- What Miss Kilman's Petticoat Means:Virginia Woolf, Shopping, and Spectacle
Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and James Joyce have all recently been observed through the "lens of consumption" (Wicke 122). This is a new development in consumer/commodity1 critique because the most comfortable ground within literary criticism for such studies has been the actual production and consumption of the novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.2 Modernism's rejection of realism and its celebration of the artist as an alienated personage producing an arcane product—superior to and outside the common marketplace—would seem to have set it in opposition [End Page 193] to consumer/commodity culture and guaranteed its immunity from consumer/commodity study. Regina Gagnier's analysis of Wilde and his manipulations of his marketplace, however, put consumer theory right at modernism's door. Jennifer Wicke's reading of the interdependent relationship between advertising and modern fiction in James and in Joyce3 and Jonathan Freedman's study of James have irrevocably opened the modernist canon to consumer theory. Wicke's perception of the archmodernist Joyce as being immersed in the advertising lingo and consumer practices of his day carries with it a keen understanding of Joyce's empathy with these forces in the modern world. Rather than demonstrating confusion or contempt at a consumerized world, Joyce is revealed in Wicke's study as a "devotee of advertisement" (Wicke 124) and at ease when understanding and depicting the complexity of the modern marketplace.
The same, however, cannot be said of Virginia Woolf. This is strange given the importance of women in consumer/commodity studies and the focus of early advertising on the female consumer (Wicke 161). There is no single reason for this but a combination of factors: Woolf's upper-middle class background, her cultural heritage as part of Britain's intellectual elite, her peculiar socialism/pacifism, her personal temperament, and, ironically, her gender. Although directed toward women and placing women in the public sphere as shoppers, service producers (shopwomen, managers, and so on), and consumer icons, advertising and the market mechanisms creating commodity culture were overwhelmingly male-dominated. Joyce could play at advertising and make Bloom an ad man because he was inherently closer to these mechanisms by virtue of class and gender; Woolf, however, could only be an ambivalent witness to commodity culture. This ambivalence is demonstrated in her reactions to Oxford Street—the London shopping district that became for Woolf a symbol of the modern marketplace and commodity culture. For Woolf, Oxford Street was London's ever-changing consumer thoroughfare with the force of a "tide" ready to overwhelm everything in its path and incapable of being completely comprehended: "it is vain to try to come to a conclusion in Oxford Street" ("Oxford Street Tide" 22). Oxford Street is "blatant and raucous" (16). Department store owners dispense "largesse" that "takes the form of excitement, of display, of entertainment, of windows lit up by night, of banners flaunting by day. They give us the latest news for nothing" (18). As noted by Alex Zwerdling, Woolf also places a curious image in Oxford Street: "She thinks of the writer in the glare of publicity as 'like a trouser mender in Oxford Street, with a horde of reviewers pressing their noses to the glass and commenting to a curious crowd upon each stitch' " (110). [End Page 194]
Woolf's image of the writer as trouser mender in Oxford Street is packed with her ambivalence toward the modern marketplace. It juxtaposes elements of her class, cultural heritage, and personal preferences head on with what for Woolf were the exciting but terrifying realities of the modern consumer world. Here we have the traditional upper-class institution of the personal tailor placed in the very untraditional environment of the plate glass window and exposed to a class of middlemen who create a spectacle of his work—work that is not the creation of a new garment but just the mending of an old one.4 The modern writer is demoted in the modern marketplace from cultural guardian to not even an outmoded producer whose goods have lost the secrets of their production; instead, the modern...