This article considers what we can and cannot learn from objects in texts. As its chief example, it takes Peggotty’s workbox in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield and, through this particular object in a particular text, thinks about how far it is legitimate to “read” cultural-social-historical meanings back into a text, and how far objects in texts operate differently than objects in the world. It then reads the workbox as a marker of memory in the novel, challenging Nicholas Dames’s “associationist” reading of David Copperfield in his Amensiac Selves. The essay ends by considering some of the problems and potentials of “thing theory” in literary studies.
I had reached that stage of sleepiness when Peggotty seemed to swell and grow immensely large. I propped my eyelids open with my two forefingers, and looked perseveringly at her as she sat at work; at the little bit of wax-candle she kept for her thread—how old it looked, being so wrinkled in all directions!—at the little house with a thatched roof, where the yard-measure lived; at her work-box with a sliding lid, with a view of St. Paul's Cathedral (with a pink dome) painted on the top; at the brass thimble on her finger; at herself, whom I thought lovely. I felt so sleepy, that I knew if I lost sight of anything for a moment, I was gone.Dickens 14
Thus in Chapter 2 of David Copperfield, entitled “I Observe,” an adult David looks back and remembers his childhood evenings spent with the old family servant, Clara Peggotty. Peggotty’s workbox bobs up to the surface several times in the course of the ebb and flow of memory in David Copperfield. Indeed, Peggotty and her workbox enter a kind of symbiosis in David’s retrospect. But we do not actually know much about Peggotty’s workbox—is it wood, for example, or is it tin? The sliding lid and the painted decoration suggest wood, and decorated tin boxes only came into general circulation in the 1860s when the technology became available for tin lithography. We assume it must be of reasonably cheap manufacture, partly because Peggotty is a servant, and partly because of that improbably pink dome.
This essay picks up Peggotty’s workbox and turns it around, considering it from various different directions. It will ponder the “view of St. Paul’s” painted on the top of what was possibly an early Victorian souvenir—memorial-commodities recently placed within the reach of a new class of tourist by the time Dickens was writing his novel in 1849 and 1850. What kind of material possessions would a servant like Peggotty have had access to in the 1830s when the novel is set? What did it mean for a picture of St. Paul’s Cathedral to appear in a domestic interior in Blunderstone, Suffolk, remote from the capital? What kind of relationship between country and metropole is being organised by the object here? And finally what kind of symbolic work does this box, with its orderly and snug interior, perform in a novel that is itself so much about interiority, souvenirs and memory?
First, Peggotty’s workbox will be taken out of Dickens’s novel: the essay asks what can justly be inferred from its description and from Peggotty’s possession of it by making some cultural-social-historical enquiries about working-class domestic tourism, the availability of souvenirs, and the material culture of servants in the first half of the nineteenth century. Then the box is put back into the novel in order to think about how it works at the level of narrative to structure the memory of both the narrator David Copperfield and the narrative of David Copperfield. In other words, it asks first what the workbox might mean to Peggotty, and then it asks what it might mean in Dickens’s text. Finally, the compatibility of these two approaches—cultural-historical and narratological—is considered as the essay ends by turning to some of the theoretical questions about ‘things’ in mid-nineteenth-century fiction that have recently been attracting considerable critical attention.
