10 November, 2014Issue 26.3Critical TheoryLiterary CriticismLiterature

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Peculiar Things: Victorian Bric-à-Brac

Nicole Lobdell

Literary Bric-à-Brac
Jonathon Shears and Jen Harrison, eds.
Literary Bric-à-Brac and the Victorians: From Commodities to Oddities
Ashgate, year
226 pages (extent)
ISBN: 978-1409439905

Literary Bric-à-Brac and the Victorians: From Commodities to Oddities opens with a creed: “We believe that bric-à-brac is a peculiarly Victorian phenomenon and a peculiarly Victorian word.” What follows are twelve chapters devoted to the explanation and exploration of what makes bric-à-brac uniquely Victorian and what makes bric-à-brac, well, bric-à-brac—a quality more difficult to assess than one might imagine. The OED defines bric-à-brac as “old curiosities of artistic character, knick-knacks, [and] antiquarian odds-and-ends”, while the Trésor de la Langue Francaise Informatisé defines it as “a group of objects of little worth and of different origins, shown in the greatest disorder.” Differences between monetary worth, character, origin, and arrangement allow for a wide inclusion of things. There are also disagreements over the translation of bric-à-brac. The French bric-à-brac derives from “de bric et de broc (sometimes à bricq et à bracq) [which] roughly translates into the English ‘by hook or by crook’… to mean ‘by one means or another’ or ‘by any means possible.’” Other interpretations present themselves if we trace the etymology through bricoler, which “takes us to the word bricolage” and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Yet another avenue presents itself if we

take this strand of meaning even further back into the medieval French, where we find the verb bricole… mean[ing] ‘to go to and fro’… The etymology of bric-à-brac therefore tells us that it is an interim condition through which commodities may pass but in which they never permanently reside.

With each etymological variation comes another potential definition, so it’s no wonder that material culture scholars disagree over what is and is not bric-à-brac, and what potential roles it fills in Victorian culture and literature.

Editors Jonathon Shears and Jen Harrison have compiled a volume that explores a range of genres, including prose, poetry, and nonfiction, and writers from Alexander Pope to Vernon Lee, offering readers a veritable bric-à-brac assortment of arguments and theoretical perspectives on material culture. The contributors come from a variety of backgrounds. David Trotter, Deborah Wynne, and Victoria Mills have published previously on material culture. Jayne Elisabeth Archer’s background, however, is in medieval and Renaissance literature, a background that makes her reading of “alchemical principles and hermeneutics as bric-à-brac” in George Eliot’s Middlemarch refreshingly original. For all its diversions and variety, bric-à-brac is frequently treated with a kind of dowdy soberness. The contributors to this volume are eager to change that. “Poor old bric-à-brac,” exclaims Victoria Mills, “[b]oth Luk√°cs and Donato divest it of any joy. They ignore the delights of collecting, of description, listing, enumeration.” In her own chapter, Mills turns to the dandy-collector as a figure who knows the pleasure of collecting, but she and other contributors to this volume build on the groundwork of ‘thing theorists’, including Bill Brown and Elaine Freedgood, by exploring “wider interpretative possibilities presented by objects.” All of the contributors are especially interested in locating bric-à-brac in unexpected places and unexpected forms: Bernard Beatty traces it in Robert Browning’s poetic language and, while Anna Barton and Catherine Bates discover it in Edward Lear’s nonsense poetry, David Trotter finds it in a household nail.

Opening the collection, Nicholas Shrimpton’s “Bric-à-Brac or Architectonice? Fragment and Form in Victorian Literature” draws on Henry James’s 1908 preface to The Tragic Muse: “but what do such large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean?” For Shrimpton, these monsters—the “details”, “fragments”, and “queer elements of the accidental and arbitrary”—are the “the qualities of bric-à-brac, not just as a matter of content, but inscribed into the technical practice of nineteenth-century writing.” Several of the succeeding chapters pick up Shrimpton’s claim, most notably the three chapters devoted to materiality and bric-à-brac in poetry: Anna Barton and Catherine Bates’s “‘Beautiful Things’: Nonsense and the Museum”, Jennifer McDonnell’s “Browning’s Curiosities: The Ring and the Book and the ‘Democracy of Things’”, and Bernard Beatty’s “The Bric-à-Brac Wars: Robert Browning and Blessed John Henry Newman”.

“Poesy, like bric-à-brac, will forever be in fashion,” writes D. H. Lawrence, and it is with this quote that Barton and Bates open their examination of Edward Lear’s nonsense poetry. While Lawrence elides poesy, bric-à-brac, and fashion in a dismissive way, Barton and Bates propose that nonsense is the poetry of bric-à-brac, a claim they connect with the role of the museum in Lear’s “The History of the Seven Families of Lake Pipple Popple”. “Lear’s iconic use of language itself,” writes Barton and Bates, “anticipates the museum’s excess, evoking this, first of all, through toppling piles of bric-à-brac-type rhymes.” Also locating bric-à-brac in poetic content, Jennifer McDonnell describes Browning as a “committed rummager” and a “collector-poet”, whose tendencies “to collect recherché things […] which his contemporaries thought lurid, distasteful, and not worth saving” is indicative of his “distinctive heterogeneity of style and subject matter”, which we find epitomised in his dramatic monologues. Barton and Bates and McDonnell describe Lear and Browning as possessed of a personal interest in collecting bric-à-brac, an interest that works its way through content and form into their poetry. Bernard Beatty takes up this idea in response to the language of Victorian poetry, specifically Browning’s poetry, describing it as form a linguistic bric-à-brac:

by avoiding customary speech and everyday subject matter, and positively, by steeping itself in the myriad dictions of previous poetry […] words are now self-consciously rummaged through and picked out […] The poetry of the past becomes a word-hoard, a treasure chest of fine words which can be collaged together.

