- Victorian Liberalism and Material Culture: Synergies of Thought and Place by Kevin A. Morrison
Kevin Morrison’s Victorian Liberalism and Material Culture: Synergies of Thought and Place explores the role of “architectural space and decorative interiors” in the development of nineteenth-century liberal thought in John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, John Morley, and Robert Browning (3). It is an unlikely focus. While liberalism is many different things for different thinkers, to focus on how these figures “depended on their emplacement in specific workspaces and how the materiality of these sites inflected their thinking” is not an obvious move (21). But the book does an excellent job of convincing the skeptical reader of the merit of Morrison’s approach.
The introductory chapter, “Frames of Mind,” reviews Morrison’s approach to liberalism in the context of authors’ workspaces. He is alert to the elasticity of Victorian liberalism and to the vexing evidential problems posed by material culture analysis: here, of the rooms through which his subjects walked, the views from their windows, the objects they held. For Morrison the “frame” signifies both the corporeal frame of the human subject and the architectural frame of the house or workplace, emphases that enable Morrison’s reading of embodied action (human frames) in space (architectural and material frames). While Victorian liberalism has been much discussed, the ways in which workspaces shaped some of its proponents’ key ideas, Morrison argues, has been overlooked.
The first chapter, on Mill, begins with an elaboration on India House and the impact of James Mill’s thinking on his son not only in terms of his much-discussed and idiosyncratic parenting principles (characterized by a form of determinism against which liberalism would come to define itself) but also by their shared experience at India House. The material space of the building and the ways in which, “through habitual use, it contributed to the dispositional knowledge of its occupants” is Morrison’s focus, although a considerable portion of the chapter also addresses imperialism (29). Mill’s appreciation for public debate, the private liberal individual, and the organic working of wholes were all shaped by his India House career, Morrison argues, as he moved through the ranks [End Page 678] from clerk with a crowded, shared office to senior administrator with a large and private office (in which he paced as he developed his ideas).
While chapter 1 mentions Mill’s membership in the Athenaeum in passing, for Arnold, gaining access to this prestigious club was “epochal” (79). It provided a quiet space otherwise unavailable to him as an inspector of schools and, Arnold claimed, it was the only place where he did “real work” (80). Its Hellenic architecture and ethos shaped Arnold’s ideas; a statue of Apollo, the god of light, greeted Arnold as he climbed the stairs to the generously lit reading room where he wrote much of Culture and Anarchy (1867–68). Morrison argues that the Athenaeum played a “causal” role in Arnold’s intellectual development and that he “derived his ideas about culture, at least in part, from his association with the club” (83).
With Morley, we move from the city to the suburbs and into the new Queen Anne– style residence that housed Morley’s family. Influenced by Mill, Morley’s “interiors fostered cultivation of detachment and impersonality,” stressed “deliberation” (133), and defined what Morrison terms his “impersonal domesticity” (134). Morley had considerable say in the location of his home office and its decoration. In this way he differs (as does Browning) from the earlier figures.
This chapter also offers a nice example of Morrison’s approach throughout. Morley was known for his departure from decorative norms, preferring white interiors to wallpaper or heavy ornamentation and avoiding the knick-knacks and clutter that we might associate with the overstuffed Victorian interior. Based on print descriptions of the rooms, Morrison imagines Morley as a proto-modernist, adopting minimalist design choices avant la lettre—so it was a surprise when he located photographs of Morley’s...