I: Souvenirs and Tourism
Souvenirs of St. Paul’s were, in fact, pretty common by the 1840s: perhaps because since the sixteenth century prints of the cathedral had been easily and reasonably cheaply bought in the printshops and booksellers that had proliferated around St. Paul’s churchyard. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, St. Paul’s had featured in collectable part works such as Dr. Hughson’s A History and Description of London (1810), which was illustrated with hand-colored copper engravings of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Such part works continued to appear throughout the century: Winkle’s Cathedrals was issued between 1835 and 1837 and also included hand-colored line engravings. By the 1830s, too, prints were appearing that depicted tourists inside the cathedral, such as Thomas Hosmer Shepherd’s engraving of Nelson’s Tomb, Crypt of St Paul’s from his part work London in the Nineteenth Century, which shows what seems to be a group of tourists at the tomb-side—a group which includes a couple of sailors in navy uniforms paying homage to the seamen’s hero (see figure 1). After the mid-century, printing technologies had accelerated to such a degree that prints proliferated and sold more cheaply: in the 1860s the Leighton Brothers brought out a series of chromolithographs of St. Paul’s Cathedral and in 1870 Hablot Browne and R. Garland issued a series of six hand-colored steel engravings of views of St. Paul’s. This was the same Hablot Browne (a.k.a. ‘Phiz’) who had illustrated David Copperfield in 1850. In the 1860s, albumen prints of St. Paul’s Cathedral began to be widely available, and the cathedral became a popular subject for stereoscopic viewing: a curved mount stereoview of St. Paul’s Cathedral from Dakins, London, for example, was for sale through Jarvis of Washington DC in America in this decade (see figure 2). Souvenirs of St. Paul’s were not merely pictorial. The cathedral was also miniaturised into commemorative objects. A silver case for cartes-de-visite was manufactured in Birmingham in 1845, with St. Paul’s modeled in relief on its front; and St. Paul’s became a common subject for the églomisé souvenir trays that were to be very popular in the 1850s and 1860s (see figure 3 and 4). In the late nineteenth century, J. Spence & Co in St. Paul’s Churchyard sold a souvenir needle case that unfolded to reveal four photographic scenes of famous London landmarks—the Houses of Parliament, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Albert Memorial and the Tower of London. By the 1880s photographic picture postcards of the cathedral were appearing. Adrian Green has pointed out that it is neither “material abundance nor the prevalence of print in themselves [which] determine the cultural significance of things and texts.” It was, he suggests, “their content and form and the altered meanings associated to them, that made print and the materiality of eighteenth-century life distinct from earlier centuries” (Green 72). What was true for the eighteenth century was even truer for the early nineteenth, and the fact that the image of St. Paul’s traveled abroad in this period—to France and America and probably elsewhere—implies that by the nineteenth century souvenir images of St. Paul’s were as much about a particular and portable version of the megalopolis of London and about Englishness, as they were about the cathedral itself (see figure 5).
Walter Benjamin held that the souvenir, or “secularized relic,” is representative of “extinguished experience” (Benjamin 48). Susan Stewart has also pointed to the retrospective charge of the form:
The souvenir replica is an allusion and not a model; it comes after the fact and remains both partial to and more expansive than the fact. It will not function without the supplementary narrative discourse that both attaches to its origins and creates a myth with regard to those origins.136
When pictures and prints became souvenirs that take the form of, say, St. Paul’s painted on the lid of Peggotty’s workbox, they became a specifically modern commodity form. They could not exist outside a culture imbued with nationalistic values and emulative ambition symbolised by images of the metropolis. But souvenirs also function as a summation, an end-point of experience, and this is where Peggotty’s work box with St. Paul’s painted on the lid starts to become more interesting.
Because, in fact, Peggotty’s workbox is not, it turns out, a souvenir at all. Peggotty has never been to St. Paul’s until David takes her there after Barkis’s death. On their trip, which they make by coach, the pair visit a waxwork exhibition, Mrs. Linton’s embroidery exhibition, the Tower of London, and they climb to the top of St. Paul’s, “which, from her long attachment to her work-box, became a rival of the picture on the lid, and was, in some particulars, vanquished, she considered, by that work of art” (406). Their itinerary is Peggotty’s, not David’s, and as such it represents the female servant’s sense of what it was important to see in the capital. Indeed, it seems likely that seeing is Peggotty’s chief pleasure, as the novel hints at her semi-literacy: when David reads to her from the crocodile book, she encourages him, “Now let me hear some more about the Crorkindills” (15), which she imagines are “a sort of vegetable” (14), and she herself says “I ain’t no scholar” (53). Nevertheless, Peggotty does write regularly to David while he is away at school. He recalls “the promised letter—what a comfortable letter it was!—arrived before ‘the half’ was many weeks old” (80), but it is clear that the “cake in a perfect nest of oranges, and [the] two bottles of cowslip wine” (80) that accompany her epistle are perhaps a more eloquent token of her regard. Later in the novel, David receives another of Peggotty’s letters:
Her utmost powers of expression (which were certainly not great in ink) were exhausted in the attempt… Four sides of incoherent and interjectional beginnings of sentences, that had no end, except blots, were inadequate to afford her any relief. But the blots were more expressive to me than the best composition; for they showed me that Peggotty had been crying all over the paper.211
This is significant because it reminds us that “things” take on an extra burden of significance in a world of semi-literacy. Peggotty’s world is—more than David’s—an object world, a world which depends less upon the mediation of text and more upon the direct touch of the physical objects that constitute her lexicon—the kitchen and the store-room where Peggotty presides over the “soap, pickles, pepper, candles, and coffee” (12).
