- Architectural Identities: Domesticity, Literature, and the Victorian Middle Class
In this fascinating book, Andrea Kaston Tange claims that scholarship on Victorian domesticity needs to build upon traditional theoretical examinations of the notion of separate spheres (i.e., the home being the feminine, private antidote for the public masculine world of work and commerce). According to Tange, the notion of separate spheres, while eminently useful, needs to take into account the actual spaces that the Victorian middle class occupied. In particular, Tange claims we must understand Victorian middle-class identity as being very much shaped by the physical space of the middle-class home. As Tange puts it:
The way a house was designed to distribute people through space helped establish the personal and social identities of everyone who entered. In short, British middle-class identity from the 1830s through the 1870s was clearly architectural. It was carefully constructed from the building blocks of family name and gentility, and it was maintained primarily through the vigilant creation of a house that would be not just a home but also a stage for displaying the successful achievement of middle-class identity. (6)
In putting forward this argument, Tange takes into account a tremendous variety of different sources, including architects' floor plans from the archives of the Royal Institute of British Architects; Victorian periodicals; conduct manuals and housekeeping guides (in both book and article form); architectural guides, histories, and treatises; literary scholarship (on the nineteenth-century ideal of separate spheres, masculinity and domesticity, and the geographies of identity); social histories; geography studies (feminist examinations of the limits of geographical knowledge); and Victorian paintings, novels, correspondence, journals, memoirs, and autobiographies. Indeed, the breadth of Tange's research is extraordinarily impressive. To be sure, she doesn't refer extensively to Victorian periodicals in the text, but whenever she does she always provides apt quotes from the periodicals to demonstrate her argument. For instance, one of the most telling [End Page 406] quotes in the book comes from Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine: "[a house is] the very acme of comfort, the very object of all labour, the only thing that makes life worth living for, in the opinion of three-fourths of Queen Victoria's loving subjects" (6). So too, other quotes and references to the Quarterly Review, North British Review, Macmillan's Magazine, the Cornhill Magazine, and others all lend weight and interest to Tange's compelling thesis.
The way that Tange structures her book suggestively strengthens her analysis of the ways in which domestic architecture shaped and reflected middle-class identity. The use of an inter-chapter is particularly effective in terms of conveying the ways in which Thomas and Jane Carlyle used their domestic space. In the manner of a passageway, the inter-chapter connects the second chapter on the socially approved feminine locale of the drawing room with the third chapter on the dining room, which is revealed to be a privileged site of domestic masculinity. Further, the use of the inter-chapter serves to highlight the significant issue of the abuse of domestic boundaries within the Carlyle marriage and the compromised way in which Jane Carlyle was forced to live in order to comply with her husband's sense of spatial entitlement.
Architectural Identities is a book that should rightfully stand as a landmark in Victorian scholarship. Tange's highly informed understanding of the significance of middle-class domestic architecture in relation to the formation of Victorian middle-class identity, along with her excellent, perceptive readings of Victorian texts, serves to imbue this work with singular authority. In the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Tange has raised a "beautiful, entire and clean" structure.1 Victorian scholars may dwell here secure in the knowledge that they will attain vistas that had hitherto been covered by abstractions.
Shale Preston is Honorary Associate in the English Department at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Her primary research interest is Charles Dickens. She is currently working on a book-length study on the...