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Museum Culture in the Victorian Novel


A review of On View: Museum Culture in the Victorian Novel, by Christa M. Tiernan.

The relationship between museums, material culture and literature is a fascinating one. Notable collections inhabiting the printed page include Thomas Browne’s “Musaeum Clausum” (Browne, Tracts. Edinburgh: W. Blackwood, 1822 [1684], pp. 159-183), a museum of imagined objects lost to time. Such collections function both autonomously and as the mirror of past collecting cultures and the societies that created them. The Victorian era, Christa Tiernan contends, was truly the “Age of the Museum”, for not only was collecting a popular activity among all social classes, “no other culture constructed purpose-built exhibition spaces with such zeal” (p. 31). Moreover, as a form of collecting and display related to yet distinct from past collecting practices, the Victorian incarnation of the public museum presented a novel cultural institution for writers to explore. However, Tiernan argues that Victorian museums were not merely reflected in works of literature, but that novels representing aspects of museal culture helped shape an emerging “museal consciousness” among nineteenth-century readers.

Tiernan’s well-constructed dissertation deploys three works of Victorian literature – Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853), Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-53) and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), together with selected scenes from the work of Henry James – as lenses upon the museal culture of nineteenth-century Britain. Specifically, Tiernan examines the encounters and tensions between the ordinary human subject and the extraordinary museum object in the Victorian realist novel between c. 1830 and 1900.

The introduction serves to delineate the realms of the extraordinary and the ordinary, the twin landscapes in which Tiernan’s argument is situated. These realms exist, Tiernan argues, not as a binary, but as a “balanced ternary” (p. 10) in which the positive and negative characteristics of each are shared, for example, in the grotesque – which belongs to the liminal domain of the negative extraordinary (p. 9). Nor are these realms static – they are socially constructed and hence, shifting (p. 11).

The dissertation opens with a scene from Henry James’ The American, in which one of the “extraordinarily ordinary” characters with which Victorian literature abounds, Christopher Newman, is juxtaposed with an extraordinary museum object in the Louvre (pp. 1-2). The museum objects featured in such works “contain compressed references to complex sociocultural-historical realities” (p. 25), and their recurring juxtaposition with fictive characters reveals a deep-seated anxiety “about the ordinariness of the self” (p. 29). Drawing upon the work of Pierre Bourdieu on strategies of distinction, Alex Woloch, Deidre Shauna Lynch and E. M. Forster on literary character, and Barbara J. Black on Victorian museum culture, Tiernan’s dissertation considers how the classification of objects in Victorian museums was paralleled by the social classification of visitors by museums, but more potently by visitors themselves, within and between the realms of the extraordinary and the ordinary (p. 6).

Tiernan reminds us that people as well as objects were on view within Victorian museums. This included women who moved within a space designed primarily for male rational recreation (p. 54). Chapter 1 focuses upon Brontë’s Villette, whose central character, Lucy Snowe, can be seen to develop what Tiernan, drawing on Christina Kreps, identifies as “museum-mindedness” (p. 41) through her navigation of the museal space of the novel and her curatorial activities within the garden, which, as Tiernan rightly notes, has long been an exhibitionary space (p. 71). Here, Tiernan also makes good use of Brontë’s accounts of her visits to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in which Brontë’s own metamorphosis from overawed visitor to practiced museum-goer is explored through reference to the work of Susan Stewart and Susan Pearce on collecting.

Chapter 2 considers a different type of museal space, as Tiernan turns her attention to the ancestral portrait gallery in Dickens’ Bleak House. Drawing upon the work of Carol Duncan on the “museum ritual” of visiting art collections in country houses (p. 119), Tiernan deftly weaves a compelling argument centred on A. S. Byatt’s notion of the “unvisualized visual pattern” (p. 109) in which the hidden relationship between three major characters – Lady Dedlock, Nemo and Esther Summerson – is conceptualised as a triptych of empty frames (p. 132). This triptych, which conceals the identities of each character while hinting at a possible relationship, is contrasted with the ancestral portraits which produce only a homogenous, “stuffed,” ordinary identity (p. 141).

Chapter 3 examines a different type of object – household items in the form of “maiden-marked” decorative art objects, and explores the shared practices of the museum and the auction house in dismantling, reassembling and generating collections. Tiernan considers Mrs. Tulliver, a minor character within Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss who temporarily takes on the attributes of a major, or “round” character (p. 16) as she inventories her own collection of household objects for the last time. Here, Tiernan draws upon the work of Jean Baudrillard to conceptualise Mrs. Tulliver’s doomed collection as “a system of interrelated objects” (p. 175) which slide between the realms of the ordinary and extraordinary, use and possession and point to the blurring of the boundaries between museal and domestic spaces in the Victorian era.

Tiernan’s dissertation closes with a Coda which considers how the museum itself enters the realm of the ordinary at the dawn of the twentieth century. Drawing upon scenes of the violence visited upon objects and collections in the work of Henry James, ultimately, Tiernan suggests, the ordinary subject or object rises from the destruction as the most extraordinary subject of all, and marks the shift to modernity (p. 206).

Tiernan’s dissertation is lively, engaging and easy to follow as each chapter is overlain like a transparency upon the last, allowing the reader to visualise more of the complex museal landscape she describes. The social dimension of her research is particularly impressive, as is her ability to illuminate and question the Victorian museal model in all its variety through works of literature. This interdisciplinary research project will be of interest to scholars in a wide range of fields, including literature, museum history, material culture, art history, gender studies and sociology.

Dr Stephanie Bowry
School of Museum Studies
University of Leicester

Primary Sources
Charlotte Brontë, Letters, Villette
Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Letters
George Eliot, Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss
Henry James, The American, The Golden Bowl, The Spoils of Poynton
19th Century British Library Newspapers Database

Dissertation Information
University of Wisconsin-Madison. 2014. 229 pp. Primary Advisor: Prof. Susan David Bernstein.

Image: “Part of the Chine Court” (1851),  V & A Collections.

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