Writing may not be Peggotty’s forte but she is a needlewoman of some skill, so she is keen to see Miss Linwood’s embroidery exhibition, which was housed at Saville House on Leicester Square between 1800 and 1845 and “enjoyed a popularity second only to that of Madame Tussaud’s exhibition of wax-work in Baker Street” and “comprised about sixty copies of the best and finest pictures of the English and foreign schools of art, all executed by the most delicate handicraft with the needle” (Thornbury, ch. 23) (see figure 6). The despairing David describes it as a “a Mausoleum of needlework” (405). The “perspiring Wax-work, in Fleet Street” (405) to which he is also subjected might well have been based on Mrs. Salmon’s on the corner of Fleet Street and Inner Temple Lane, which exhibited moving wax figures, including one of Old Mother Shipton, the fifteenth-century Prophetess, which “administered a farewell kick to Mrs. Salmon’s patrons as they left” by a system of treadles and trip switches hidden under the floor and “remained a landmark until Dickens’s time” (Altick 53). The Tower and St. Paul’s were two of the most popular tourist destinations for ordinary country people like Peggotty coming to London for the first time in the 1830s and 1840s. “The main portion of persons who come to see St. Paul’s are country people,” Parliament was told in 1841 (Parliamentary Papers 41). Indeed, between 2,000 and 3,000 visitors swarmed into St. Paul’s each free Sunday.
In fact, David and Peggotty would have had to time their visit to St. Paul’s carefully as before 1841 tourists were only admitted between 9am and 11am and 3pm and 4pm, except on Sundays, when entrance was free but the doors only opened fifteen minutes before a service. During the week, they paid 2d to come in, and once inside, they were not allowed free access to all the monuments. For Peggotty to climb to the top of the dome, which we are told in the novel that she does, she would have had to pay an extra one shilling and six pence. By 1841, a debate was raging around free public access to St. Paul’s and to other historic monuments in Britain and particularly in London. A Parliamentary Select Committee heard contradictory evidence about the conduct of the public admitted to St. Paul’s. The Rev. Sydney Smith, Canon of St. Paul’s, maintained that throwing the cathedral open to the public (his own favorite apocalyptic phrase) would make it “a resort for prostitutes and pickpockets” (Parliamentary Papers 8) and there was much discussion too of the difficulty of preventing people from urinating and worse behind the pews, and then tearing up the prayer books to wipe themselves. The Canon maintained that, even with the present restricted access, “the cathedral is constantly and shamefully polluted with ordure” (Parliamentary Papers 4). But the vergers and policemen who were also interviewed by the Commission did not agree. While they concurred that most visitors came for the sights and the music rather than for religious reasons, they did not record any attempts to deface or injure monuments, although they reported that visitors still sometimes wrote their names on the walls. One of the policemen stated that “There are a good many country visitors and a good many seamen” (presumably because of Nelson’s tomb) but that “[t]he humbler classes are attentive, and do as they are bid” (Parliamentary Papers 34). When asked by a commissioner “How do you find the London population generally now; are they riotous, or do you find them obedient to the police force generally in public places?” the answer is “Obedient” (Parliamentary Papers 36).
The 1840s was precisely the decade that saw the completion of the transition from what Boyd Hilton has recently called the idea of a “mad, bad and dangerous” people to a new model of an “obedient” one as “[s]lowly but surely, the raffish and rakish style of eighteenth-century society, having reached a peak in the Regency, was succumbing to the new norms of respectability popularly known as ‘Victorianism’” (Hilton, book jacket). Hilton dates this transformation as taking place between 1783 and 1846. And, of course, Dickens’s book, written at mid-century, reflects and supports just this move into what might be popularly known as Victorianism but could equally well be designated “modernity.” The Commission ultimately recommended that the cathedrals should be “thrown open” to the public, to “men who are usually called ‘mob’; but they cease to become mob when they get a taste” (Parliamentary Papers 7). The improvement of public taste, it was believed, would lead naturally to the improvement of the public.
