Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

"True Indian Muslin" and the Politics of Consumption in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

"True Indian Muslin" and the Politics of Consumption in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey

Article excerpt

In Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1817), Henry Tilney and Catherine Moreland's first flirtation occasions a lengthy discourse on muslin. Demonstrating a curiously nuanced attention to women's dress, Henry speculates that Catherine will document their meeting in her journal by referring to her "sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings" (15)* The two are soon interrupted by Catherine's chaperone, Mrs. Allen, whose pin has torn a hole in her gown; unfortunately the dress is a "favorite" of Mrs. Allen's, even though, as she confesses, "it cost but nine shillings a yard" (16). Examining Mrs. Allen's damaged muslin, Henry remarks that he would have guessed the fabric's cost "exactly," to which the astonished Mrs. Allen replies, "Do you understand muslins, sir?" (16). Henry does, in fact, "understand muslins" and understands them " particularly well," as he proves to his incredulous female audience (16). He boasts:

I always buy my own cravats, and am allowed to be an excellent judge; and my sister has often trusted me in the choice of a gown. I bought one for her the other day, and it was pronounced to be a prodigious bargain by every lady who saw it. I gave but five shillings a yard for it, and a true Indian muslin. (16)

What does it mean for Austen's hero to "understand muslins," and moreover, to emphasize his penchant for those of the "true Indian" variety? I argue that Henry's preference for Indian muslins constitutes a particular mode of imperial connoisseurship, a masculine aesthetic taste that performed an important regulatory function both within the metropole and abroad. As Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins has pointed out, the literature of the long eighteenth century often "frames problems of national identity, global economy, and political power as privatized problems of taste, virtue, and individual desire" (3). More than a personal aesthetic preference, Henry's fashionable taste indicates his adherence to a new masculine identity based upon conspicuous consumption rather than inherited or landed wealth.1 This consumerist identity developed in response to Britain's imperial expansion, which had engendered the importation and eventual domestication of Indian muslin.

Both Mary Hafner-Laney and Claire Hughes have addressed Henry's interest in muslin, though neither considers the significance of this commodity's Indian origin or the ideologies that influence Henry's consumption of it. Hafner-Laney claims that Henry and Mrs. Allen's exchange about muslin evinces Austen's enduring interest in fashion and underscores the fact that early nineteenth-century dresses were made, rather than bought "off the rack" (137). Hughes offers a more detailed reading of muslin's material and symbolic significance and argues that Henry selflessly transgresses gender boundaries to supplement Mrs. Allen's inadequate education of Catherine, emerging from the text as "one of Austen's most attractive heroes" (196). I would elaborate upon Hughes's reading of Henry and propose that his interest in "true Indian muslin" indicates not only his personal investment in Catherine's education, but also his political allegiance to larger structures of imperial and patriarchal oppression.

Through his self-appointed position as an "excellent judge" of the market, Henry controls both female commodity consumption and virtue, policing women's sexual purity through his interpretation of their dress. Distinguishing between true and imitative muslin equips Henry to separate honest women from artificial women and to subordinate all women to his expertise. Henry converts his knowledge of feminine fashion into patriarchal power, construing his regulation of women's social and sexual behavior as benevolent and necessary. Likewise, British merchants of the period exploited and eventually undermined the Indian textile industry by appropriating Indian weavers' knowledge of muslin. Just as Henry casts his criticisms of women's dress as a mode of generous instruction, British merchants, industrial spies, and officials often present their calculating surveillance of Indian weavers as paternalistic aid. …

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