- Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move
John Plotz explains that his book "began as an attempt to understand Victorian writers [abroad] ... who proclaim that their attachment to distant homes depends upon their portable property," half-relics and half-commodities that embody and signify England wherever they are displayed (xiii). While the double life of British objects as relics and commodities remains a concern throughout, the text soon moves to a more in-depth exploration of its cardinal concept. In studies ranging from mid-Victorian diamond tales like The Moonstone to William Morris's romances, Plotz demonstrates that texts themselves are portable property and that they incorporate and construct portable property as well as resist it.
Plotz contextualizes these studies by noting that his period of interest, 1830 to 1870, saw an increase in global exchange, which imbued objects with both increased fungibility and "new sentimental attachments ... that seemed capable of warding off that fungibility" (24). Examining the relationship between the Victorians and their treasured possessions, he explores anxieties surrounding the sentimentalized object. In the chapters that follow, he demonstrates that nineteenth-century objects, from stolen strawberries to a collection of beetles, were believed capable of containing their owners' personalities and of conjuring longed-for provincial locales. However, these same objects also represented the fear that they might be nothing more than commodities, and their charms [End Page 221] were resisted by those that believed that no object could or should represent or transfer the particularities of human experience.
Mid-Victorian diamond tales exemplify the doubling that attends portable property; their primary objects act both as deeply sentimental personal treasures and as signifiers of tangible monetary value. Using a well-chosen and familiar text, The Eustace Diamonds, Plotz shows how portable property is never "fully detachable from various antefiscal systems" (33). That is, other values, such as culture and selfhood, tend to layer portable property in both positive and negative configurations. Such layering makes it difficult for characters (and readers) ever to view certain objects only in terms of their monetary value. Plotz highlights the freighted nature of portable property—a topic further explored in a study of The Moonstone, which exemplifies the fear that non-native objects might contain traces of their culture of origin and bring them home to England.
In his second chapter, which focuses on the necessity of a "portable Englishness" for settlers in India, Plotz pursues the idea that objects function as carriers of their home place (46). His study of Julia Maitland's Letters from Madras skilfully highlights the conflicts between the native Indian culture conjured by her portable property and the culture of other Anglo-Indians, which she finds less authentic than her own. The fear that English property is too portable, the barrier between England and its holdings too permeable, is also explored. In a particularly intriguing section, Plotz discusses the way that "literary quotations are used as immunization against India" (63). For those abroad, quotation identified imposters, connected one to one's homeland, and brought up questions about how satisfying of a life can be sustained by portable property like books and letters alone.
In one of the strongest sections of the book, Plotz goes on to consider the idea of portable culture and its links to racial identity in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. He contrasts this novel's techniques with the primary way that other novels have carried Britain into the greater British dominions: "namely [by] generat[ing] a readily generalizable English setting" (75). Deronda reflects a shift away from this provincialism and focuses on an internalized notion of portable property: one's cultural heritage and identity. This property, whether one is conscious of it or not, provides access to the world of one's ancestors, traditions, and cultural treasures. While this may seem an end-point for the notion of portable property (Jewishness representing a marked contrast to diamonds), Plotz reassures readers that cultural portability does not vanish with Deronda; it merely "slips below the visible surface of the text" (83). However, Eliot...