This mid-century optimism about the redemptive possibilities of “public taste” went hand in hand with a growing accessibility of “things” for ordinary consumers. What kind of things might belong to Peggotty, who carries the teaboard and candles into her mistress’s parlour every day in the late afternoons? What might Peggotty’s own room upstairs contain? The novel is not forthcoming on this point, so we need to look beyond its pages for a speculative answer. Most of the scholarship on the material culture of the poor in the modern period has focused on the eighteenth century. But even in evidence taken from pauper inventories, more things such as clocks, looking glasses, tea-caddies and coffee-pots, deal boxes, pictures and maps are mentioned as the eighteenth century goes on. As Peter King points out “the inventories do not reveal where the poor obtained their widening range of household goods. Did they buy them new or secondhand, barter them, make them for themselves or for each other, appropriate them, hand them down to family and kin, or receive them as cast-offs from richer groups?”(183). Certainly Peggotty who is, as David says, “the best, the truest, the most faithful, most devoted, and most self-denying friend and servant in the world; who had ever loved me dearly, who had ever loved my mother dearly” (169), may well have been given presents by her employer. Amanda Vickery notes that such presents were often more or less expected by female servants (281-2). But Dickens strongly indicates in the early chapters of the book that Peggotty’s employer, the widowed Clara Copperfield, is hardly in a position to make presents to her servant: “last quarter I wouldn’t buy myself a new parasol, though that old green one is frayed the whole way up, and the fringe is perfectly mangy” (17), she reminds Peggotty during one of their regular altercations.
Vickery has made it very clear how pointless it is for us to stare at objects from the past in the hope of understanding “things.” Her work on the material world of Elizabeth Shackelton in eighteenth-century Yorkshire brings out “the multitude of meanings invested in possessions over time” (381-2). It is the active accrual of meaning over time that makes things cherished and luminous with meaning—and it is because he knows this that Dickens attaches the workbox almost prosthetically to Peggotty throughout his novel. Wherever she is, she is constantly “in company with the stocking and the yard-measure, and the bit of wax, and the box with St. Paul's on the lid” (22). After four or five such appearances, the object (workbox) and subject (Peggotty) have become so closely associated as to be inseparable. By the end of 750 pages, and—even more so—at the end of twenty monthly parts, the novel has in fact created its own memory. And it is to the question of time in the novel that I now want to turn.
II: The Workbox and Memory in David Copperfield
In Amnesiac Selves, Nicholas Dames has written of Dickens’s fascination with associationism, pointing to his use of the word “association” in his representation of memory in David Copperfield. He argues that in writing David Copperfield, Dickens was very influenced by the psychological ideas of associationism promulgated in the late eighteenth century by John Locke and David Hartley, James Mill and Dugald Stewart. Dickens owned Stewart’s 1792 associationist masterwork Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind and Dames suggests that at mid-century, when he was writing David Copperfield, Dickens subscribed uncritically to its model of “a newly coherent and newly organised psyche” (128). In this theory, memory is plotted very tidily: only relevant matter is recalled, whilst irrelevancies and unbidden, traumatic or disorderly memories are repressed:
The novel functions, therefore, through visual condensations or metonymies that tie together significant strands of memory and elide troubling or more ‘dispersed’ recollections—metonymies like the stained-glass window ‘pointing upward’, or Peggotty’s workbox with the picture of St. Paul’s painted on the top.143
Although it is true that Dickens does use the idea of association—and the word—often in David Copperfield, Dames’s model of Dickens’s “condensations” remains too static. Closer attention to Peggotty’s workbox can show us how Dickens uses remembered objects in the novel to create a model of memory that is perhaps not as blindly obedient to associationist theory as Dames suggests. For objects in Dickens never keep their places as tidily as this. They are not simply “bound together” by the force of memory into an integrated whole: they are, in fact, dispersed over time. The repetitions of Peggotty’s workbox are not really mere repetitions: in this novel, time both changes and augments the meanings of objects. And while he may well have been interested in the somewhat static and costive associationist theories of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Dickens was just as interested in Romantic theories of growth, organicism and process—all theories that model time and memory as ongoing and open-ended rather than bound up and complete. For Dickens, Peggotty’s workbox is very complicated and ambivalent as an object. Although it is undoubtedly moralized, it is moralized in a complex way that connects Peggotty to David through her servitude but also—at the same time—asserts her own quiddity and personhood.
