Sunday, August 11, 2013

Reflections on Judith Flanders's "Consuming Passions"

            After a rather long hiatus, I return to my blog with some reflections on Judith Flanders’s Consuming Passions: Leisureand Pleasure in Victorian Britain (2006), one of my summer reading projects.  Flanders is a delightful writer and researcher with a comprehensive knowledge of Victorian culture and its origins in the eighteenth century.  Mass culture as we know it developed in the nineteenth-century, and options for spending money and passing time flourished.  Any reader of the mid-Victorian novel knows that descriptions of things and activities fill the pages, sometimes giving the twenty-first-century reader a feeling of tedium.  Yet, when one places all of that novelistic detail in its cultural context, one realizes the excitement and newness of middle-class materialism during the nineteenth century.
            As one would expect, the railroad appears regularly in Flanders’s discussion of leisure and consumption.  She shows repeatedly how trains significantly affected daily life and not only through opening up middle class leisure travel.  Trains facilitated the burgeoning pastime of horse racing and sent popular London plays touring around the country.  The period was replete with opportunities for making money as a result of transporting goods and services; at the same time, access to products and activities became available to almost anyone with disposable income.  Suffice it to say that virtually all aspects of consumerism and the leisure industry took advantage of the railroad.  The late-Victorian bicycle craze, for example, benefitted from cyclists’ ability to visit the country with their bicycles.  Train excursions to attend the Great Exhibition in 1851 is familiar territory, but Flanders also covers the corollary consumerism surrounding this pivotal moment in Victorian culture.
            Flanders also has quite a lot to say about shopping, tracing advances in the distribution and display of products.  Josiah Wedgwood is an important figure here.  Of course, the department store as we know it, came to be in London, with the help of a certain Gordon Selfridge, who trained in Chicago at Marshall Field.  He was a dynamo in promotion and advertising, especially when Selfridge’s opened in London in 1909.
            One discussion particularly fascinated me:  theatrical spectacle.  Victorian theater must have been very exciting, and I think it would still be impressive, by our own standards.  Rapidly evolving sophistication in lighting and innovation in set design fed a growing appetite for sensational spectacle. Indeed, display sometimes outweighed text, as in the case of an 1873 production of Anthony and Cleopatra when “half the text was cut—twenty-eight complete scenes vanished, as well as chunks of dialogue. . . . to make way for a scene in which Cleopatra’s entire barge was brought onstage, while perfume was wafted across the audience” (326).  But I am most interested in learning more about Dion Boucicault’s extremely popular 1852 melodrama The Corsican Brothers, which features a complex plot of intrigue and includes a ghost “float[ing] ominously across the stage” (335).  Staging the play took advantage of innovations in staging, including trapdoors and platforms moveable by ropes.
The entirety of Consuming Passions is a pleasure to read, and Flanders frequently cross-references her discussion back to topics (railroad) and people (Thomas Cook, excursion travel trendsetter) she has already discussed. In doing so, she adeptly shows the complexity of the Victorian period, and really of culture itself.
Consuming Passions is a book that I shall return to regularly for its insights into the period and its bibliography, running nearly 50 pages.  It’s an important text for Victorianists and cultural historians.  What is more, Flanders is an active researcher, and her latest book, The Invention of Murder:  How the Victorians Revelled in Death andDetection and Created Modern Crime (2011), just out in the United States, looks tremendous.

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