Portable Gymnasium, John Bartholomew's Portable Atlas, and Elizabeth Kent's Flora Domestica, or The Portable Flower Garden prompt us to tell the story slightly differently. So, too, does a revealing fact: when possessions fill Victorian novels-so copiously that later readers describe themselves as swaddled by, drowning in, or suffocating under their weight-they generally serve not as static deadweights, but as moving messengers. Aquaria or collector's cabinets might be the Victorian repositories of choice, but the objects that fill them-bugs, mourning rings, or precious letters-acquire meaning primarily from their earlier peregrinations.
These are a few of theirfavorite things: Shakespeare's complete plays; an Indian pearl necklace sold to buy a copy of Samuel Johnson's Works; some unlabelled beetles bound for the British Museum; a monogrammed silver teapot; an Indian diamond with a "moony glow"; a Kashmiri shawl; a grandfather's chest of documents in various languages; a ruby ring, its provenance carved upon it in Farsi; an embroidered handkerchief in a silver box. My argument is that Victorian novels made much of such objects, returned to them repeatedly, and interrogated their significance in a variety of puzzling ways, because of the novel's own status as an exemplary portable property. Themselves sentimentalized items, endowed with a fiscal and a transcendent value at once, English novels from the 1830s onwards took on the project of making sense of resonant but potentially marketable objects.
They did so because so much of the novel's own cultural importance derived from its status as a text caught between fungibility and irreplaceability. In this introduction, I offer brief readings from novels by Eliot, Gaskell, and Oliphant, so as to explore three distinct ways that novels represent the curiously double nature of resonant pieces of portable property. The commonality I discern forms the basis for a claim that portability has significant features in common with, but is ultimately distinct from, both fungibility and from fetishism (that is, from an attachment to singular objects so profound, so willing to ascribe transcendent powers to a free-standing thing, that it resists conceiving of meaning as built up out of association and resonance). From those readings, I go on to ask why an England defined by both "Industry and Empire" was the logical breeding ground for a heightened attention to the problems of property's portability. My answer is that the problem of "staying English" within the wider realm that Dilke in 1868 called "Greater Britain" is addressed in novelistic representations of implicitly and explicitly national portable property. It is the existence of Greater Britain that requires not just a notion of portable cultural objects, but also of asymmetry in portability, so that the flow of culture-bearing objects from core to periphery is not counterbalanced or interrupted by a flow in the opposite direction. The capacity of an imperium to sustain that kind of asymmetry is a crucial component of its power.
It is vital to begin with a sense of the novelty of the developments that make Deborah Cohen call the Victorian English "the first people to be so closely identified with their belongings." What Cohen calls "identification" arises, I am arguing, because certain belongings come to seem dually endowed: they are at once products of a cash market and, potentially, the rare fruits of a highly sentimentalized realm of value both domestic and spiritual, a realm defined by being anything but marketable. The best pieces of portable property can become, in effect, their own opposites. If the oddity of that development-the emergent rivalry between schemes of value being played out in single objects-is not immediately obvious, recall that in the eighteenth century, objects located front and center in novels belonged to a realm that might bear the name of sentiment or of exchange, but was in any case characterized by free, rapid, unproblematic circulation.
The talking guinea at the center of Charles Johnston's 1765 Chrysal, for instance, is a hypostatization of the spirit of circulation itself. Chrysal accordingly calls forth formally congruent revelations about each character who holds him: each character's desire for the exchange value embodied within him is boundless, and effectively identical. Even the animated corkscrew in The Adventure of a Corkscrew boasts to readers neither of bottles opened nor bygone feasts, but its own price on the open market. And objects endowed with putatively sentimental value may fare no better. As late as 1815, Jane Austen is caricaturing bathos, not sympathizing with pathos, when she has Harriet Smith lachrymosely catalogue her "Most precious treasures:" a leadless pencil-end and a sticking-plaster she associates with the Reverend Elton. When Harriet packages pencil and plaster in a cotton-lined "pretty little Tunbridge-ware box," itself wrapped in an "abundance of silver paper" and deposited in a larger parcel, she is as ridiculous as Elton himself, who is found cooing over "a precious deposit" Emma has given him.