In two novels by George Eliot, workboxes also play a role in the text. In Adam Bede (1859), Hetty Sorrel is training to become a lady’s maid in order to escape the dairy work she loathes. The gentleman who is to become her seducer, Arthur Donnithorne, meets her on the road as she is walking to her sewing lesson, and for the first time he draws very close to her. But:
something had fallen on the ground with a rattling noise; it was Hetty’s basket; all her little workwoman’s matters were scattered on the path, some of them showing a capability of rolling to great lengths. There was much to be done in picking up, and not a word was spoken; [until] Arthur hung the basket over her arm again.125
And in Felix Holt: The Radical (1866) the workbox similarly empties its contents:
In the act of rising, Felix pushed back his chair too suddenly against the rickety table close by him, and down went the blue-frilled work-basket, flying open, and dispersing on the floor reels, thimble, muslin work, a small sealed bottle of atta of rose, and something heavier than these—a duodecimo volume which fell close to him between the table and the fender.Felix Holt 61
Of course, the volume on the floor turns out to be Byron’s Poems and Felix is shocked that Esther Lyon, the daughter of the Rev. Rufus Lyon, minister of the Independent Chapel, is dabbling dangerously in Byronic passion. In both cases, the dropped workbox is used by Eliot as a symbol of moral danger. In Adam Bede, it is a real moral danger that will lead Hetty to infanticide and exile; in Felix Holt, it is Felix who misreads the volume of poetry as “meaning” that Esther is a shallow and flighty young woman. But in both cases the object is made legible—it opens up and spills its contents across the page, then disappears forever. Eliot’s workboxes are objects that perform meaning, rather than objects around which meaning accrues. Eliot’s workboxes are—both literally and figuratively—“dropped” in the text. Peggotty’s workbox travels intact through the novel and survives. And like all survivors it comes to mark trauma, absence and loss as much as presence.
There is a hint of what I mean here towards the end of David Copperfield in Chapter 57, which is called “The Emigrants.” As the Micawbers are about to leave for the open future of Australia: “Peggotty was quietly assisting, with the old insensible work-box, yard-measure, and bit of wax-candle before her, that had now outlived so much” (688). “[T]he old insensible work-box…that had now outlived so much”: the phrase holds a characteristic contradiction. The box is an “insensible” thing but it has managed to “outlive” many other persons in this novel full of premature deaths. Rather than functioning to erase all the other untidy, painful memories of the novel, as in Dames’s tidy associationist model, I would argue the workbox does quite the opposite. By its survival, it deliberately makes us remember everything and everybody it has by now outlived. In its rush to extract the significance of things in Victorian writing, ‘thing theory’ has so far been relatively blind to the importance of time and use when it comes to establishing the meaning of things. As yet it has not interested itself particularly in “the significance of the finitude, worldliness, and historicity of our human predicament” (Dostal 120). But the recurrence of Peggotty’s workbox in Dickens’s text makes it as much a marker of time and mortality as a reminder of Peggotty’s endurance.
In a scene that seems to support Dames’s argument for associationism, David’s life starts with a Lockean tabula rasa: “Looking back, as I was saying, into the blank of my infancy, the first objects I can remember as standing out by themselves from a confusion of things, are my mother and Peggotty” (12, my italics). The child, through its natural process of alienation—understanding itself as separate from the world—sees that world as material and object-filled. Peggotty, “that good and faithful servant, whom of all the people upon earth I love the best” (113), is first described as a thing. It has been often noticed that Dickens’s writing routinely transmutes the inanimate into the animate and back again: that, as John Carey says, “viewing people as objects is one of his main preoccupations” (129). Bruno Latour has argued that the processes of secularization and modernization have created an artificial ontological distinction between inanimate objects and human subjects, whereas in fact the world is full of ‘quasi-objects’ and ‘quasi-subjects’ (10-11). Dickens’s writing seems to prefigure this by its refusal to posit a sharp break between the world of subjects and that of objects. Although his novels—as has also often been pointed out—work hard to establish good bourgeois order and authority at their ends, the sinister opacity of matter often threatens to overwhelm or complicate this.
A box is, of course, a particular kind of object. With its sliding lid, it encourages us to imagine its interior space. It tempts us to touch and to rummage in its depths and pull out the “brass thimble” and the measuring tape in its holder shaped like a thatched cottage. It contains things. It is safe and “snug”—that favourite word of Dickens’s—like the Peggottys’ upturned boathouse and like the many unconventional but trim and neat working-class interiors that Dickens creates in his fiction. The Peggottys’ boat house has “a delightful door cut in the side, and ... was roofed in, and there were little windows in it” (25), is “beautifully clean inside, and as tidy as possible” (26), and “when the door was shut ... all was made snug” (27). When Peggotty sits with a miniaturised St. Paul’s at one elbow and the thatched cottage at the other, she represents, surely, just such a “snug” kind of England where the public life of the state and the private domestic life of the individual coexist in happy accord, and where the servant’s work is easily confounded with leisure as she sits in a pool of lamplight mending a stocking.
