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Reviewed by:
  • Consuming Fantasies: Labor, Leisure, and the London Shopgirl, 1880–1920
  • Maria Teresa Chialant (bio)
Consuming Fantasies: Labor, Leisure, and the London Shopgirl, 1880–1920, by Lise Shapiro Sanders; pp. 336. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2006, $44.95.

The figure of the shopgirl in late-Victorian and Edwardian culture has recently become one of the favourite topics of literary critics, cultural studies analysts, and feminist and urban historians. Good examples of this trend are Erika Rappaport's Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London's West End (2000), which explores the relationship between consumption, gender, and pleasure in the department store; Sally Ledger's "Gissing, the Shopgirl and the New Woman" (Women: A Cultural Review, 6.3 [Winter 1995]: 263–74); and Emma Liggins's George Gissing, the Working Woman, and Urban Culture (2006). In the volume under review, the author adopts a culturalist approach; arguing that "the shopgirl" is a construction, "created by the society in which she emerged" (1), Lise Shapiro Sanders examines its significance as both historical figure and fictional heroine. The title, evocative of two relevant studies in this context—Terry Lovell's Consuming Fiction (1987) and Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace's Consuming Subjects: Women, Shopping, and Business in the Eighteenth Century (1997)—overtly plays with the double meaning of the term "consuming," which refers, here, to the shopgirl as reader of popular romance fiction, as well as to her transitional position as worker and consumer.

In this well-researched volume, Sanders addresses the relation between fantasy and consumer/consuming desires in the construction of the shopgirl in late-Victorian and Edwardian culture. She argues that the "shopgirl embodied the very moment at which fantasy entered the process of consumer exchange: her vocation required that she [End Page 143] mediate the desires of consumers on the other side of the counter, be they women who longed to purchase the goods on display or men who might desire the shopgirl herself as another type of merchandise" (1). "On both sides of the counter" could be an apt metaphor to describe the shopgirl's transitional subject position: her bodily occupation of a space that defines her class status as well as her unique position as a woman in public (103). Additionally I would argue that to represent female transgression was to articulate a language, both literary and visual, through which a specific relation between space and character was established. Although in the representation of prostitutes or other sexually compromised women in literature and art, the recurring metaphors are those connected to dirt and disease (women as tainted, infected, polluted), it is spatial images that most convey the idea of guilt: this type of woman is defined as "fallen," "deviant," or "wayward," and descriptions of femal sexual transgression always invoke movement, either downwards ("to fall into prostitution") or away from the right path ("to go astray").

The metaphoric value of space, women's role in patriarchal society, and urban culture in Victorian England are all issues connected to "the metonymic link between the shopgirl and the prostitute" (106), as Sanders remarks in introducing her analysis of Gissing's The Odd Women (1893) and W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915). Here she is entering a critical debate in gender and cultural studies about the representational links between the streetwalker and the emancipated woman in late-nineteenth-century fiction. Historians and literary critics have focused on the flâneuse as both a type of New Woman and, in accordance with Victorian thinking, as a sort of fin-de-siècle variation of the prostitute. Gissing's heroines, in particular, embody a plurality of female social identities and cultural types; Sanders looks at Monica Madden (The Odd Women) in her double role of shopgirl and flâneuse: "the fact that Monica obtains pleasure from solitary wanderings in the streets of the city threatens to compromise her access to middle-class propriety, assimilating her to her fellow shopgirls" (113). Another good example of this liminality is Patty Ringrose, a successfully drawn minor character in Gissing's Eve's Ransom (1895).

A significant portion of this study examines various historical accounts constructing the shopgirl as a consumer of...


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