From “vulgarity and commonness” to the “bard” William Morris: Class and Wallpaper in Victorian Literature and Culture

Jessica White is a PhD student at the University of Liverpool. Her thesis assesses nineteenth-century texts as part of the Gothic cultural tradition through the lenses of economic vampirism and the Gothic spectrality of unseen labour, paying special attention to materials and textiles as economic output and class signifier. Her current research is on wallpaper and its relationship to boundaries and enclosures in the Victorian domestic space. She tweets at @jessf_white


‘Drawing, An Interior’ Mary Ellen Best (1837 – 40) (Wikicommons)

In Gerald: A Portrait, a biography of her father, Daphne du Maurier includes a letter from George ‘Kicky’ du Maurier, her paternal grandfather (born 1834, died 1896). In it, he discusses their new tenants who had the ‘audacity to hammer picture-nails in the precious Morris wallpaper.’ Although they were polite about it (he says), they were ‘boiling over with indignation’ because ‘to nail pictures in the bard’s wallpaper without consulting us seems a great liberty.’[1] This Morris is, of course, designer William Morris whose wallpapers can still be bought today. Is Kicky’s indignation wholly to do with his tenants not asking about the nails, or is there a slight smackering of classicism resulting from a suspicion that they simply don’t know what they have on their walls? If it is the latter, then he would perhaps agree with Morris’s own sentiment that ‘we can expect no general impulse towards the fine arts till civilisation has been transformed into some other condition of life, the details of which we cannot foresee.’[2] Morris and his contemporaries in the Arts and Crafts movement were committed to elevating the designers and makers of everyday interior ornament, so that spectrality of unseen labour was diminished and the labourer was paid and appreciated accordingly.[3] The appreciation of the designer had gotten through to Kicky, but his tenants were unfortunately none the wiser (or did know, and simply didn’t care). Whether it is this  haunting spectrality of work or the snobbery that comes with a lack of knowledge, wallpaper in the nineteenth-century has connotations of class, and this can partly be traced throughout the literature of the period. 

Probably the most famous example of wallpaper in literature is the American short story The Yellow Wallpaper, written by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman and published in 1892.[4] The unnamed narrator becomes convinced that a woman lives inside the pattern of her rented holiday-home bedroom wallpaper and seeks to set her free — whether this fantasy is because of postpartum depression, her stifling marriage or the criticism she receives about writing as an occupation remains up to the reader’s interpretation. However, one interpretation which has received very little critical attention is that the wallpaper also acts a class signifier in the text. The middle-class narrator has leisure time at her disposal in which she becomes obsessed with the wallpaper, facilitated by domestic help who look after her new-born baby. Jennie, the housekeeper and the protagonist’s sister-in-law, is the only other person who is shown to touch the wallpaper, and only then to complain about the stains that it leaves on the narrator’s clothes which she herself must clean up. The narrator believes that this is a cover story for the real reason that she is touching the paper because she cannot (and does not have to) imagine a reality in which domestic work takes precedence over personal feeling.

Whereas wallpaper in this instance is crucial to the story, there remain very few texts which specifically feature wallpaper as a plot point. It does, however, appear as a (literal) background in the Victorian novel, and the same critical thought about oppression that is applied to The Yellow Wallpaper can also be applied to these texts. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel North and South, for example, the wallpaper in the new rented home of the Hale family becomes crucial in communicating class prejudice and the accepted social structure in the industrial northern town of Milton in which they have recently arrived. Margaret and her father believe that the pattern of ‘pink and blue roses, with yellow leaves’ is the epitome of ‘vulgarity and commonness’[5] and are dismayed to learn that the landlord will not re-paper it for them, complaining about it in the presence of Mr Thornton, Mr Hale’s new classics student. When they move in, however, we learn that the landlord has indeed repapered it, but we also learn that ‘what he did not care to do for a Reverend Mr Hale, unknown in Milton, he was only too glad to do at the one short sharp remonstrance of Mr Thornton, the wealthy manufacturer.’ (P. 66) In this instance, it is the influence of the nouveau-riche, self-made industrialist man which facilitates change, and not the socially ‘decent’ former clergyman with bourgeoise connections who shows his ‘good taste’ through disdain at his new material surroundings. Not only is this illustrating the power structures in their new location, it is also outlining the changing face of Victorian society – and Victorian capitalism. 

