- Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830–1880 by Isobel Armstrong
Winner of the James Russell Lowell prize, Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830–1880 represents the capstone of Isobel Armstrong’s extraordinary career. In it, she brings her extensive knowledge of Victorian literature, particularly Victorian poetry, together with a vast amount of research on the various uses to which glass was put in the Victorian era. The result is a rich compendium of knowledge, a book that is as beautiful to look at as it is fascinating to read. The closest model for this work would be Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, except that Armstrong focuses not on multiple objects but on a single material. She argues that particular materials, glass in this case, might be thought of as characteristic of an era. Her book then asks what kind of social cross-section we would get if we were to examine a culture by looking at the uses and images that surround that material. What would such a study tell us about both the culture and the material? Armstrong’s book implicitly reverses the terms of the phrase “material culture” by exploring the culture of a material.
Though Armstrong explicitly seeks to complicate approaches to objects or materials that emphasize “socio-political and economic meanings” (15), her book opens with a socio-economic and political focus. In the first section, she explores the making and breaking of glass by examining accounts of glass factories by such notable authors as Charles Dickens and Harriet Martineau, the history of the factory that provided the glass for the Crystal Palace (the Chance Factory), and the accounts of glass-makers’ trade union journals. Nestled somewhat uneasily in the midst of these accounts of production is a story of destruction that recounts the way that glass-breaking has been consistently used as a form of political protest. Throughout this section, Armstrong emphasizes that Victorian glass, like the historical period itself, “straddles awkwardly between modernity and history” (31). Though modern factory conditions had begun to be introduced, the Victorian trade unions still functioned much like medieval guilds. Though glass was being produced in large quantities, most of it was still blown by hand; “it was partly ‘petrified’ breath and partly frozen liquid, a breakable liquid” (4).
As the beauty of this image suggests, Armstrong’s project involves more than the practical uses of glass. In it, she undertakes to set forth what she calls, following the work of Gaston Bachelard, the poetics of glass. As she notes in the introduction, materials function both usefully and “expressively. A buttress is both a symbol of and is force” (15). The middle section of Victorian Glassworlds reads glass both poetically and culturally. It begins and ends with considerations of glass’s symbolic functions. The opening chapter considers reflection in a myriad of locations, from the mirrored curtain of the Royal Coburg Theatre to the novels of Thomas Hardy and the paintings of Édouard Manet, Edward Burne-Jones, and James Tissot. The ending chapters deal with the Cinderella story and what Armstrong calls glassworld fictions: Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and [End Page 226] Dickens’s Bleak House. Between these chapters, Armstrong explores the visible manifestations of glass in Victorian culture, the plans for a glass arcade, the development of the conservatory, the popularity of cut glass, and, most prominently, the building of the Crystal Palace. What unites this section is its emphasis on windows, mirrors, and glass walls, its interest in the way glass “interposed an almost invisible layer of matter between the seer and the seen” (3).
In the third and final section of Victorian Glassworlds, Armstrong explores the intermediary role glass plays when it functions as a lens; “with the lens not things, but images, were at issue” (253). Here, we move from the rich catalogue of Victorian objects that fills the book’s middle section, its largest, to the pleasures of looking through glass. Once again, as in her discussion of mirrors and windowpanes, Armstrong moves...