University of Toronto Press
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  • Miniature and the English Imagination: Literature, Cognition, and Small-Scale Culture, 1650–1765 by Melinda Alliker Rabb
Miniature and the English Imagination: Literature, Cognition, and Small-Scale Culture, 1650–1765 by Melinda Alliker Rabb Cambridge University Press, 2019. 250 pp. $120.95. ISBN 978-1108425834.

Melinda Alliker Rabb takes a delicious dive into the curious, strange, and arresting world of the miniature. For Rabb, miniatures mediate between small- and large-scale events, the old and the new, and she stresses that the decades between 1660 and 1765 represent a peak of ingenuity and inventiveness in their production, from books to toys (for adults), ship models, and soldiers. Their implications reverberate beyond the eighteenth century in how they "provide a kind of virtuality, a kind of alternative semblance of the real" (5) that Rabb pulls forward to our current moment of ever more invisible technologies. Over an introduction and five chapters, Rabb covers a tantalizing collection of objects, including doll-house furniture, coins, medals, scientific instruments, and many others. Throughout, her examples push back against the gendering of the miniature and material culture as feminine, offering plenty of evidence of men's attraction to and also scepticism of small things (every author whose work is discussed in detail is male).

The book sits comfortably within the material turn in eighteenth-century studies, bringing the framework of science studies to bear on objects that, despite their small size, find an ample foothold in the inner workings of the mind. Rabb makes the case that, unlike other objects that have fascinated scholars (such as Mark Blackwell's and Lynn Festa's sentient things in it-narratives or Crystal B. Lake's vibrant artifacts), [End Page 159] miniatures "remain steadfastly inanimate" (6). At the same time, Rabb seizes on their potential to calm and contain human sadness and loss. She sees the upsurge in the making and selling of miniatures in the 1650s as emerging from the wreckage and ashes of the Civil Wars, and the bubonic plague that wrought further losses in the 1660s. In this turn away from the emotional and psychological valences of miniatures in favour of their cognitive functions, Robert Hooke and John Locke remain touchstones, but Rabb is more interested in drawing tighter analogies with recent cognitive science to study how miniatures embody ideas about representation; how they look like their referents (or do not); how they distort scale (which we tolerate); and how they allow us to navigate physical space (in the case of maps).

Rabb pins her claims about the significance of "the fascination with downsizing" (2) to theories of aesthetics and cognition, which she engages most explicitly in the opening chapter, where, unsurprisingly, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) serves as an ideal case study. Rabb links Gulliver's descriptions of Lilliputian objects to the merchandise for sale at London toy-shops. More surprising is how she contextualizes Gulliver's encounters with scale within the use of miniatures by cognitive scientists, where they feature in studies about how humans (in the experiments, child subjects) grasp material representations of the world. In this reading, then, Gulliver's eventual madness is ultimately the result of a crisis of representation over what "is knowable and how it can be known" (53) that finds expression in Gulliver's interactions with miniatures. In reading the insights of cognitive science back into Gulliver's perceptions of the disorienting places he visits, Rabb understands Swift's miniatures not as the objects of satiric fantasy, but rather as real things that contribute, in more serious and less funny ways, to human cognition. The following chapter chases the influence of Swift on mid-century writers, primarily focusing on Samuel Johnson's parliamentary reporting in the Gentlemen's Magazine (of whose authorship James Boswell was confident), in which he reworks Swift through "Gulliver Junior," Rasselas, and three actual miniatures. In Johnson, Rabb spots ample scepticism toward miniatures and their seductive power to distract us from intellectual thought, but also curiosity about how they might mirror the expansion and contraction of immaterial ideas. She writes movingly about the small, golden touch piece that was gifted to the two-year-old Johnson by Queen Anne, which he wore from a ribbon around his neck well into adulthood, and the watch that he nestled in his pocket. Johnson's own miniatures appear to contradict his public writing, edging him closer to Swiftian crisis.

Chapter 4 moves back in time to the satiric writing of Alexander Pope (The Rape of the Lock, 1712–17), John Gay (The Fan, 1713), and Robert [End Page 160] Dodsley's little known play The Toy-Shop (1735). These pieces share an interest in, even an obsession with, the wares of the toy-shop. Over the course of her book, Rabb moves between miniatures and their textual and visual representations (with more attention paid to their appearance in word and image), and here she glides over actual toys, opting to concentrate on their visual representation in trade cards. In Pope's mockheroic verse, Rabb identifies the visual clutter of trade cards, finding a new source of commercial inspiration for Pope's satire, but one that would benefit from further details about the dating of exemplary trade cards. In contrast to the visual emphasis on toys, Rabb mines the material qualities of fans, particularly their ability to open and close on their painted scenes. Fans are small objects, rather than miniatures that reduce bigger things. But Rabb locates a miniaturizing effect in how fan-designs scale down political and historical events, which in Gay's hands creates an uncanny space for harm and violence that may be trimmed in size, but could be reopened at any time.

Despite the book's general celebration of the miniature's commercial success and aesthetic variety, more poignant discussions emerge across the study that call attention to the work humans make small things do. In addition to Gulliver's madness, Johnson's touch piece, and Gay's gestures of violence, the miniature's ability to negotiate and contain domestic and military conflict is addressed most prominently and arrestingly in chapter 5, where Rabb applies spatial theory to analyze the model soldiers that occupy characters like Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy (1759–67). Although Rabb seeks to extend the miniature's place beyond its emotional or psychological meanings, her forays into its relationship to loss remind us, in evocative ways, of its human potential. The miniature's emotional capacities and indeed the miniature itself are less discussed in the final chapter, where Rabb addresses scientific models and neatly revisits many of her main players, to discuss broader issues of scale.

Rabb's chapters brim with fascinating reconstructions of the market for miniatures, how and where people shopped for them, and what they thought of them in their public and private writings. Overall, she delivers on what she sets out to accomplish, to make the case that miniatures "demand and reward scholarly attention" (32), while managing to preserve, in satisfying ways, something of their magic and mystery. [End Page 161]

Chloe Wigston Smith
University of York
Chloe Wigston Smith

Chloe Wigston Smith teaches at the University of York and her publications include Women, Work, and Clothes in the Eighteenth-Century Novel (2013) and the ECF article "Bodkin Aesthetics: Small Things in the Eighteenth Century" (2019).