My thesis places such physical materials as wallpaper within the context and history of the cultural Gothic. Another member of the Arts and Crafts movement, John Ruskin, wrote in The Stones of Venice that Gothic culture, particularly architecture, is influenced by Naturalism. This is especially evident in the Gothic workman’s ‘peculiar fondness for the forms of Vegetation’ appearing in such symbols as ‘the reed’, ‘the river’, ‘the tree to mark the covert of the wild beast’, which are always an accessory to the main action of the sculpture or carving.[6] It would perhaps be a bit tenuous to associate the Hale’s wallpaper with Gothic aesthetics simply because it has roses on it, but in the novel itself the domestic drama is in opposition to what happens in the open air. It is no accident that the novel’s climactic confrontation between Mr Thornton and his striking mill workers takes place outside, where there are no physical boundaries (wallpapered in a “common” manner or otherwise). The stone that is thrown at Thornton by a worker  (which actually finds its target on Margaret’s forehead) is a physical emblem of class boundaries being questioned, and the subsequent frustration being acted upon. The natural world as opposition to the closed interior is a common theme throughout Gothic literature: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre constantly uses nature as relief from the many stifling interiors that Jane finds herself in;[7] the aforementioned The Yellow Wallpaper explicitly uses the outside as an image of freedom when the narrator sees herself ‘away off in the open country’. (P. 260) Reading the texts in Ruskin’s terms, the natural world functions as a complement to the interior settings, providing pure escapism and the chance to abandon formality — very often dictated by class norms. 

Perhaps the relationship between class and wallpaper in the Victorian period can be no better summarised than by Walter Crane, another member of the Arts and Crafts movement, who wrote specifically on the subject. He allowed that, because of the economic situation of many people across England; ‘few of us own our own walls, or the ground they stand upon: but few of us can afford to employ ourselves or skilled artists and craftsmen in painting our rooms with beautiful fancies.’ Much like Margaret Hale learns to her chagrin, renting comes with its aesthetic downfalls. However, because of the new technologies in wallpaper production, cost can be spared and, as Crane puts it, ‘if we can get well-designed repeating patterns by the yard, in agreeable tints, with a pleasant flavour perchance of nature of antiquity, for a few shillings or pounds, ought we not to be happy?’[8] Indeed – if we can find a local wealthy business manufacturer to argue our case, and if we can stop the uneducated putting nails through it.


[1] Du Maurier, Daphne Gerald: A Portrait (London: Virago, 2004)

[2] Morris, William introducing Arts and Crafts Essays (New York: Garland Publishing, 1977) Ed. by Stanksy, Peter and Shewan, Rodney (PP. V – XIII) P. XI

[3] As outlined in Morris’ Introduction to Arts and Crafts Essays (New York: Garland Publishing, 1977)

[4] Perkins-Gilman, Charlotte ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1992) Ed. by Chris Baldick PP. 249 – 263

[5] Gaskell, Elizabeth North and South (London: Penguin, 1995) P. 64

[6] Ruskin, John ‘The Stones of Venice’ in Selected Writings (London: Orion, 1995) Ed. by Philip Davies PP. 171 – 257 (P. 223) 

[7] Brontë, Charlotte Jane Eyre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

[8] Crane, Walter ‘Of Wallpapers’ in Arts and Crafts Essays (New York: Garland Publishing, 1977) Ed. by Stanksy, Peter and Shewan, Rodney PP. 52-61 (PP. 60-61)


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