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  • The Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative: Autobiography, Sensation, and the Literary Marketplace by Sean Grass
  • Robert L. Patten (bio)
Sean Grass. The Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative: Autobiography, Sensation, and the Literary Marketplace. Cambridge UP, 2019. Pp. xii + 279. $99.99. ISBN: 978-1-108-48445-9.

We've waited a long time for this book. In 2003, Routledge published Grass's The Self in the Cell: Narrating the Victorian Prisoner. He concludes that study by saying "prison novels illustrate that self-narrative–not the subject–is invariably a matter of invention. In doing so, they set the stage for what Freud and Foucault came [End Page 298] finally to suppose: that every self is a prisoner laboring in the shadow of the cell." Sixteen years later, he repositions the issue of self-narration from psychology and sociology to the impacted relations of any autobiography to its generic capacities and its distribution commercially in the mid-Victorian literary marketplace.

Grass begins by noting what happens when punishment ceases to be a public spectacle–the stocks, the noose–and becomes privatized. Privatized, that is, in two senses: the prisoners were no longer subject to public scrutiny and punishment. They were incarcerated in small cells. And the prisons controlled discourse with and about their charges. This penal reform, the idea that solitary confinement could impel malefactors to confess and repent, had unforeseen consequences. (One was that it drove many to madness.) The new institutions had to prove their effectiveness to survive. Prison authorities, constructing these intimate life stories according to the long-established genre of confessions, made money for themselves and for those who owned and financed these prisons. The self, even the soul and personality that stood for one's unique identity (testified to by handwriting on legal and financial documents, for example) became commodified as a retail product. As Fraser's put it, P. T. Barnum's 1855 autobiography courted "the rotten eggs and dead cats of a moral pillory" for the sake of money (65).

Grass believes the turn to autobiography is an important component of the nineteenth-century print trade, even when the "auto" biography is channeled through another agent, such as the inherited conventions of life writing or a ghost author. He dates its commencement in the 1820s, and on the basis of considerable research thinks it peaked in the 1850s and 1860s. He asks that archive to disclose what were the imaginative, ideological, commercial, and cultural consequences of converting intimate "life" into text and commodity. As such, Victorian identity "was copied, revised, disseminated, fragmented, and temporally ruptured, interlaced with the demands of economic desire" (21). Those consequences are then exemplified in case studies of novels by Dickens, Elizabeth Braddon, George Eliot, Charles Lever, and Wilkie Collins.

Grass writes lucidly and fluently. His expositions are couched in prose that is "reader-friendly." He is responsive to what has already been propounded about a literary age beginning the reification of selfhood Marx identified, and incorporates many papers from Dickens Studies Annual and this journal, so some of his arguments will be familiar to many. In a world in which money becomes a paper representation of gold and silver, the values inhering in signed promissory notes and authors' fictions alike undergo recalibration.

Take Pip, whose narrative of self-discovery and exculpation provides the first test case. From the carvings on the tombstones in the opening page Pip's infant tongue changes his paternal inheritance into a seed–Philip Pirrip into [End Page 299] Pip–and the seed-merchant Pumblechook values him accordingly, as "six pennorth of halfpence" and a "four-footed Squeaker." He is commodified over and over, his life (like Marley's) forging a heavy chain of iron shackles and gold. This slippage between identity and property occurs whenever life goes "upon the exchange." It's true also of the lives of Miss Havisham, courted for her money; Estella, ditto; Joe, in many phases of his life; Orlick, Magwitch; Jaggers knows just exactly how much a life story (alibi) is worth, and Wemmick, devotee of "portable property," values the objects that stand for the lives of the clients. Moreover, Great Expectations the novel, as...


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