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Peer Reviewed

Jean Arnold. Victorian Jewelry, Identity, and the Novel: Prisms of Culture. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011. x+172 pp. $89.95 (c)

Katherine Dunagan Osborne

Rev. by Katherine Dunagan Osborne
Victorian Jewelry, Identity, and the Novel: Prisms of Culture explores the cultural significance of jewelry in Victorian novels, including Thackeray’s The Great Hoggarty Diamond, Collins’s The Moonstone, Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Trollope’s Eustace Diamonds. On its most basic level, it argues that characters’ interactions with objects contribute to identity formation, offering a series of persuasive examples of how jewels function outside of their cultural roles when characters individualize them in significant ways. Although the study never fully explores the argument embedded in its subtitle—that jewels are “prisms of culture”—it nonetheless raises a number of valuable points (and questions) about how the Victorians related to the jewels they bought, wore, gave away, hid, and stole.
At the outset of the book, Jean Arnold sets herself two goals: 1) to understand the ways individuals interpret objects within their cultural environments and 2) to explore how these objects contribute to both identity formation and Western cultural formation. In the four readings that comprise her chapters, Arnold investigates Victorian objects through the lenses of commodity fetishism (Thackeray), imperialism (Collins), aesthetics and political economy (Eliot), and the law (Trollope), illustrating how characters both resist and accept the object meanings dictated by these cultural structures. Arnold’s goal of illustrating how jewels become “prisms of [Western] culture,” however, gets short shrift. The subtitle itself doesn’t appear in any meaningful way after the introduction when Arnold explains that the “prismatic effect [of translucent gems] insists on analogy” (19): just as the visual unity of the diamond belies its multiple facets, Arnold suggests, the apparent unity of the Victorian experience of diamonds in critics’ eyes belies multiple Victorian experiences. The analogy, while interesting, fails to take nontranslucent gems into account. What about the cameos, miniature portrait, and turquoises that Arnold discusses, which also foster multiple meanings though they have no prismatic effect? On a related note, though Arnold’s discussion of the global politics of diamonds is extremely well done, she misses opportunities to apply her framework of competing Western/non-Western meanings to other jewels. While we get a clear picture how diamonds contribute to the cultural cohesion of the “West,” it is less clear how jewels in general do.
Before launching into her literary examples, however, Arnold spends Chapter One delineating various critical and disciplinary approaches to material culture, including Western Rationalism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, Victorian literary realism, the aesthetic tradition, and ethnography, all of which inform her own work on the ways objects accrue meaning. Arnold ultimately situates herself “neither in the rational mind of the subject nor in the opaque materiality of the object, but in the extra-rational, inclusive space across which subject and object interact” (36). Arnold thus draws on material culture studies from the last decade, including work by Bill Brown and Elaine Freedgood, describing her own critical framework as “deep Victorian materialism” (which is highly reminiscent of Freedgood’s Victorian thing culture without saying so) with the purpose of “discover[ing] underlying causes of the human emotional investments in material objects” (28). Indeed, Arnold could do more to differentiate her work from both Freedgood’s The Ideas in Tings and John Plotz’s Portable Property, which also explore Victorian material culture outside of frameworks that rely exclusively on commodity fetishism.
Arnold’s book is most successful in its chapter on Eliot (which has been wonderfully revised since its appearance in Victorian Literature and Culture in 2002). Here, Arnold shows how Eliot chooses two types of “pictorial” jewelry—cameos and miniature portraits—to illustrate opposing definitions of femininity: whereas the cameos Dorothea Brooke dislikes portray static and identical women, symbolizing a rigid and unchanging femininity rooted in the classical tradition, the miniature she adores depicts an individual autonomous woman who is the product of a female Bildung of her own making. This contrast illuminates the ways Eliot—and Dorothea—imagine an ideal female Bildung, which is already doomed to failure for Dorothea because of its entanglement in Victorian gender politics: because the Bildung aesthetic is a specifically male genre, Dorothea can only achieve it by ignoring or accepting the political stakes of her aesthetic experiences with jewels. By gendering the Bildung genre and Victorian pictorial jewelry, Arnold helps us rethink the politics of Victorian aesthetics for both female protagonists and their feminist creators.
Despite this fascinating chapter on gender in Eliot’s novel, Arnold’s book misses some opportunities in other chapters to explore how gender and sexuality play a role in object and identity formation. For instance, in the chapter on The Great Hoggarty Diamond, Arnold chooses not to explore the potentially significant gender dynamics at work when Aunt Hoggarty gives her diamond brooch to Samuel Titmarsh, who resets the jewel in a masculine tiepin. The re-gendering of this pin is unfortunately buried in a footnote about men’s jewelry in the nineteenth century. One wonders if Samuel’s alteration also figuratively resets the diamond’s function as a “machine” with both economic and supernatural agency, an argument that Arnold is at pains to prove. More attention to suggestive overlaps between chapters such as this one might have helped the book read more like a complete story of Victorian jewels than a series of case studies of jewelry in four novels. Arnold’s very interesting readings inevitably raise the question of how they build on each other.
Despite these few drawbacks, however, Victorian Jewelry is of wonderful value to scholars of the nineteenth century as well as readers interested in what literature can tell us about material cultures. Indeed, Arnold’s Afterword presents her two most evocative points: 1) that representations of person-thing interactions allow authors to pose transgressive solutions to cultural problems, which are mitigated by conservative moral endings that Arnold reads as “entirely separate and opposite structure[s]” from the rest of the narratives, and 2) that fictional objects resonate most when deep emotional connections between characters are inhibited by “culturally-mandated priorities,” including empire, war, global trade, economic advancement, and hierarchies of gender, class, and race. In these moments, Arnold argues, objects are able to fill in the gaps of those relationships that are otherwise impossible. In telling the story of jewelry in the nineteenth century, Arnold thus begins telling the stories of objects’ functions in narrative structures and social dynamics. Now for the next chapters.

Katherine Osborne is Assistant Professor of English at Davis & Elkins College.  Her interests include the nineteenth-century novel, material culture, and gender studies.  Her article, “Inherited Emotions: George Eliot and the Politics of Heirlooms,” has appeared in Nineteenth-Century Literature.