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Rebecca Stern. Home Economics: Domestic Fraud in Victorian England. Columbus: The Ohio State Press, 2008. ISBN: 139780814210901. Price: US$39.95

  • Susan Zlotnick

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  • Susan Zlotnick
    Vassar College

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The biggest fraud Stern wishes to expose in her provocative investigation of domestic fraud is the one perpetrated by writers like John Ruskin, who famously characterized the home as immune to the corruptions that lurked beyond the garden gate. In this regard, her work follows “the two decades of scholarship in feminist and cultural studies in taking the Victorian ideology of separate spheres as precisely that—an ideology, one that operated alongside, and crucially depended on, a reality that offered no such clear separation” (4). Offering a new lens through which to re-assess the familiar topic of Victorian domesticity, Stern catalogues a variety of domestic frauds, from thieving servants to marital scams, in order to support her central thesis: that the fraudulent practices of the Victorian marketplace, exacerbated by the growth of financial capitalism, were replicated in the domestic economy. Drawing on an impressive array of primary sources, including legal cases, newspaper articles, and street ballads, Stern makes a compelling case for putting fraud at the center of the Victorian imagination.

Stern’s first chapter takes up the sensation caused when a butcher from Wapping claimed to be Sir Roger Tichborne, the long-lost heir to the Tichborne fortunes. While historians usually explore the Tichborne Claimant’s considerable notoriety for what it reveals about the social tensions of mid-Victorian England, Stern reframes the Tichborne case as a “paradigmatic story of domestic fraud” (25). Focusing on the domestic rather than political nature of the case, Stern contends that the private and personal “nature of the stories surrounding the case was responsible for much of its appeal” (25), a contention supported by the fact that the doddering dowager Lady Tichborne accepted the Claimant’s claim of kinship and embraced the Wapping butcher as her prodigal son. Stern investigates the way the case merged the financial and the familial, in that the Claimant attempted to acquire not only the “resources of the Tichborne property, but also the family name and the social relationships that went with them” (25).

While the Tichborne melodrama played out in the press and in the courts, ordinary Victorians were also troubled by strangers who claimed intimacy: the servants who lived among them. Stern’s second chapter focuses on the servants who made possible the creature comforts of the middle-class home but who also turned it into a site of employment. The ideologues of domesticity emphasized the home’s distinctiveness from the marketplace, but like any manager or overseer, the Victorian housewife was consumed by anxieties about the dependability and honesty of her employees. The loyal and long-serving family retainer was largely a myth by the mid-Victorian period. Moving frequently in search of a better place, servants were often an unknown quantity to their employers, despite the reference in the form of a “character,” which was typically required. The butler might make off with the silver; the cook might give over the Sunday roast to a follower; the nursery maid might convert family secrets into neighbourhood gossip. No haven in a heartless world, Stern’s representation of the Victorian home through the prism of the master-servant relationship exposes the household’s vulnerability to “the very competition, insurgence, and fraud that trouble the Victorian marketplace” (86).

Dishonest servants made a family’s life uncomfortable, but adulterated foods, the topic of Stern’s next chapter, posed a more serious threat. “Adulterated food,” Stern contends, “worked as a signifier that all commodities and people that vended them were potentially poisonous” (94). Inventively reading Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” as an allegory for the widespread problem of food adulteration, Stern makes clear the dangers of consumption: Rossetti’s Laura sickens and nearly dies after eating the fruit she buys from the goblin men. Victorian consumers routinely purchased tea cut with sloe-leaves, sugar with sand, and flour with chalk as well as toxic bon-bons (candy rendered poisonous by the food coloring used to decorate it). Since the government did little to protect consumers, individuals had to take responsibility for their own health and safety. Stern concludes that paranoia was a reasonable response to a fraudulent and potentially lethal marketplace, and thus Victorians, who increasingly had to purchase (rather than grow) their foodstuff, learned to adopt a wariness towards it.

Moving from adulteration to adultery, Stern’s final chapter offers a revisionist account of the “blighted marriage plots” (114-15) circulating in mid-Victorian culture. While the popularity of such plots is usually attributed to the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which made divorce more accessible, Stern resituates them in the context of domestic fraud and contends that these tales of disastrous marriages evidence the fear that the marketplace and the domestic sphere are indistinguishable. The lurid Yelverton marriage case, which received enormous attention in the press, serves as her example. Major William Charles Yelverton participated in two sham marriage ceremonies with Maria Theresa Longworth before abandoning her and legitimately marrying another woman. Stern highlights the “economic underpinnings” (115) of the Yelverton fiasco in order the make a larger point about the Victorian marriage market: that it came to be seen as an analogue of the stock market, in which emotional and financial speculations required caution and due diligence on the part of investors.

Written with verve and an evident love of storytelling, Stern’s work is refreshingly accessible, so much so that it could even be introduced into the undergraduate classroom. The chapter on servants, paired with a domestic novel, would concretely illustrate for students the disparity between Victorian celebrations of the domestic sphere and its more complex reality. It would also highlight what those novels invariably erase: the armies of servants required to uphold Victorian standards of gentility and the tensions that resident army triggered. Scholars of the Victorian novel will also gain much from Stern’s enlarged vision of the myriad forms of capital that can be counterfeited, adulterated and appropriated. “Education, artistic savvy, and worldliness; such social valuables as connections, a family name, and general savior faire; and ... affective assets” are all, in Stern’s Bourdieu-inflected analysis, forms of “cultural property” (8) that can be swindled. Thus Home Economics opens up new possibilities for reading the fraudulent plots and subplots that crowd the nineteenth-century British novel.

The one aspect of Home Economics that might disappoint readers is its analysis of fraud narratives in relationship to Victorian reading practices. In contrast to recent work such as Elaine Freedgood’s Victorian Writing about Risk (2000) and Mary Poovey’s “Writing About Finance in Victorian England” (2002), which emphasizes the Victorian desire to minimize risk, Stern contends that narratives of fraud such as those generated by the Tichborne case gained popularity because they offered “the opportunity to amuse oneself with peril, to play with the emotional elements of investment without an explicit context of risk” (25). It is an intriguing argument, but one quickly left behind because Stern does not sustain her analysis of reading. Home Economics does not return to the issue of reading until several chapters later, when it locates the reading pleasure derived from accounts of food adulteration in detection rather than risk. Presumably there is a connection to be made between these two modes of reading—the indulgence in risk-free risk and the satisfactions of sleuthing—but Home Economics does not draw it out.

Curiously, Stern links the detection of adulterated food to detective fictions, noting that the latter “whetted their readers’ appetites for the opportunity to discover surprises” (106), but without contextualizing either within the new, vast and mysterious urban spaces of the Victorian period. The mobility of people and goods as well as the growth of towns enabled fraud to flourish during the period. In other words, the domestic frauds Stern discusses have as much to do with the urbanization of Victorian England as with unbridled capitalist corruption and the emergence of a credit economy. The move from small villages to large cities led to the loss of what Raymond Williams famously labelled “knowable communities,” and thus the unprecedented growth of metropolitan areas is as much to blame for the nation’s reckoning with fraud as its economic transformations. The isolation of the Victorian home, no longer protected by a closed circle of friends, family and neighbors, made it vulnerable to fraud. Home Economics might have considered how the act of reading is one way the Victorians attempted to reconnect the isolated family to a larger community, in this case to a virtual community of readers.

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