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Reviews109 Asa Briggs. Victorian Things. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. 448. $29.95 US. Lady"Why, Parker? You came here only yesterday." Lady's Maid "I ' ve been looking over your drawers, ma ' am, and I find your things are not up to the mark and the lack would not do me credit." (Punch cartoon) Victorian Things completes a trilogy started with Victorian People (1954) and continued in Victorian Cities (1963). "My object in Victorian Things," says Briggs, "is to try to reconstruct ' the intelligible universe ' —or, more properly, universes, for there was more than one—of the Victorians." And he quotes with approval Julia McNair Wright ' s comment in 1881 apropos of housekeeping "that 'managing the objects in the midst of which we live is establishing between us and them bonds of appropriateness or convenience: it is fixing habits without which man would tend to the savage state. ' This Victorian judgment must lie at the very heart of any study of Victorian Things. It might have been inscribed in gold." At the beginning Briggs makes some brief allusion to post-modern interests: "while interdisciplinary studies of 'man-made things ' may be in short supply, two other converging disciplines besides geography—both with Victorian origins—have put men and things together in revealing fashion—anthropology and semiology. . . . After Bloch and Braudel came Barthes and Baudrillard, setting out systematically to uncover ' signs and meanings in everyday life. ' " But he is clearly much happier with concrete specificity and a conventional language of history. The "things" he discusses include paper, coal, figurines and statues, stoves, furniture, spectacles, cameras, pins, needles, pen-nibs, matches, postage stamps and postcards, medals and militaría, hats, caps and bonnets, dresses, the telegraph, and eventually telephones, typewriters, gas and light bulbs, the phonograph, automobiles and cinema. The effect is necessarily of a miscellany, but Briggs manages to place these various objects into a coherent world or "intelligible universe" by revealing their popularity, how they were regarded and interpreted, how they fitted into Victorian economy and politics, how they changed the lives of rich and poor. Several of these things, especially the collectibles, like postage stamps, furniture, and pottery, are themselves the focus of whole fields of 110Victorian Review antiquarian, aesthetic, and economic scholarship. Briggs ' s book is not a collector's manual, or written especially for collectors, but it draws significantly on the extensive literature attaching to objects, as weU as on theories of people and things—for example, Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood's The World of Goods, Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (1978) and Michael Thompson ' s Rubbish Theory (1979). "It is in the spirit of Thompson," he says, "that Victorian rubbish heaps are now ransacked by collectors most of whom have never read either Thompson or Our Mutual Friend." And instead of conventional notes at the end of the book, Briggs provides bibliographical comments and lists of books on the various types of information relevant to or called upon in each chapter. The range of reference is extensive and helpfully laid out. After a general discussion of the significance of things, Briggs naturally enough proceeds with "The Great Victorian Collection," the Great Exhibition of 1851, not only as an event in itself but as one whose success led to many others, local, national, and international, with different impulses and impacts in England, France, Austria and America. In Prince Albert ' s view such a collection should by its arrangement teach the mind as well as gratify the senses. "This message was the real legacy of 1851 .. . and it was to be represented, it was hoped in perpetuity, in Aston Webb's 'Lombardic Renaissance' Victoria and Albert Museum, the foundation stone of which was laid by Queen Victoria in 1899, at her last public function, in Waterhouse's Natural History Museum, and in the Science Museum." His discussion of these great coUections includes arguments of the time about the principles of selection and design: "How much decoration there should be—and of what kinds and on what objects—were major themes for public discussion in 1851, even if they had been raised earlier (often within an ideological frame) not only by Pugin, in relation to furniture...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 109-113
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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