- Come Buy, Come Buy: Shopping and the Culture of Consumption in Victorian Women's Writing
In the opening pages of Come Buy, Come Buy, Krista Lysack asks a question that modern readers of Jane Eyre have undoubtedly wondered themselves: would Jane's trousseau shopping experience have been more enjoyable if she had been shopping "on her own terms" rather than Rochester's? In its rich interdisciplinary analysis of imaginative literature, cultural practices, and archival documents, Come Buy, Come Buy persuasively answers its opening question with a resounding yes. The book begins with one of the most memorable shopping scenes in Victorian fiction, in which Rochester takes Jane Eyre dress shopping at a silk warehouse in the neighbouring industrial town of Millcote. As Lysack demonstrates, Jane "proves an unwilling and resistant shopper" (1) as she renounces not only the extravagant gowns and diamond necklaces offered by Rochester but also the challenges to her autonomy represented by Rochester's consumer advances. Arguing that shopping can be a way for women to consolidate economic agency in a manner that incorporates rather than renounces consumer culture, Lysack's account of Jane Eyre's shopping practices charmingly introduces the book's analysis of consumer culture and female subjectivity in Goblin Market, Lady Audley's Secret, Middlemarch, Michael Field's Sight and Song, and the suffragette newspaper Votes for Women.
Beginning with a theoretically informed opening chapter, Lysack grounds her argument with de Certeau's theory that consumer acts are a "potentially transformative form of cultural production" and thus everyday activities like shopping make "visible the ways in which the subject may respond to and even resist her condition under capitalism" (Lysack 7). Lysack contends that after mid-century, the cultural practice and discursive treatment of shopping shaped female subjecthood in forms "predicated on the possibilities of pleasure in the marketplace rather than disavowal" (8). She resists the critical tendency to characterize the Victorian woman shopper as enacting a cultural anxiety about unregulated consumption. Such approaches, she contends, hinge on the notion that for women, shopping represents an either/or binary, in which consumer activity signifies necessary excess, cast as either transgressive idleness or consumption. Come Buy, Come Buy, on the other hand, makes it clear that for Victorian women shoppers, the marketplace was not only a site of potential danger but also one of pleasure.
The book is divided into two sections. The first three chapters examine the articulation of female urban consumerism in literary texts and cultural practices from the 1860s through the 1880s; the final two chapters treat the political and aesthetic negotiation of women's consumer culture from 1890s to World War I. One of the book's clear strengths is Lysack's treatment of shopping as not only a register for commercial economies, but also, in a more [End Page 168] symbolic way, a register for libidinal, imperial, and specular economies. In her nuanced treatment of Goblin Market, for example, Lysack argues that "gazing in an exotic goblin marketplace becomes the basis for women to formulate desires of their own" (29). By historically situating the poem within the emerging cultural practice of window-shopping, Lysack convincingly demonstrates that "within the marketplace"—goblin and otherwise—"desire is first produced ... through technologies of looking" (41). In the most excitingly original chapter of the book, Lysack examines the function of specular economies in Michael Field's Sight and Song. Lysack argues that Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper (as Michael Field) strategically arrange the poems within Sight and Song to produce the effect of "shared pleasure rather than possession," thus rejecting the gaze of masculine specular economies enacted in fin-de-siècle aestheticism (111). This sophisticated rendering of symbolic economies would have been a welcome framework for the chapter on Middlemarch, which seems less theoretically developed than the others. While any scholar who takes on Middlemarch is to be applauded for the undertaking, Lysack's connection between Eliot's terms for the publication of Middlemarch (although quite interesting...