Isobel Armstrong’s magisterial Victorian Glassworlds is a sweeping investigation into what the author calls a “culture of glass” (89). In the years between 1830 and 1880, she notes, there arose in Britain, and in London especially, a “new glass consciousness” and with it, “a language of transparency” (1). In this sweeping study, Armstrong undertakes to understand the mid-nineteenth century by describing the new enterprise of literally “seeing” the “period through glass” (16). Glass, she demonstrates, was at the “center” of a variety of “debates” about what she calls “Victorian modernism” (202). Throughout the text, Armstrong takes pains to distinguish the modernism of the Victorian era from the modernity of twentieth-century theorists, and most notably Walter Benjamin. This eschewal of a teleological modernism allows Armstrong to probe the nineteenth century and its cultural productions with great depth, specificity, and play. Armstrong’s Victorian modernism encompasses questions of labor, spectacle, and science, as they pertain to political economy, urban experience, and cultural representation. At the heart of all of these developments, Armstrong argues, were preoccupations with transparency and “anxiet[ies] about mediation” that found their ways into the literary and artistic productions of the period, both high and popular (362).
The book has a tripartite structure, with sections devoted, respectively, to labor and politics, the scopic culture of the city, and optical instruments and toys. The first section of the text uses glass as a window into the labor regimes and political ideals of the mid-nineteenth century. A particularly prescient chapter addresses the genre of factory tourism that was a feature of magazines and periodicals in the early Victorian period. Here, with great ingenuity, Armstrong brings to light the literary structure of these accounts, which “drew upon both empirical and aesthetic registers” (19). Densely detailed and richly illustrated, the “visit genre” marshaled empirical detail while also gesturing to the Bible, Dante, and Milton, as it brought readers down into the furnace and then “home” into the showroom (24, 35). In the process, it raised the question of the humanity of workers like glassblowers. Other chapters in this first section concern themselves with the relationships between glassblowers and their employers. Of interest to historians will be Armstrong’s examinations of both business practice and labor politics. She assesses the politics of labor and the practices of protest by examining not only glass making, but glass breaking too. The breaking of glass was a form of protest from the post-Napoleonic era well into the twentieth century when Suffragettes famously threw bricks through department store windows. Not a mere spontaneous outbreak of mob violence, glass breaking articulated a popular critique of the status quo, Armstrong shows. Bringing a literary critic’s eye to the endeavor, Armstrong argues that the “grammar of glass-breaking” connoted a particular “style” at a moment when notions of property and work were under renegotiation (91).
The second section of this rich text moves to a consideration of the urban spaces of the Victorian era, along with the cultural responses and political potentials that they engendered. Armstrong is particularly concerned with the Victorian capital, for, as she contends, the “glazed shopfront was London’s genre” (133). Here, Armstrong seeks to show how “reflection and translucency created a new order of perception in the everyday,” both artistic and political in its implications (95). Armstrong commences this intriguing section with an experimental, and sometimes vexing, chapter employing a collage of quotations from philosophers, optical theorists, painters, and novelists as an effort to get at the “poetics of windows” (132). Happily, the lines of analysis suggested here are worked out more concretely in the subsequent chapters, which probe the political, social, and textual implications of the glass metropolis in truly novel ways. One chapter relates the arrival of the Crystal Palace, a vast covered space, to the “poetics of a new communality” (159). Visually transparent, glass suggested a “new transparency” of social relations, with potentially utopian implications (166). This was especially the case for the greenhouse, which is often summarily considered to be the prototype for the Crystal Palace, if not much else. But Armstrong shows that greenhouses, manifold in form, raised “crucial question for civil society” about ownership and belonging (167). In a fascinating chapter that contrasts the work of the Benthamite John Claudius Loudon to the designs of the better known populist Joseph Paxton, Armstrong delineates two competing “emancipatory possibilities of the conservatory” (169). The latter chapters in this section move towards the aesthetic, as they employ the glass slipper and the chandelier as vehicles for examining processes of transformation. Here, Armstrong is especially concerned with manifestations of the grotesque, particularly as they manifest themselves in Villette (1853) and Bleak House (1852-53).
The third and final section of the text examines optical toys and instruments, along with their epistemological, philosophical, and artistic implications. It is in this section where Armstrong moves most economically between objects, optics, and cultural productions. As she seeks to dislodge teleological understandings of magic lanterns and kaleidoscopes as mere forebodings of the cinema, Armstrong offers a deeply historicized and very playful analysis of the “questions generated by optical experience” (270). She considers the effects of dissolving, shifting, and indeterminacy on vision, fiction, and art. The proliferation of optical experiences engendered by the rise of instruments like telescopes and microscopes brought challenges to the “perspectival world” of the Victorians, notes Armstrong (317). These were taken up by theorists like David Brewster, John Tyndall, and John Herschel. Moreover, such developments generated new efforts at translation into “thought and language” on the part of Victorian literary moderns (301). Such experiments are evident, she shows, in the works of Lewis Carroll, Charles Kingsley, Edmund Gosse, and George Henry Lewes. Although glass culture had particular effects upon the Victorian imagination, its repercussions did not end there. The “concerns of glass culture” would have a long life and afterlife, migrating ultimately to the domains of psychoanalysis and postmodern philosophy in the present day (362).
The glass world of the Crystal Palace stands at the center of Armstrong’s historical period, and resides at the center of this text as well. It is both a converging point and a leitmotif in Armstrong’s book. Much like the Crystal Palace itself, Victorian Glassworlds exposes readers to a dazzling array of topics, unparalleled in its richness. It is a visual feast, filled with original illustrations, many of which are analyzed in great detail. Others, in turn, attest to the visual wealth of the glass archive and the Victorian age. Like the collection at the Great Exhibition, Victorian Glassworlds offers new connections through its striking range of chapters. And like the Crystal Palace, it is a truly magisterial and luminous achievement. Yet, in all of its completeness and creativity, the text, with its mixture of orthodox and experimental chapters, presents some of the same challenges faced by Victorian visitors to the Great Exhibition. At times, the text is so sprawling and ambitious that it can be bewildering. In places, it is suggestive rather than digested, demanding a real working through on the part of the reader. And for those who do not have Armstrong’s mastery of the nineteenth century’s literary canon, the significance of some of the literary detail and the force behind some of the readings can get lost. It was a common complaint that visitors to the Crystal Palace felt almost blinded by the profusion of materials in every direction, and indeed, it is a task to take in all that fills the pages of Victorian Glassworlds. Yet, visitors who were willing to linger, muse, digest, and return to the Great Exhibition profited from doing so. At once playful and magisterial, abstract and detailed, erudite and entertaining, Victorian Glassworlds operates similarly. It presents great rewards and real pleasures for those willing to immerse themselves in its pages of analysis, flights of fancy, displays of ingenuity, and exhibits of imagination.
Lara Kriegel is Associate Professor of History and English at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her first book, Grand Designs: Labor, Empire, and the Museum in Victorian Culture, was published by Duke University Press in 2007. She is now at work on a second project addressing the cultural history and afterlife of the Crimean War. Since 2009, she has served as the Program Chair for the North American Conference on British Studies.