hey, you’ve got a little class struggle in your scrapbook

June 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

One of my favorite characters in victorian lit. is Jenny Wren, the sharp-witted, little crippled child?woman?dwarf?–nobody knows for sure–in Our Mutual Friend. Just as her character is marginal to the main plot, her profession as doll dressmaker is also marginal to the emerging economic system of financial speculation in the novel. Like a typical victorian dedicated to resourcefulness, Jenny makes dresses for dolls out of recycled and leftover scraps of fabric, wood, cardboard. Her crippled body is marked by the drudgery her profession demands to make ends meet–“I can’t get up because my back’s bad and my legs are queer,” she says over and over again; yet, her hands, described as nimble and dexterous (no doubt an inherited skill from incessant doll dressmaking), are also portals into her brilliant imagination. Between her poignant finger thrusts and clenched fists jabbing the air around her, she uses her hands to express anger, joy, sarcasm, nostalgia, suspicion. Her hands, though, are not the only hands that are central to their profession in the novel. There’s also Mr. Venus, the eccentric taxidermist, who uses his hands to stuff, sort, catalog, and piece together fragments of bones and small animals.

Through their artisan presence in the novel, their working class vocations signify a clash with modern economic institutions predicated on joint stock companies and limited-liability banking (embodied especially by the Veneerings, the Lammles, the Podsnaps), a hegemonic capitalist system that Jenny and Venus are excluded from.  Thanks to constant descriptions of their hands the reader is led to always be aware of their artisan identities, yet nowhere in the novel do we see Jenny or Venus actually selling and profiting from the products they work so hard to create.

It is this obvious class fraction in the novel that guided me to Talia Schaffer’s Novel Craft: Victorian Domestic Handicraft and Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Let me just say that this book is *such* a gem. Schaffer, a professor at Queens College, has a writing style that is effortless and flows beautifully and it is this style that helps make the subject of her book (a topic that could easily slide into feelings like yawwwwn, boring!) fascinating! Her study tracks the rise and fall of handicraft culture, what this rise and fall meant, what handicraft culture signified at its peek, and what it came to signify after it flamed out within the span of Britain’s nineteenth century. She defines handicraft as being “everything homemade, whether for decorative or sentimental or pragmatic use.” Yes, this includes (anachronistically) anything relating to “arts and crafts”; but it also includes the making of clothing, carpentry, and botanical and zoological collections (15). Driving the existence of this handicraft culture is something she calls the craft paradigm, a set of values grounded in gender representation, production and consumption, (monetary) value, sentimentality, and beauty (4). Many of these values were contradictory, though. For example, on the one hand the craft paradigm critiqued consumer capitalism by emulating more personal, sentimentalized, and older trading practices; on the other hand it embraced the system by taking part in its mass produced artifacts. It thrived in the protean climate of industrialization in the 1840’s, yet it always carried a nostalgia for “older ideas of industry, trade, and artifact” (10).  At the same time that it inculcated domestic management proficiency in middle class women, it also portrayed itself to be part of the “aristocratic tradition of wealthy leisured ladies” (10). These contradictory ideals are generally the ones that manifest in Victorian literature and authors tended to represent the craft paradigm in this way to spotlight anxieties involving the economy and class.

What I am interested in is the craft paradigm of the 1860’s (because OMF was published in 1865), which Schaffer identifies as the decline of handicraft. If, as Schaffer asserts, handicraft was “synchronized” with the economy, aestheticism, and social conventions of the 1840’s, then after 1860 handicraft culture was dated, and therefore demonstrated tension between its older economic values of personal, concrete transactions with the new consumer capitalism of financial abstraction and mass production. Drawing on Mary Poovey’s (love her!) work on Britain’s financial speculation craze of the 1860’s, Schaffer writes that because the modern economy functioned on paper notes (bills, checks, bank notes) that represented value rather than embodied it, consumers were already trained to “believe in a  value they could not see” (20). This paved the way for the financial speculation boom, which relied on even more abstract forms of monetary circulation represented by joint stock companies, credit markets, etc. Amidst this emerging economy predicated on abstraction, handicraft culture (especially in fiction) came to signify a “solid, verifiable, present value” (20) that “expressed mistrust of the new system” (10).

Goshdangit. It is so hard to summarize a complex argument. I’ve left out a lot of what Schaffer lays out in her wonderfully written intro, but I’ve said enough to contextualize a few relevant scenes in OMF that come to mind.

So Jenny Wren. Doll Dressmaker. I think it’s safe to say that her character embodies the declining handicraft culture of the 1860’s since not only is her business doing poorly despite working day and night (OMF 223), but being a dressmaker for dolls gives off a parodic feel, especially considering how she herself is portrayed as a doll: she’s really pretty, possessing piercing eyes, an elfin chin, and beautiful blonde hair. A doll making dresses for other dolls–one could argue that Jenny lives in an imaginary sphere, wholly separate from the real world of “real” business. She takes herself veryyyy seriously though, handing out business cards and literally creeping and crawling around bourgeois socials to glimpse the latest fashions in dresses in order to keep her products (futilely) up to date. It all comes off as funny and trivial, especially when juxtaposed with Mr. Podsnap’s foreign business endeavors and the Veneerings’ investments in the stock exchange.  Furthermore, the hands that make these tiny dresses become so animated when describing the imaginary birds she hears and the flowers she smells as she works (OMF 238), and thus, one could argue, place her deeper into a dream-like, almost pastoral past, a past that has no place in the urban modernity of the London city (hearkens back to the problematic relationship the past and present have in urban modernity as it is backdropped against violent, progressive capitalism via Mckee’s Reading Constellation).

Aside from her doll-like qualities, another one of Jenny’s defining traits is her suspicion towards male presence (except for Mr.Sloppy who makes cabinets, cough cough handicraft!), shown in her signature gesture of shaking her fist in the air and shouting, “I know your tricks and manners!” She says this to Eugene and Bradley numerous times, two men who represent the emerging economic system by their social status and ability to ascend the social ladder.  I’ll argue that her suspicion of  hegemonic (upper class) patriarchy symbolizes handicraft culture’s “mistrust” of the emerging capitalist enterprise (which, of course, is inherently hegemonic patriarchy). If you’re still not convinced, I have one more piece of evidence. There’s a scene in the novel when Bradley visits Lizzie and the whole time Jenny is looking at Bradley through her binocular shaped hands, held over her face. She says something along the lines of “I’m watching you” and “a-ha! Caught you looking”–if this, along with her binocular hands doesn’t connote suspicion, then I don’t know what does. I am going to argue that this is a politically symbolic gesture (via Jameson), as it symbolically illustrates handicraft culture’s distrust (and belligerent attitude?) in industrial and consumer capitalism.

Obviously that mini analysis needs some major refining; I need to go back to the primary text. I also want to look more closely at Mr. Venus, who gets rejected by his romantic interest at the beginning of the novel because of his hand-picking profession, and she refuses to “see herself in that boney light”.  I want to discuss how Mrs. Boffin and Bella seem to revert to their knitting when Mr. Boffin embarks on his miserly pursuits, as if knitting (handicraft), will help repress the selfishness and hostility this new economic system easily engenders. I also want to look more closely into Betty’s character, who knits for a living and dies in front of a paper mill factory.

More later.


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