- Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move
Portable Property is a landmark book, a model of what is finest in current nineteenth-century criticism. Each specific reading is also useful in itself—as well as exciting, original, highly nuanced to boot. Indeed, specificity is one of its tenets. When Plotz speaks of Thomas Hardy's "finely developed eye" (122) allowing the "heterogeneity of individual acts of attention" and demonstrating "his interest in the particularity of what any individual notices about the world" (123), he might be describing his own critical practice. Like Hardy, Plotz asks us to look hard, pay attention, make fine distinctions, think again carefully about texts or categories we thought we knew—and he rewards us for sticking with him and doing so. The greatest reward, I think, comes in his study's reflection on what it wants to do and why. What I like best about this excellent book is that it provides a series of instructions—so engaging and courteous that you could not call it a "manifesto" (a curriculum, perhaps, or even a course of action)—in the thoughtfully differentiated and precisely located historical and cultural method that constitutes Victorian studies now.
Portable Property is interested above all in "Victorian distinctiveness" (25). It explores English novels between 1830 and 1870, assuming that period as the first to be "closely identified with [its] belongings" (2). It traces how, throughout the globe, dispersed Victorians kept England present (and mourned its distance) through relics, souvenirs, and symbols of it. "Strawberries first taught Harriet Tytler she was English," for instance (45). Born in India, she had never seen England, but nevertheless felt an "exil[e] in a foreign land" (45). And so, at age eight, confronted in a greenhouse with the first two strawberries ever to grow in India, she couldn't "resist the chance literally to ingest England" (45); she purloins and eats them both. Strawberries transplanted across the globe at great inconvenience and expense provide one example of how objects "preserve the illusion that life in India is best understood as a… continuation of Englishness abroad" (46). Diamonds, pearls, and mourning jewelry, handkerchiefs, letters, and even bank-notes (both hoarded and spent), and—most important—books, especially novels themselves, all also demonstrate how objects become "the metonymic placeholders for geographically disaggregrated social networks" (xiii)—for people far from England, but also for those still within it (like Mrs. Tulliver after bankruptcy or Lizzie Eustace in her widowhood) scrabbling to retain home and station. Portable Property is a vital contribution to the recent interest in how objects signify precisely because of its emphasis on their particularity. It offers an idea of objects that depends absolutely upon period and nation. In doing so, the book makes a powerful case for the continued importance of working within those categories, even as it deepens and expands them.
Portability, the sense of "objects in motion" (72), requires almost by definition that we recognize the play within how objects mean. Plotz's study sees objects in excess of commodification—this complexity is, indeed, part of the "distinctively Victorian" character of nineteenth-century object relations (189 n.42). Plotz is interested in British things, in how they find their structures of meaning in their particular historical context. Given its economic moment, Victorian portable property carries the penumbra of "a shareable common culture" (174) that creates around itself the very possibility of Englishness. Given property's movement in the empire, it detaches space from geography, so that any place can seem English if it organizes itself around English things. But such things are also peripatetic because hard to pin down: they are "quasimaterial" (175)—substantive, but also metaphoric, important less because people [End Page 352] might touch or hold them than for what they make people feel or understand. In this ambiguity, they resist attempts to make "complete sense of them" (175). It seems as if England exports itself to those outside it (implying "that without an empire, portability must come to an end" ). But this...