In Beatty’s examination, Browning is the bricoleur-poet.

Offering some unexpected points of connection, the relationships between content, form, and bric-à-brac are also the subject of Deborah Wynne’s “Charlotte Bronté’s Frocks and Shirley’s Queer Textiles”. In her proposition that Shirley “has a distinct bric-à-brac quality”, Wynne uses Bronté´’s representations of textiles to focus her argument on the economic and labour tensions between capitalist, masculine industry and communal, feminine, domestic needlework. Homemade goods are possessed of a bric-à-brac quality, and labeling the products of women’s domestic labour as such sets Wynne’s argument in tension with that made by Sara Clayson. Wynne argues that the increasing attention paid to fashion, as the result of ready-made textiles, devalued women’s homemade textiles and handicrafts. Clayson contemplates how perceived values of fashion and the growth of mid-century consumerism transforms the middle class, especially the middle-class female shopper, into a new, savage species. Clayson’s work is more revealing not for what it says about material culture and class evolution, but for what it suggests about the abuse of shop workers by their middle-class female patrons. When read in conjunction with Wynne’s comments on the exploitation of women’s domestic labors, Clayson’s thoughts on female consumerism take on new light, especially when we consider that Lucy Graham’s “act of middle-class femininity” is an attempt “to conceal her ‘unrespectable’ working-class origins.” The exploitation of women’s needlework and domestic labour in Bronté´’s Shirley finds its equivalent in the mistreatment of shop workers in Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. Although this surprising connection between the novels is not developed, it opens potential new avenues for research on textiles, consumerism and bric-à-brac.

David Trotter deftly turns our attention away from the curious, bizarre, and downright unnecessary bric-à-brac to that of the functional and everyday—but there’s a catch. He proposes that “in some Victorian novels, and most notably in Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887), the purely functional object makes difference—of class, gender, race, and ethnicity—palpable”, and he’s right. There is glamour in “not having a function: the glamour of redundancy, excess, waste.” For this reason, Trotter claims, there are few functional objects in literature. To prove this claim, he holds up to examination the common household nail, whose presence in Hardy’s The Woodlanders, “a novel about wood; and about woods, and about people who work in woods,” makes it such an object of scrutiny. Trotter begins by noting a handful of remarkable nails, including the one that William Godwin’s Caleb Williams uses to free himself, the decaying nail that Dickens’s narrator in Bleak House spies in George Boythorn’s home, and the one little Jude hangs himself from in Hardy’s own Jude the Obscure. These nails, claims Trotter, have “strayed from [their] customary function in life, but not yet fallen to the level of waste”. While this incidence of significant nails is interesting, Trotter’s argument is most convincing in his close reading of The Woodlanders, where he points to the nail that affixes a new white deal top to the black oak frame of a coffin stool. Standing out prominently against the lightness of the top, “[t]he nail marks, by its having been required at all, a difference… It marks that difference by all that it is (material substance, process of manufacture, function, appearance) at once.” One interpretation of the nail’s presence, and an expression of its difference, is to read the nail as evidence of an encroaching modernity into Hardy’s remote woodland. Another, Trotter suggests, is to read the nail as indicative of Hardy’s “new impressionist method [which] was well suited to the portrayal of obsessiveness verging on mania.” Trotter’s chapter is a fine addition to this collection. He offers perspective on, to borrow Victoria Mills’s term, the “bricabracomania” that consumed Victorian culture and continues to consume certain aspects of material culture studies. Although Trotter does not include, or even mention, other functional objects, his chapter leaves one wanting to find them.

There are a number of surprises in this collection; for one, it is surprisingly slim given the breadth of writers, genres, texts, and all manner of bric-à-brac that it covers. The editors have done a remarkable job of compiling a collection that pushes the boundaries of what most readers would consider bric-à-brac. Although the editors have ordered the chapters to tell one story about the origins and nature of bric-à-brac, we can rearrange them, like a collection of bric-à-brac, reading them in new combinations to generate new narratives and connections. The results are provocative and worthy of closer examination. This volume will appeal to a wide variety of readers and open new avenues of research into material culture studies, Victorian literature, and the relationship between the two. Although the collection lacks an afterword, this absence leaves the volume suggestively open to addition. Perhaps it’s a testimonial to the nature of bric-à-brac—one can always add to it.

Nicole Lobdell is a Marion L. Brittain Fellow in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, GA.