Devoted to Victorian England’s love for objects, John Plotz’s Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move is an engrossing study of cultural meanings in “objects, practices, persons,” and national consciousness (9). In an age of heightened global traffic of material commodities, physical bodies, and cultural mores, objects such as those photographed on the cover of this book – a rocking horse, a cork and leather cricket ball, a silver teapot, and a weathered book – and hundreds beside, avers Plotz, served the empire new ways to imagine “community, national identity, and even liberal selfhood on the move” (xii-xiv).
Nineteenth-century discourses on portable properties as evidenced through “representational practices” and flourishing “aesthetic assumptions” are symptoms of “global” living in the Victorian era (170). These discourses variously mediate imperial diasporic experiences or navigate constructions of national identity in the context of England’s situation vis-à-vis Greater Britain. Plotz writes in his chapter “Strawberries in India” that material objects are not merely commodities with market value but tokens of “enduring Englishness overseas” for Victorians living abroad. For expatriates like Emily Eden, objects as different as rare strawberry patches and Dickens’s new novel transcend their material values to represent the portability of national culture and “familial heritage.” These objects craft particular relations between property and proprietor to arrange spaces that “keep one English in the Indian wilds” (46; 57-58). “[P]ortaging of sentiment in beloved objects” and the “need to develop auratic [and] somatic […] forms of storing personal and familial memories” through portable objects, explains Plotz, were “a predictable, even a necessary, development in a world of increasingly successful commodity flow” (17).
Yet, representations of objects that announce respite from alien culture and attachment to homeland paradoxically fracture such imaginaries. As Plotz shows in his first chapter, on Victorian “diamond tales,” these precious objects pose a disruptive threat to imaginary notions of community and identity. Diamonds as objects, Plotz explains, are split between material value and sentimental possession. But it is their “persistent refusal to turn either into pure liquidity or pure bearers of sentimental value” that situates these objects at “troubling intersections between clear categories” thereby distorting identities formed around them (25). Plotz’s analysis of Wilkie Collins’s 1868 masterpiece, The Moonstone, shows exactly how flow and counter-flow of objects in the age of empire exacerbated the tension between diamonds as fungible objects and diamonds as sentimental possessions. For unlike Anthony Trollope’s Eustace Diamonds (1871-73) where the problematic around the precious necklace is grounded in the legality of exchange versus sentimental possession of the heirloom, in Collins’s novel the evocative resonance of the moonstone as a “portable metonym for India” contributes to the volatile character of the stone and vexes human relations around it:
The Indian origin of the jewel means that (all domestic intrigues and gambling debts aside) the terror associated with the mysterious followers of the jewel is redoubled by all the fiscal and military unease associated with imperial rule over India.40
The stone’s checkered history – its evocation of the traumatic memories of the Indian Mutiny and the threat it poses to the collective peace and tranquility of the English home – makes it a liminal object par excellence. Likewise, as loot it is not a legal personal possession open to exchange nor an object around which sentimental attachment can be formed without incurring serious risk of bodily harm from the Brahmins who claim the stone as their own. The constitutive duality of the object erects a barrier against seamless assimilation of the Blood Diamond into the flow of capital as much as it vitiates circulation of sentiments around it. The Moonstone conveys anxiety over “portability in reverse,” of Indian bodies and traumatic colonial memories “making it to England unscathed” (43).
The troubling peregrinations of objects and bodies are at the center of Plotz’s discussions of Victorian novelists such as George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, R. D. Blackmore, William Morris. In these chapters, Plotz moves from pursuing cultural analysis of the affective impact of portable objects on imperial identity to a predominantly literary analysis of Victorian novels. As Clare Pettitt argues in her review of Portable Property, this shift presents a “central confusion” in Plotz’s argument (and the book) primarily due to the inadequate differentiation between “things in fiction and things in the world” (Victorian Studies, 51(4): 767). In response, it must be clarified that Plotz’s book is not only about objects and things, but also about the “durable hold” exercised by the notion of portability upon nineteenth-century thinking and novel writing; that is, “determining how novels were read” and “what sorts of novels achieved cultural preeminence” in relation to the question of cultural/national portability (93,94).
The novel, Plotz contends, apart from being a portable object par excellence “is the logical breeding ground for reflections on cultural portability;” the “ground-zero for a wide-ranging exploration of what it meant for an object to travel simultaneously with ineradicable particular meanings, even national ones, attached, and stand simultaneously for the potentially limitless fluidity of the market place” (72; 23). Daniel Deronda (1876), for example, as Plotz’s reading of the novel shows, sets out to “represent the unrepresentability of Jewish culture” but ends up exploring “how deeply portable culture can be embedded within a racialized body” (93). In effect, Eliot’s novel presents both the transmissibility of national cultures and the difficulty of maintaining their exclusivity. Similarly, speaking of R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone in the context of “nascent English regionalism,” Plotz cautions against reading the novel too simplistically; that is, as renouncing cultural and national mobility in favor of the “singular realm” of the local. Instead, he demonstrates that the “logic of portability” and the success of Blackmore’s work are “unmistakably” tied to the interesting conjuncture of Exmoor’s “geographic determinism” and the “perfect fluidity” of Lorna’s character (93-94).
By contrast, Plotz’s discussions of Hardy and Morris focus on the systematic dismantling of the “architecture of Victorian [consciousness of] portability” and direct repudiation of the function of portable, singular identities by these writers (121). Hardy refuses to grant portability the power of transmitting and creating a singular, universally accepted culture. Similarly, Morris distrusts the novel as a motor for expanding “local circumstances into global circulation.” As Plotz’s readings show, Morris attacks the notion of specific objects organizing national culture by holding the idea responsible for constructing oppressive “neighborhoods of shared sensibility” and thereby destroying common human sensibility, judgment and cognition (174). What we have in these chapters are refreshing readings of canonical and non-canonical novels in the light of the Victorian preoccupation with the question of cultural and national portability.
However, given Plotz’s stated project of interrogating the constitutive importance of material objects in Victorian imaginaries it is not surprising that questions like Pettitt’s regarding the relation of his work to thing-theory have been raised. If there is any significant lacuna in the book it is the absence of theoretical gestures connecting the study of objects qua Victorian love of things to a general theory of things such as those by Bruno Latour, Bill Brown, and Shelly Turkle. The intelligent use of thing theory could have led to a much richer understanding of the diverse ways in which objects resonate within imperial cultural imaginaries. It would have rooted Plotz’s investigations into fictional portability in relation to concrete practices of imperialism.
Overall Plotz’s book is an important contribution to the study of commodification and its impact on nineteenth-century popular culture, especially the novel. His focus on exchangeability and portability of the novel contributes to a deeper understanding of how facilities of imperial power shape cultural consciousness in an age of porous boundaries.
Gautam Basu Thakur is Visiting Assistant Professor of World Literature and Literary Theory at the department of English, University of Mississippi. His research areas include nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and Indian literature; postcolonial studies; Anglophone and World literature; Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis; media and culture. His articles have been published in Psychoanalysis, Culture, & Society, New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film, and in the anthology Bollywood and Globalization: Indian Popular Cinema, Nation, and Diaspora. Basu Thakur is currently working on his book, Indian Mutiny and the Rearrangement of Sovereign Desire, which studies the impact of the Indian uprising of 1857 on colonial social psychology and cultural imaginary.