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The Cosmopolitan Interior: Liberalism and the British Home, 1870–1914 (review)

From: Victorian Studies
Volume 52, Number 2, Winter 2010
pp. 286-288 | 10.1353/vic.0.0355

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This fine book demonstrates how to read texts about domestic interior decoration—the arranging of the private home—for reflections of debates about how a society should array itself politically, economically, and morally. It is a Book Beautiful of glossy paper and comfortable margins, providing plentiful and fascinating images from the many turn-of-the-century publications Judith A. Neiswander has consulted. All the more pity, then, that the editors neither caught as many typographical errors as they should have nor questioned Neiswander's overuse of passive constructions, a prose-dulling fault that mars an otherwise lively work of scholarship.

According to Neiswander, writing on interior decoration in articles, pamphlets, and handbooks reflected the flowering and decline of English liberalism. To her credit, she questions the truism that too often structures critical studies of liberalism: that it is ideology primarily bent on perpetuating hegemonies of class, race, gender, and nation-state. It's not that Neiswander ignores such topics, but she shows us how, in prescribing certain types of wallpapers, vases, carpets, mantelpieces, furniture, color schemes, and the like, writers on the decoration of houses complicated the relation between beauty in a domestic setting and social, economic, political, and religious questions of the day. Instead of simply analyzing top-down power structures, she shows us a liberalism and conservatism of more complicated and interesting patterns.

Arbiters of taste in home decoration, we learn, had to deal with the tension between function and practicality on the one hand, and the display of luxury, wealth, and social status on the other. Beginning in the 1870s, the literature on interior decoration increasingly addressed itself to the growing middle classes and moved into the spaces opened by the waning of Utilitarian philosophy and evangelical Christian beliefs, finding freedom there to write of the (hitherto "merely") decorative with new seriousness. Following John Stuart Mill's urging of private freedom of expression, writers about home decoration railed against conformity and promoted self-expression as the byword of home decoration. Not sure how to furnish your home? The best scheme is a reasoned schemelessness issuing from your own individuality. Mix styles; avoid ostentation; gather decorating ideas and objects from around the world and from your family's attics; freely seek harmony within a room and between yourself and that room: such were the guiding ideals of liberal, aesthetic decoration.

The word "cosmopolitan" entered the decorating literature during the final three decades of the nineteenth century. Certainly these writers were blind to the ways in which they encouraged the plundering of the styles and artifacts of world cultures with little respect for them as cultures. Appropriation did not mean understanding. But Neiswander shows us that these handbooks and magazine pieces also evince a genuine desire to free the middle class from aristocratic strictures and material yearnings above their economic means—so-called "trumpery conceits" (78)—at the same time as they emphasize a positive evolution of the individual within the privacy of her home. Not all sages of decoration agreed. Mary Eliza Haweis, for example, a self-taught scholar of historic decoration and an influential author of decorating handbooks, urged the aristocratic style on her readers, praising "the princely style of the Renaissance and the feudal associations of the late Middle Ages" (103). Neiswander treats both liberal and conservative decoration, but focuses, as her title indicates, on the liberal. Science and technology enter on both sides of the debate, as sanitary concerns (washable wallpapers, upholstery, floor coverings) and exaggerated demands for fresh air as a way to avoid disease appear across the political spectrum. Technology made it possible for the middle classes to buy affordable copies of expensive decorations, yielding new debates on the virtues of aristocratic/conservative versus middle-class/liberal styles.

A new profession for women, "lady decorator," developed. The feminists and suffragists among them managed to insert some radical propositions about woman's power into their discussions of practical matters, and we receive here four brief profiles of such women writers, three liberal and one conservative. We've read of the battles between male connoisseurs and female homemakers and decorators elsewhere. While Neiswander doesn't shy away from quoting the sexist responses these women received...



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