By 1830 (the chronology is explored in chapter 1, below), however, resonant objects began to appear in English novels in new ways. To understand why, it may help to notice that the word "portable" itself began to take on a new set of meanings and associations. Starting around 1830 both "portable" and "portability" begin to be used in increasingly abstract ways. Although there are at least two hundred book titles containing the word "portable" before 1833 (including a Psalter from 1600), the first title to use the word metaphorically seems to be Joseph Gurney's 1833 Hints on the Portable Evidence of Christianity.
Gurney's preoccupation with portability's ambiguity sheds a great deal of light on the waxing importance of the concept to the intersection between economic and noneconomic valuation. Hints begins:
"Every man who reads the Bible with attention, and observes the value and excellence of the book-every man who compares what it says of mankind with his own experience, and marks the fitness of its mighty scheme of doctrine to his own spiritual need as a sinner in the sight of God-is furnished with practical proof of the divine origin of our religion. I love this evidence; I call it the PORTABLE evidence of Christianity."... The Bible is a portable book, and the Christian, whether at home or on a journey, ought always to keep it within his reach, and make use of it as his daily companion. Again-whatsoever be our place or circumstances, we all carry within us a knowledge of our own experience.
But which sort of portability matters most: the physical portability (no quotation marks needed) of the Bible as a material book; or its metaphorical "portability," which depends on the applicability of its moral dicta in a potentially infinite variety of situations? Gurney refers to the Bible's physical advantages as a bearer of the good Word repeatedly throughout his tract, but those advantages are almost always linked immediately to a much less tangible sort of portability: the ease with which the Bible's lessons can be applied to the natural world, to moments of moral doubt, to cases of cognitive confusion, and so on.
Even at his most decisive, Gurney describes the Bible as simultaneously physical object and Word of God incarnate, permanently suspended between material and spiritual form: "Were that sacred volume more of a daily companion and intimate friend to us-did the words which it contains dwell in our hearts-did we 'bind' them 'for a sign' upon our hands, and as 'frontlets' between our eyes-our lingering doubts respecting Christianity and its doctrines, would soon fade away." This may seem to be an injunction to physicalize one's relationship with the Bible, to make it ever more tangible in one's daily life. Yet the quotation marks around the various words that describe the Jewish ritual of wrapping tefillin underscore the distinction between making the Bible physically portable on one's person, and making it spiritually portable by taking it with one as a metaphysical passenger. The conventional distinction between the Old Testament "Word" and the New Testament "Spirit" is here reconfigured, via the quotation marks, as a distinction between merely carrying a book (Jewish literalism), and effectively internalizing the Bible's teachings (Christian spirituality).
If the best sort of metaphysical portaging of the Bible's ideas is to "bind" those ideas to readers, Gurney still imagines them as attached to that reader not as frontlets plain and simple, but as "frontlets," set off by quotation marks. Gurney's indecision is suggestive of the significant cultural transformation taking place around him: it is now the duality of any given piece of portable property that is the phenomenon that most bears remarking, and the parameters of that duality are what demand attention. And of all the places that such preoccupation comes to the fore, none is more striking than the lengthy and involved meditations on portability's dual aspect that come to define the Victorian novel.
The Victorian aesthetic practices that are shaped by the logic of portability are by no means limited to the novel, so a focus on how novels unpack these questions might initially appear arbitrary. The oft-noted Victorian predilection for quotation, for instance, derives partially from the sense that literary texts are designed to travel widely and hence ought to be useful in settings both congruous and incongruous. Quotation, then, is one preeminent example of how literary texts can travel across historical, authorial, national and, not least, generic boundaries. Quotations might (or might not) come with generic markers attached to them but their diffusion hinges on their capacity to lodge in texts of any genre. Quotation, though, is far from the only way literary works are understood as attaining a kind of global mobility in the Victorian era; movement into other texts is not by itself success. Henry James, for instance, proposes that a successful novel has a curious untouchability derived not from its being quoted, but from its continuing ineradicable existence in readers' minds everywhere. Half-complaining, half-praising, James writes of Dinah Mulock Craik's 1856 John Halifax, Gentleman, that "we know of no scales that will hold [John Halifax], and of no unit of length with which to compare him. He is infinite; he outlasts time; he is enshrined in a million innocent breasts; and before his awful perfection and his eternal durability we respectfully lower our lance." It is the content of other readers' heads, then, that makes a novel into a piece of properly portable property: its success depends on the knowledge that others will feel about the protagonist just as one does oneself.