Dickens could be and indeed has been accused of fetishizing working-class loyalty and feeling, and Peggotty’s hybrid object-subject status becomes instantly troubling if we connect it with her “humble station” as a servant. But if we give Dickens the benefit of the doubt for the moment, could it be that he is trying in David Copperfield to think hard about what work is performed by things in fiction and in fact, “to show how [things] organize our private and public affection”? (Brown, “Thing Theory” 7). As John Carey puts it, it is in “the border country between people and things” that Dickens’s imagination is mostly engaged: “One way to increase the population of this region is to liken inanimate objects to people. Another is to liken people to inanimate objects. Dickens does both incessantly. Stilled life, and the still enlivened, are the hallmarks of his imagination” (101-2). Things in Dickens’s imagination never stand still: they live and sometimes they even outlive everyone else.
In the closing chapter of David Copperfield, David watches as his youngest toddling child grasps at Peggotty’s “rough forefinger, which I once associated with a pocket nutmeg-grater” (748) and which “is just the same” (748), and thinks of “our little parlour at home, when I could scarcely walk” (748). The finger is nearly the nutmeg grater, Peggotty is nearly her work box. According to David, she hasn’t changed in a quarter of century of life, hard work and loss. In fact, David seems to be working very hard at the end of the novel—too hard perhaps—to transform Peggotty herself into a souvenir. He may, as Dames suggests, be trying to tidy up the debris of his life and arrange it into “a newly coherent and newly organised psyche” (128). David describes Peggotty as if she herself was a memento—a cherished object—like the button he picks up, which flies off the back of her blouse when she hugs him as he is taken off to school, and which he “treasured …as a keepsake for a long time” (54). David wants Peggotty as a souvenir that marks the passage of his own life-cycle, in exactly the way that Susan Stewart has argued that souvenirs are markers of life-cycles: “[to the owner] the memento becomes emblematic of the worth of that life and of the self-capacity to generate worthiness” (139). But does this mean the novel is turning Peggotty into an object?
The careful reader will see that the novel is telling us a slightly different story from the myth to which David clings, in which the past associates with the present and everything is bound together. In fact, Peggotty is not the same at the end of the book—her “cheeks and arms…are shrivelled now; and her eyes, that used to darken their whole neighbourhood in her face, are fainter” (748), and even the Crocodile Book is “in rather a dilapidated condition by this time, with divers of the leaves torn and stitched across” (748). Mr. Peggotty’s “snug” boat-house is no longer snug at all, when David sees it for the last time: “[e] verything was gone, down to the little mirror with the oyster-shell frame” (632). Time has passed and by its passing it has destroyed much, but it has also taken Peggotty out of service and into marriage. She sends David a half guinea after her marriage, and she sells Mr. Barkis’s “carrying business” to a man who “paid her very well for the good-will, cart, and horse” (629). She ends the book comfortably as the widow of the miserly Barkis with a legacy of “nearly three thousand pounds” (381) and a spare room to offer David. She has even bought “out of her own savings”(380) a plot in the churchyard near David’s mother’s grave where she and Barkis are to be buried.
This is the alternative story of the “unchanging” Peggotty. When David finds her again in Mr. Peggotty’s boathouse in Chapter 31:
In her own old place sat Peggotty, once more, looking (but for her dress) as if she had never left it. She had fallen back, already, on the society of the workbox with St. Paul’s upon the lid, the yard measure in the cottage, and the bit of wax candle, and there they all were, just as if they had never been disturbed.382
Here, David associates the Peggotty-workbox dyad with earlier such scenes, but Dickens tells us by the parenthesis “(but for her dress)” that much has changed. It is really David, not Peggotty, who has “fallen back.” Peggotty is presumably dressed in mourning for Barkis, and her dress is probably of finer stuff than her old servant’s gown, which was constantly shedding its buttons under the pressure of emotion. Furthermore, the title of this chapter is “A Greater Loss” and this is the evening in which everything changes: Little Em’ly is disastrously “lost” when her elopement with Steerforth is discovered. Much of the affect of David Copperfield is generated by the tension between David’s attempt to still the past, and the novel’s refusal to stop time from running on.
Mr Murdstone tells David “[y]ou are not to associate with servants” (103), but it is only through David’s association with a servant that he is able to hold the fragile pieces of his traumatic and scarred life together. By the end of this long novel, the Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery, Peggotty’s workbox has certainly come to represent “history sedimented in personal possessions” (Trotter 13). But whose history? David hangs on to the memory of Peggotty’s workbox for dear life, and the defenceless child and the poor servant form an alliance which survives, like the box, all the many tribulations of the text. But, while it connects David to her, Peggotty’s workbox also serves to signal the servant’s ultimate autonomy.
