- Paraphernalia! Victorian Objects ed. by Helen Kingstone, Kate Lister
Paraphernalia! Victorian Objects, edited by Helen Kingstone and Kate Lister, follows in the wake of a number of recent edited collections focused on Victorian material culture and its remediations in written and visual forms, including Illustrations, Optics and Objects in Nineteenth-Century Literary and Visual Cultures (2010), Bodies and Things in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture (2012), and Literary Bric-à-Brac and the Victorians: From Commodities to Oddities (2013). Kingstone and Lister seek to distinguish their new volume from these forerunners by focusing on “the historical, cultural and literary debris that makes up the background of Victorian life,” or, in other words, objects not considered valuable enough to be collected by museums (1). Later, this focus is broadened to include “the exceptional and the ordinary” as the editors seek to encompass essays that range across a wide variety of Victorian things, including valentines, aquaria, locks of hair, taxidermy, and objects designed for the decoration of aesthetic interiors (6).
The theoretical framework of the introduction draws on John Plotz’s Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move (2008) to make a series of useful points about the relationship between objects and the construction of identity, hierarchies of object value, and the problem of classification. A more thorough critical evaluation of first-wave thing theory, particularly the work of Bill Brown and Elaine Freedgood, would have been valuable here. As it stands, the seamless linking of David Trotter’s 2008 essay on household clearances with Brown’s work feels a little offbeat, especially as Trotter’s intervention critiques thing theory’s preoccupation with subjectivity and highlights fiction’s important role in creating the illusion of purposeless objects. Trotter reminds us that many objects represented in literary texts are just there and do not hold any special meaning or value, an important point to consider in a volume that seeks to recuperate what it describes as “backstage” Victorian material culture and bring it to the forefront of critical attention (6).
Though Isobel Armstrong’s Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830–1880 (2008) is mentioned, other important work in cultural phenomenology is missing from this discussion, notably that of Steven Connor, whose call for critics to think through things “rather than thinking them through” was contemporaneous with the emergence of thing theory (“Making an Issue of Cultural Phenomenology” in Critical Quarterly 42.1 , 4). Connor moreover published a book in 2011 titled Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things, which includes an extensive discourse on the choice of the word paraphernalia as its title. Such comprehensive and critical engagement with its key term is often absent from this recent volume, though it might have provided a useful starting point for an elaboration of the book’s rationale and helped to further distinguish it from Jonathon Shears and Jen Harrison’s intervention on bric-à-brac. Connor, for example, makes some useful clarifying points around the function of the prefix “para-” and its signification of something “equivalent but extra,” its suggestion of “unnecessary complication or elaboration,” and its signaling of the union of impersonal and personal things ([Profile Books, 2012], 12–13). In its nineteenth-century contexts, moreover, paraphernalia has important gendered connotations, denoting (prior to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870) a wife’s personal items that were exempt from [End Page 706] becoming the property of her husband: an important insight for any discussion of personal female items, especially dress and jewels.
Such reservations over focus and rationale aside (and I do not underestimate how difficult it is to manage a book like this in which such a panoply of objects demands different kinds of attention and varieties of approach), there is much to admire in this volume. Rohan McWilliam’s essay on the bazaars of London’s West End, while it feels out of place in a section on collecting, provides a very interesting analysis of the linked consumer practices of shopping, theatergoing, and exhibition visiting. Jacqueline Yallop gave us Dante...