Yet if such relentless generalizability-a Halifax in every head-was one side of the novel's nineteenth-century appeal, there was a converse, as well. How can such generality be reconciled with the realist novel's oft-applauded power to be local-locodescriptive, yes, but also particular, singular, individualized? Penny Fielding argues that Robert Burns's poetry is fractured by the implicit double burden of being at once extremely local and entirely detachable. We might call this inherent paradox that of "absent presence." The more successful a text is at rendering a place palpable, the more it delocalizes the locale on which the representation is founded.
This particularity might seem irreconcilable with the attractive generality ascribed to literature. Portability, though, can solve the paradox-that literature is both locodescriptive and entirely separable from any given place-by providing a mechanism for inserting local mementoes into global circulation without detaching them from their original locale. Indeed, this sort of global mobility of local color might even be described as the forerunner of the fin-de-sie'cle international allure of American local color fiction that Brad Evans has recently described as "local chic."
There is another crucial set of reasons why novels lie at the heart of Victorian reflections on portability. It was novel circulation that profited most from the triumphant explosion of book and periodical production and consumption that in so many ways shaped Victorian England. The novel profited especially from its association with new forms of rapid transit: some argue that the rise of railways, and concomitant emergence of W. H. Smith's stalls (Euston Station's was the first, in 1848), was the primary reason "sales of books and periodicals reached unprecedented levels in the 1850s." The Smith stalls were prime distributors for Routledge's "Railway Library reprints," and also proved "instrumental ... in devising the yellowback reprint of popular novels ... forerunners of the twentieth-century paperback"; there were 35 Smith railway stalls by 1851, and 1,242 by 1902. If the pious W.H. Smith II ("Old Morality") insisted on the installation of chained Bibles in every terminal, the commercial success of the Smith operation in truth depended on a profoundly mobile readership, for whom travel was an occasion for, rather than an impediment to, immersion in printed matter. What was true for the shortest of train trips was equally true for shipboard odysseys. Cargo allowances were miniscule for poor emigrants, and Bibles, prayer-books, and Pilgrim's Progress were likely the only books that poorer emigrants brought on Australia-bound ships. Still, Bill Bell notes that emigrant-oriented journals (Chamber's Edinburgh Journal, for instance) relentlessly praised books and periodicals not simply as "a continued flow of valuable and correct information" but also (as David McKenzie put it in 1851) as a means to "improve your heart and mind." Bell argues that "the thousands of books, tracts, letters and newspapers that made their way to the colonies in the nineteenth century provided vital connections with familiar social values, serving for many to organize an otherwise unpredictable environment into recognizable patterns under strange skies." Altick's and Bell's accounts are crucial in reminding us of how unashamedly attached Victorian readers could be to what Carlyle calls the "vesture" of the book-that is, its simply material shape.
When Carlyle himself declared that "the thing we called 'bits of paper with traces of black ink' is the purest embodiment a Thought of man can have," he was finishing off a comparison between a book and a brick, a comparison that is quantitatively but not qualitatively to the book's advantage: both books and bricks are a mixture, in varying proportions, of the common stuff of earth and the ethereal stuff that flows through men's minds. In fact, this focus on the material existence of a novel as book is one way of distinguishing debates about the portability of novels from Victorian debates on the status of other genres. Indeed, the rising tide of questions about what is "portaged" in a novel's portability is one of the indicators of the novel's centrality in Victorian debates on cultural mobility-a centrality that accords with what James Buzard has recently described as the novel's authority in demarcating national identity from the 1850s onward. Poetry, by contrast, seems at the time to have provoked fewer debates about the relationship between material embodiment and higher meaning, and hence to have been much less involved in the unfolding debates about literature's potential portability. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Portable Property by John Plotz
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Catherine Gallagher, University of California, Berkeley
Mary Poovey, New York University
Meet the Author
John Plotz is associate professor of Victorian literature at Brandeis University. He is the author of "The Crowd: British Literature and Public Politics".
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