Things Still Matter: ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’ at The British Association of Victorian Studies Conference 2016

Briony Wickes is third year AHRC PhD student in the English Department at King’s College London. Before this she completed her BA and MA in English Literature with Victorian Studies at the University of Exeter. Her current research project argues that animal bodies are integral to the conceptual and material work of nineteenth-century settlement in the New World, focusing on different historical and literary representations of the settler colonial animal industries, including sheep-herding, the fur trade, the feather industry, and whaling. She can be found on Twitter @brionyjoy

BAVS logo

The title of this conference report refers to a 1998 collection of essays, edited by Daniel Miller, in which scholars in the field of material cultures made a case for “Why Some Things Matter”. In the introduction to this text, Miller described the study of materiality as being a ‘two stage process’: “The first phase came in the insistence that things matter and that to focus upon material worlds does not fetishize them since they are not some separate superstructure…[the second stage] demonstrates what is to be gained by focusing upon the diversity of material worlds”.[1] Almost two decades later, this year’s BAVS conference on the theme of ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’ could perhaps be seen as part of a third stage in the study of material and consumer cultures, with many of the papers extending scholarly focus beyond the strictly human realm, to consider the possibility of nonhuman agency within nineteenth-century consumer cultures.

The conference invited a diverse selection of panels and papers across a broad range of disciplines and interrogated both nineteenth-century and contemporary Neo-Victorian sources. As a researcher who focuses on the production, trade, and use of animal commodities in the nineteenth century, I attended a number of fascinating panels, highly pertinent to my work, that interrogated the various roles of animals and objects within Victorian consumer cultures.

John Miller’s paper, “Agony, Fashion, and ‘The Strange Story of a Sealskin’”, for example, charted the interplay between nineteenth-century commercialism and emergent animal activism in the period, examining the ways in which the mainstream press promoted the vogue for furred garments whilst simultaneously deploring the bloody and violent process involved in sourcing animal skin. ‘Fashionable ladies’, it would appear, were well aware of the grisly provenance of fur, but the growing passion for animal welfare remained subordinate to the demands of the consumer industry. Focusing on a short narrative that appeared in Judy magazine, ‘The Strange Story of A Sealskin’ (1875), Miller discussed how this narrative reconciled the reality of animal death with the fervour for furs by treating seal clubbing as twee and comic material. Animal agony was thus productively assimilated into commercial agendas and the Victorian reader was encouraged to maintain a positive and affective relation to fur belongings, in spite of their brutal history.

Máire ní Fhlathúin also took animal predation as a starting point for her paper on literary and pictorial representations of British colonial encounters in nineteenth-century India. Whilst many are familiar with the tales of imperial hunting heroes shooting elephants and with the sketches of the brave British lion pitted against a ruthless Bengal tiger, ní Fhlathúin introduced a different form of British self-representation, based rather surprisingly on the images of scavengers and carrion birds. Drawing on the depictions of the violent Adjutant-Crane in Rudyard Kipling’s The Second Jungle Book (1895) and on a variety of texts and images taken from the periodical press that proclaimed colonisers to be ‘birds of prey’, ní Fhlathúin’s paper revealed a counter-narrative to the triumphant imperialist rhetoric of the age, foregrounding a darker vision of Empire at odds with the notion of colonial supremacy, through images of scavenging, contamination, and nonhuman otherness.

Peter Yeandle, on the other hand, brought the Indian animal to the Victorian stage with a paper on Maharajah, the exhibited actor-elephant at the Manchester Belle Vue Zoo during the 1870s. Connecting human-animal relations with expansionist culture, Yeandle’s paper also raised broader questions about the agency of nonhuman beings. “Can the animal be a ‘celebrity’?” asked Yeandle, and the answer was a resounding “yes!” Maharajah was at once a commodity, bought by the Zoo proprietor for £680 to be objectified on stage via the spectators’ gaze, yet he was also an actor, a constructed paragon of his species, performing for audiences, following scripts, and, on occasion, resisting human will. As Yeandle reminded us, whilst Victorian animals did not choose to be a part of nineteenth-century commercial agendas, we cannot simply think of them as inert commodities, but as actors within consumer culture, with the ability to modify, subvert, and disrupt spatial orderings.

Another fascinating panel on ‘Victorian Objects’ led by Nikolina Hatton and Maria Damkjær also re-oriented anthropocentric thinking by considering the vibrancy of Victorian things, themselves. Hatton’s paper focused on the “disorienting non-moments” in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) in which subjects are transformed by encounters with material objects. Drawing on Latourian Actor-Network Theory, Hatton argued that De Quincey’s things are actants, pointing to the neglected household items in Confessions that, whilst they no longer have human use, continue to exist and persist, inhabiting what she termed a “a static temporality”, inscrutable to human perception. Quoting De Quincey’s later work, Hatton revealed the importance that the author himself put on the material world: “Our deepest thoughts and feelings pass to us through perplexed combinations of concrete objects”.[2] This neat statement led organically onto the next paper on the panel from Maria Damkjær on ‘The Peripatetic Umbrella and the Problem of Personhood’. Countering the notion that Victorian consumers invested their belongings with their own unique, stable identity, Damkjær’s reading of the nineteenth-century umbrella asserted that this particular wet-weather implement could not be seen as a repository of an inalienable self because they had a notorious and “mischievous disloyalty to its owner”, liable to go missing and to be passed from hand to hand. Rather than understanding umbrellas as ‘portable property’, for Damkjær the Victorian object disturbs the sense of self and reveals a more complex notion of disenfranchised personhood.

The penultimate day of the conference culminated in a wonderful dinner held at the National Museum Cardiff. With its beautiful collections of art, geology, natural history, and archaeological artefacts, it seemed a fitting location to celebrate the conference and carry on the conversations about how things, animals, and consumer culture have shaped – and continue to shape – the ways we engage with the world. On the final day, during the President’s Panel, Valerie Sanders, Kate Flint, and Clare Pettit reflected on the theme of the conference and questioned what was at stake within the academic dialogue of the past few days? Pettit, in particular, warned us of the dangers of ‘re-commodifying’ the Victorians and fetishizing the nineteenth-century, so that our ideas might remain frozen in time. Instead, the panellists encouraged us to look for points of connection and interaction, as well as moments of disruption, and to bear in mind the potential of nonhuman agency to surprise us, catch us off-guard, and to be totally unpredictable. Victorian consumer culture is less a set of single, isolated narratives than a continuing network of phenomena in which the human and the nonhuman collide. The President’s Panel thus, rather neatly, set up discussions for next year’s BAVS conference in Lincoln on the theme of “Victorians Unbound: Connections and Intersections”, which promises to be an equally stimulating and rich event.

A resounding thanks to the BAVS committee and to the conference organisers at Cardiff University for putting on a fantastic event with such tireless enthusiasm!


Works cited:

[1] Daniel Miller, ‘Why Some Things Matter’. Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 3.

[2] Thomas De Quincey, ‘The Afflictions of Childhood’ in Thomas De Quincey, Autobiographical Sketches, (Boston, 1853), p. 39.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s