Julia Brown is deeply taken with Walter Benjamin’s memorable descriptions of nineteenth-century bourgeois interiors: nostalgic sites where an impossible and timeless security is offered to those who otherwise have to face a coldly commodified world. The Bourgeois Interior is in many ways an unpacking of and an extended gloss on Benjamin’s meditations (spread across his essays and his Arcades project) on the various forms of security that middle-class domestic spaces can seem to offer. Her analysis begins with Vermeer’s paintings, then treats Robinson Crusoe, the novels of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Henry James and, finally, ends with an intriguing account of how interior spaces work in Ingmar Bergman’s films. At its best, the book insightfully develops gleanings from Benjamin into suggestive meditations on how certain motifs that Brown defines as fundamental to a transhistorical Euro-American bourgeois culture permeate that entire range of works.
The strength of the book lies in its power to propose certain suggestive themes that the reader may be able to see playing out in a range of works. For example, among the book’s most insightful discussions is one that, apropos of David Copperfield, develops the notion of a “transparency,” a sort of visual analogue to protective cladding that Benjamin sees enshrouding every object in a bourgeois interior. This notion of the (movable) transparency would be especially suggestive, I think, if applied forward to two other authors whom Brown mentions in passing, William Morris and Marcel Proust. Both artists—Proust for example in the famous opening “magic lantern” scene of Swann’s Way, and William Morris in his intricately interwoven “decorative” fabrics as well as in the complex interweaving of landscape and character in his strange utopian romances—take up the idea of a transparent image projected upon solid interiors, and generate a complex aesthetic that depends upon striking contrasts produced by interweavings of tangible things and ephemeral images.
This is just one of several moments in Bourgeois Interior when Brown’s eye for the suggestive genealogy of themes that connect writers of several generations provides valuable clues for future researchers. There are a variety of themes Brown touches on that might resonate for a wide range of literary texts: her discussion of the tension between domestic security and the open-endedness of a modern capitalist society in Dickens, for example, or her discussion of the ways that interior spaces are modeled to at once register and exclude the outer world in Vermeer. Moving rapidly between past and present—a few pages after the discussion of Vermeer, a “medieval” house in Orlando Florida crops up—this is a book that does its best to establish long lineages for the bourgeois interior that Brown keeps insisting is present (all too present!) with us even in, say, suburban Boston today. Thus the possessions in an Austen novel remind Brown of how memories are arranged in present-day houses—and the discussion of Robinson Crusoe pushes the reader to reconsider Defoe’s investment in having Defoe build a “country house” on his desert island!
Along with the advantages of a wide-angle view, this approach has some dangers. The discussion of Henry James, for example, and his relationship both to the material culture and to the design theory of his day, ends up feeling somewhat truncated. Brown seems to lose patience with some of the (arguably oversubtle) distinctions that James develops between various sorts of material possessions, not only in Spoils of Poynton but also in such collector-centered novels as Portrait of a Lady and The Golden Bowl—as well as that strange final fragment of a novel, The Ivory Tower. For Brown, the key categories come out of Marx’s and Freud’s notions of the fetish as well as Benjamin’s responses to Marx and Freud; but it also seems worth considering James’s much more phenomenological orientation to the objects at the center of his novels. For James, that is, objects like the Poynton spoils are the neutral centers around which the charged ions of competing consciousnesses cohere, and his novels succeed only in capturing the permutations of consciousness that objects inspire—they neither aspire to nor can capture anything substantial about the objects that occasioned those thoughts.
It also seems possible that Dickens’s relationship to the talking objects that Brown discusses has something similarly complex at its core. It is noticeable, for example, that the two works that are most important for Brown’s account—David Copperfield and Our Mutual Friend—offer a more complicated relationship between the pleasures of domestic space and the terrors of the outside world than her fast-moving discussion allows. The houses perched happily on dustheaps in Our Mutual Friend, and the erotics of spying on working-class interiors seem suggestive of how hard Dickens works to produce a narrative that is reverentially anchored in domestic bliss—but in a sort of moveable, adaptable bliss that proves capable of establishing itself even in the midst of market-based circulation.
Bourgeois Interior, however, does not claim the sort of intense and potentially narrowing focus that constitutes the value of recent brilliant work on nineteenth-century material culture by Deborah Cohen (Household Gods), Thad Logan (The Victorian Parlour), Jordanna Bailkin, or Geoffrey Batchen. Nor does it claim, like recent work by Franco Moretti (Graphs, Maps, and Trees) or Nicholas Dames (Physiology of the Novel), to offer new literary-theoretical paradigms for understanding how social and intellectual history intersected in the literary realm. Rather, Brown’s project is a continuation of the open-ended experimentation in cultural history that Benjamin so vividly inaugurated in the 1930s. Bourgeois Interior will succeed, therefore, if it rouses in the reader suggestions of future connections, and plausible overlaps between the phenomena that Brown describes and those that the reader knows well. Any book that sets out to trace patterns that connect Vermeer to the front lawns of Boston more than three centuries later certainly deserves to be judged by its ability to inspire readers to do some interior oversight of their own.
John Plotz is Professor of English at Brandeis University. He is the author of The Crowd: British Literature and Public Politics (California, 2000) and Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move (Princeton, 2008); his articles have appeared in ELH, Representations, Victorian Studies, the Boston Globe and the New York Times. His current project is tentatively titled “A History of Antisocialism, Mill to Arendt.” One chapter was recently published in the edited volume Crowds as “The Return of the Blob: or How Sociologists Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Crowd.”