Description may not exactly narrate, but Peggotty’s workbox—with its colorful decoration and its neat containment of its handy and practical contents—does point to her own containment, as well as to her cheerfulness, her usefulness and her resourcefulness, all of which tend—in this novel—towards her reward. The workbox is a possession but it also comes to signal Peggotty’s self-possession, which underwrites her own “personal history, adventures, experience and observation.” She leaves service, she marries, she inherits. By the end of David Copperfield she is “worth” considerably more than she was at its beginning. While David is trying to use the workbox as a container for his own childhood, throughout the novel the workbox has quietly and busily been making its own history.
III: “Thing Theory”?
There are larger questions here, of course, both literary and philosophical, and underlying them, an even more important question: how do philosophical issues connect to literary narrative and ‘meaning’? How things and matter operate in the world and how they operate within literary texts may be two very different problems, and if we superimpose them, they both lose definition. “Thing theory” owes much to the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, his follower Martin Heidegger, and later interpreters such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur, along with the psychoanalytic thinking of Jacques Lacan and others. But perhaps it does not yet owe quite enough to these thinkers: it may need to think much harder about what David Trotter has called “the negative function” (9) of matter, and, as this essay argues, also about the effect of time: both time as it extends throughout the narrative, and time as it marks objects within the narrative. Both parts of this essay have attempted to place the object back in ‘time’—the first part replaces it in historical time, and the second in the imagined time of the novel and the time of David’s memory.
Much critical attention has recently been paid to ‘things’ in nineteenth-century literature. In A Sense of Things (2003), Bill Brown argues that we have always asked things “to make meaning, to remake ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, and to sublimate our fears and shape our fantasies,” and he then maps this encounter with the thing world through late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American fiction (Brown, Sense, book jacket). In The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel (2006), Elaine Freedgood fastens on one particular “thing” in a series of Victorian novels and interrogates it. Under her interrogation, the “old mahogany” furniture which Jane Eyre installs in Moor House gives up its secret—the dark tropical wood makes it a “souvenir of sadism” (51). Magwitch’s ‘Negrohead’ tobacco in Great Expectations and the blue-and-white checked cotton curtains in the Bartons’ home in Gaskell’s Mary Barton similarly collapse under the pressure of Freedgood’s historical knowledge of politics and production and are made to connect the main narrative of those texts to the suffering colonial or enslaved “other.” Both Brown’s and Freedgood’s arguments, however, founder somewhat on the ontological difference between an “encounter” with a thing in the world and the “representation” of a thing in a text.
Roland Barthes thought specifically about things in texts in his discussion of “referential plenitude” in his famous chapter on “The reality effect,” in which he reads the “concrete detail’” of—for example—“an old piano supported, under a barometer, a pyramidal heap of boxes and cartons” in Mme. Aubain’s room in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” as merely a code for “reality”: “just when those details are reputed to denote the real directly, all that they do—without saying so—is signify it” (Barthes 141). Barthes’s are the suspicious hermeneutics of structuralism and he reads objects in texts as a form of narrative trickery. I would agree with Brown and Freedgood that some things in books certainly do more than point in a detached Barthean way towards unrepresentable “reality,” but they both tend to endow objects too generously with “meaning.” Trotter has sensibly criticized “thing theory” for “its ineradicable preoccupation with subjectivity,” pointing out that not all objects in novels “speak”: many objects in texts are just objects, and as indifferent to us as the chair-leg you stub your toe against: they do not have special meanings to offer up, they are just there (4). Furthermore, he argues that “[w]e need that illusion as badly…as we need that other more honorific illusion, of meaning and value” (10). Trotter’s sophisticated essay insists on the fluctuating values of “things” in a text—his particular example is the house sale or bankruptcy auction, in which objects once luminous with sentimental and/or market value collapse into mere “stuff” and join the abject world of matter, when matter seems to signify mortality and death rather than the illumination of subjectivity. More attention to the fluctuation of the meanings of objects over the time of the text will create more nuanced readings of things in nineteenth-century literature.
