- The Empire Inside: Indian Commodities in Victorian Domestic Novels
In The Empire Inside: Indian Commodities in Victorian Domestic Novels, Suzanne Daly successfully carves out a niche in the rather crowded field of studies of commodities in Victorian literature and culture. Daly adroitly situates her book alongside recent studies of material culture by Elaine Freedgood and Bill Brown, as well as earlier examinations of imperialism and material culture by scholars such as Arjun Appadurai, Gayatri Spivak, and Patrick Brantlinger. What makes Daly’s approach fresh and engaging is her tight geographic and generic focus: she examines several specific commodities, all from India, as represented in mid-Victorian domestic novels. Daly’s narrow focus is a strength rather than a limitation, bringing order to what could otherwise have been an unwieldy study. Daly succinctly weaves together historical context, literary analysis, and theoretical framework, drawing on canonical and more obscure novels, primary historical documents, and a wide range of essays from Victorian periodicals. Her study is likely to be of considerable use to scholars interested in Victorian material culture, India and imperialism, and the curious ways in which the foreign and the imperial were absorbed into quotidian English life and identity.
In the introduction, Daly outlines the parameters of her project: by “examining the British at home and…looking specifically at material objects,” she aims to demonstrate that “in making something called ‘India,’ the English also remade themselves” (4). The central question of her book is how nineteenth-century notions of Englishness are “shored up by a particular brand of commodity fetishism that turns goods produced in British India into emblems of English identity” (6). Daly attends to the complex gender implications of English consumption of imperial imports, as well as the ways in which the labor embodied in such commodities was sometimes highlighted and sometimes made invisible. Because most mid-century novels mention India only as background, exhibiting little interest in imperial politics as a plot or character device, Daly sees these novels as a good place to observe “the cultural work that colonial imports were doing within the realm of ‘the domestic’” (9), whether in the individual household or the nation-state.
The subsequent chapters are organized by commodity, an organizational scheme that is useful for its clarity, though it also results in some repetition and occasionally obscures connections among the novels and writers Daly considers. Chapter 1 examines the history of Kashmir shawls and their prominence in mid-century novels and popular imagination. Daly outlines the shawls’ function as markers of minute class distinctions and shows how the history of their production and sale influenced consumers’ sense of their cultural value and relative Englishness or foreignness. The chapter also situates several novels, such as Gaskell’s North and South, in the context of contemporary labor issues in England and India. Daly suggests that the meaning of Kashmir shawls in Victorian novels is both unstable and overdetermined: the very word “Kashmir” can signify a place of manufacture, a fabric, or a weaving technique, and machine-made European imitations of “véritable Cachemires” were widely available from the early decades of the century. Perhaps not surprisingly, Daly concludes that authenticity and provenance are enormously complicated in the context of imperial commodities and imports. By the end of the century, she argues, the exoticism and foreignness of the shawls overcame their Englishness—the result of unpopular foreign wars and mass production of imitations that lowered the status of the authentic product. [End Page 112]
Chapter 2 traces the shifting cultural significance of imported Indian cotton in the context of industrial and economic history in England and India. The chapter considers canonical domestic novels such as Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and Ruth, Disraeli’s Sybil, and Margaret Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks, as well as less well-known texts such as Elizabeth Stone’s William Langshawe (a precursor to Gaskell’s Mary Barton) and Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family. Daly examines the novelists’ frequent use of dress and...