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Household Gods: The British and their Possessions (review)
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Of all the trite assumptions made about the national character none is so common as "the Englishman's home is his castle." Deborah Cohen deliberately avoids the cliché but nevertheless provides compelling evidence that the British—though perhaps she really means the English—have nurtured an extremely close relationship with their homes and their goods. In Household Gods, she has produced a wonderfully evocative and richly illustrated account of the bourgeois household and set out an intriguing thesis that will exercise the minds of historians for some years to come.

The stereotype of the perspiring Victorian clergyman, worrying himself over the alluring and provocative shape of a dining room table leg, is, according to Cohen's argument, simply wrong. Instead she claims the British have taken such pride in their possessions because morality and materialism were actually united. Initially, the self-denying elements of the evangelical conscience had been uneasy with consumer society, but from the 1840s a "doctrine of incarnationalism" accepted that the divine could be witnessed through beauty and that all sorts of activities provided the potential for moral improvement, especially family life enjoyed in the home. Domestic furnishing could be beautiful and therefore moral, and Cohen provides some fascinating accounts of the links between Anglican clergy and early interior decorators.

We might quibble over cause and effect here since Cohen contends that these theological shifts brought about the change in attitudes to home possessions; one might easily argue that a consequence of rising affluence was an accommodation of the Anglican Church to the commercialising world around them. But Cohen runs with her thesis and explains how, building upon the new cosy relationship between goods and God, domestic entrepreneurs—retailers, advice manual writers, and so on—attempted to elevate personal taste on artistic lines. By the later decades of the nineteenth century, the notion of beauty was not dependent upon the perceived presence of the divine, and middle-class consumers were granted the freedom to explore their individuality and character through domestic goods. The bourgeois parlour was raised to the level of art—and art was, indeed, expected to be purchased—and men as much as (if not more than) women participated in the craze to express their personality through their possessions. By the turn of the century, though, satirical critiques of the effeminacy of domestic shopping, written against the challenges to masculinity raised by the trial of Oscar Wilde, caused men to retreat from the parlour and women to step in as the new domestic authorities. Unable to tackle the professions and the universities, many suffragettes—including Rhoda Garrett and Emmeline Pankhurst—instead set themselves up as decorators and interior designers.

On the one hand, goods had to express the more ephemeral aspects of personality and the less tangible concept of taste. On the other, however, consumers had to demonstrate their refinement and connoisseurship, especially by acquiring antiques, the collection of which raised home furnishing to a practical and rational skill that drew on the older virtues of patience, restraint, discrimination, and self-denial. Both, however, attested to the individuality of the Victorian bourgeoisie, a culture which explains the lack of enthusiasm for the plate glass and tubular steel of continental European modernism. Instead, the British middle classes retreated in the interwar years into their own nostalgic celebrations of their home comforts. They purchased and followed the advice provided in magazines and manuals, eschewing novelty and originality in the desire to fit in. Especially in the expanding suburbs, Cohen's argument pessimistically concludes, household goods no longer came to be expressions of bourgeois individuality. Instead, by the 1930s, taste had become increasingly codified and shoppers bought uniform goods to demonstrate their affinities to their neighbours and their class. The interwar "aesthetic landscape" had changed such that "fitting in was more important than standing out" (198).

This is an impressive volume, ambitious in scope and wonderfully presented. Cohen uses her material to develop existing but useful narratives of Victorian society: the age of atonement; the changing definition of the self; the rise of the department store; and the role of consumption for both men and women. There are omissions, of course, as one might expect in a book...