The cultural-historical and now the “geopolitical turn” of literary studies over the last fifteen years have taught us much about how to “read” objects. There is something to be said for restoring some of the complexity to objects, which have lost parts of their contemporary cultural “meanings.” Unlike Freedgood, though, I would be inclined to do this through the history of consumption and use rather than that of production. By reinserting such information proportionately into our reading of literary texts we are not necessarily doing them a violence. This does not mean that all description “narrates,” but rather that some kinds of description carry more value than other kinds. This leads, of course, to further questions about the many different ways in which objects “operate” in nineteenth-century texts: a simple binary of objects split between those that can speak meanings within the text, and those which are obdurately silent—the ones we bang our elbows on, and trip over and which remain stonily indifferent to our struggles and sufferings—seems to me to be helpful but ultimately inadequate. Similarly, any attempt to chart a clear separation in the mid-nineteenth-century novel between “narration” and “description” must surely fail. Freedgood chooses to bypass what she calls “the rhetorical hierarchy” of the text by retrieving particular objects and subjecting them to intense historical scrutiny. But her idea of the “rhetorical hierarchy” is a suggestive and potentially useful concept that could lead to a way of reading which allows for the more complicated interdependence of levels of ‘thing-ness’ and levels of description within a text (Freedgood 2-3).
The most obvious binary in any discussion of things must, of course, be the one between things and people. Rather than merely placing Peggotty’s workbox in a classified inventory of other things in the novel, I prefer to draw attention to the way that the box intercedes in the text by both connecting and separating Peggotty and David. Problematizing the boundary between person and thing necessarily leads to questions about the boundaries between different orders of fictional ‘things’ too. If we abandon the idea that subjects and objects keep themselves to themselves in Victorian fiction, we can move closer to an understanding of the ways in which things can be variously activated and deactivated over the course of a novel. Trotter is right that things are not always as interested in us as we might like to think, but nineteenth-century literary writing keeps our uneasy prosthetic engagement with the thing-world in constant play as it brokers the boundaries of the individual self. That it is unclear by the end of David Copperfield whether the workbox is Peggotty’s keepsake or David’s souvenir shows how powerfully a fictional object can complicate the work of memory in the novel, in this case by opposing its wooden containment to the flow of the first-person narrative.
Clare Pettitt is Professor of English at King’s College London. She is the author of Patent Inventions: Intellectual Property and the Victorian Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) and ‘Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?’: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers and Empire (London and Cambridge, Mass.: Profile and Harvard UP, 2007). She is currently writing a book called Transatlantic Rome.
Tin Printing, which was introduced about 1875, is the application of the lithographic process to the decoration of metal plate.
Part works were books which were issued serially—in parts—to spread the cost to the purchaser across time. They were often illustrated, so would be prohibitively costly if issued in one volume. Part works also allowed publishers to “test” the marketability of titles before committing to publish an entire set.
Architectural views were popular stereoscopic subjects in the 1860s partly because things were easier to photograph than people or motion of any kind while exposure times were still so long.
Eglomisé was a technique of glass engraving and coloring. The glass was engraved on the back and then covered by unfired painting or, usually, gold or silver leaf.
An early nineteenth-century French aquatint entitled L’eglise de St Paul is illustration number 5.
“The souvenir (Das Adenken) is the relic secularized. The souvenir is the complement of the experience (Des ‘Erblenisses’). In it the increasing self-alienation of the person who inventories his past as dead possession is distilled. In the nineteenth century, allegory left (hat geraumt) the surrounding world, in order to settle in the inner world. The relic derives from the corpse, the souvenir from deceased experience (Erfahrung) which calls itself euphemistically “‘Erlebnis’” (Benjamin 48).
On St. Paul’s Cathedral in the Victorian period, see Arthur Burns.
In this, I am agreeing with Elaine Freedgood that George Eliot’s use of objects in her fiction is generally mediated by a strongly directive narrative voice (120).
“Quasi-objects” and “quasi-subjects” are terms that Latour borrows from Michel Serres.
Karen Chase and Michael Harry Levenson make a similar point about this scene, pointing to the ways in which “the barriers of class and sex disappear…within the snug confines of the cosy room” of Mr. Peggotty’s boat-house (9).
I have reviewed Freedgood’s and Brown’s books in “On Stuff,” a review article in the special issue, “Victorian Fiction and the Material Imagination,” in 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century.
“the geopolitical turn in literary studies” is John Kerrigan’s phrase (Kerrigan vii).
Trotter argues that eighteenth-century literary texts use ‘things’ differently than nineteenth-century texts, and in this I agree, although I have not included the argument in this essay.
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