Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

Novel Craft: Victorian Domestic Handicraft & Nineteenth Century Fiction

Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

Novel Craft: Victorian Domestic Handicraft & Nineteenth Century Fiction

Article excerpt

Talia Schaffer, Novel Craft: Victorian Domestic Handicraft & Nineteenth Century Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. iii + 228. Hardback £45.99, ISBN 978-0-19-539804-5.

Participating in the burgeoning field of literary criticism that is dedicated to the study of the objects we encounter in the novel, Talia Schaffer's Novel Craft offers an innovative analysis of the role and potential meaning of handicrafts in Victorian culture. The introduction locates handicraft in a broad historical framework with a focus on the early, mid and late nineteenth century. Schaffer explains how, during the early and middle period of the century, a substantial increase in the output of handicraft emerged, and she contends that this was a reaction against industriali- sation, production and consumption. In fact, the desire to hold on to the past is represented in some of the materials taken from the natural world to be used in handicraft. Schaffer provides fascinating insights not only into the intricate and complex practices of working with wax, coral, leaves, and particularly paper, but also the history of women's involvement in selling their handicrafts at the bazaar (pp. 3-25). Schaffer's discussion covers a broad agenda and interrogates the extent to which handicraft did rely most significantly on industrial production, bringing to attention the focus of the ensuing chapters that investigate the intersection between industry and handicraft.

In her first chapter 'Women's Work', Schaffer, theoretically situated in feminist theory, begins with an analysis of lines taken from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1856): 'By the way/ The works of women are symbolical./ We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,/Producing what?' (1:455-458). Although Schaffer acknowledges Aurora's aversion to needlework, her close reading concludes with the affirmation that Aurora's handicraft has enabled the development of her crea- tive artistry, as testified in the composition of her poetics. Expanding on a poli- tics of gender, Schaffer argues that handicrafts created by women are a positive expression of equality with the male sphere of industry. Handicraft, she asserts, enabled women to experience and participate in industry. She uncovers a correla- tion between the skills women expressed in their handicraft with the requirements needed to work in the male sector of industry. She claims that women demon- strated managerial skills in the ability to organise their domestic lives, fulfil home duties, and allow time for handicraft that also necessitated dexterity of hand and a sharp eye for detail. In a reading of the processes involved in 'Berlin-Wool Work' (p. 42), Schaffer contends that this new and fast productive needlework technique gave women the 'chance to prove one could work like a steam power loom' (p. 43). But there is more than simply one dimension to this chapter, and equal attention is given to extending the historical knowledge of handicraft. Focusing on the Great Exhibition (1851), Schaffer describes with meticulous detail the vast collections of handicraft displayed at this event, moving on to a discussion of the mid-Victorians' fascination with objects that were capable of imitating other objects, which they entitled the 'imitative Arts' (p. 36). Schaffer contends that it was the development of the 'arts and crafts movement' (p. 50) that was the key contributor for the decline and virtual disappearance of handicraft toward the latter part of the century. The home ceased to be a space for the display of treasured handicrafts, as the Arts and Craft reformers' doctrines were grounded in the belief that the home must reflect aesthetic taste. Schaffer articulates the gender bias that this involved, whereby the values of masculine taste were privileged: 'Home decoration now became the prov- ince of men, a place to showcase the finds that demonstrated their taste and knowl- edge' (p. 56).

The focus of Chapter 2 is Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford (1853). …

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