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Jean Arnold, Victorian Jewelry, Identity, and the Novel: Prisms of Culture

J.-B. Bullen
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Jean Arnold, Victorian Jewelry, Identity, and the Novel: Prisms of Culture, Farnham, Ashgate, 2011. p. x + 172. ISBN: 978-1409421276

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1Jewellery has the remarkable property of assimilating and absorbing values from its surrounding culture. Works of art do this too. A painting, for example, like a gemstone, is valueless in itself, and attains value through properties that we accord to it. The difference between a painting and a gem, however, is that a painting is expressive in ways in which a gem is not. A painting is loaded with significance by its creator, and though its audience may interpret that significance in different ways there is between artist and audience an interactive relationship. Jewellery is given no intrinsic meaning either by its discoverer, cutter or distributor. It achieves significance only in its reception, and unlike the artwork is completely transparent. In other words it has a special ‘purity’; an existence uncontaminated by meaning that reflects back precisely the significance that is attributed to it. In this sharply focussed book, Victorian Jewelry, Identity, and the Novel, Jean Arnold has succeeded in identifying the ‘gem-like flame’ emitted by jewellery in Western Culture and succeeds in throwing that shining light on a number of important English nineteenth-century novels. By far the most interesting sections of the book, however, are the first two chapters: ‘Jewels and the Formation of Identity in Victorian Literature and Culture’ and ‘Perceiving Objects’. Empire, as Arnold points out, offered unprecedented access to jewellery around the world and the display of jewellery exceed all periods that came before. Important gem stones became ‘widely owned as commodities, mined and traded around the globe, and valued as signs of wealth, class, gender roles and relations, and aesthetic refinement’ (7), while at the same time manufacturing processes created new tiers of less expensive jewellery in materials such as gold, steel, iron, aluminium and other metals. Urban culture became an arena of spectacle where ‘the nouveau riche donned splendid jewels and clothing in order to define their new class status through fashion, so recently developed at midcentury’ (10). This aspect places it alongside the work of Arjun Appadurai, Thomas Richards, Nicholas Thomas, Andrew Miller, and above all Jean Baudrillard all of whom have identified and explored the discursive implications of objects in Victorian literature and culture. At the heart of the book is Arnold’s fascinating analysis of the relations between identity and objects; in particular how ‘real people and fictional characters invent culturally elaborated practices in relations to jewels’ (29), and in much wider terms she examines the dynamics of human relations to material objects, ambitiously ‘raising the broad questions about the values, practices and ends of Western culture’ (29).

2Perhaps the most suggestive section in this book is Arnold’s account of the changing relationship between subject and object in Western thought. Until relatively recently the subject has been considered the sole creator of meaning; the object passive and inert. In his book The Vital Illusion, Jean Baudrillard questioned this positioning suggesting that more recently the object had been wakened from its ‘opaque and inoffensive stillness’ (quoted p. 35) thus displacing the subject from its traditional position. In her work, Arnold sets out to explore the dynamic relationship between subject and object, what she calls ‘the extra-rational, inclusive space across which subject and object interact’ (36). The object, the subject and the intersubjective space between them, she claims, engage in a dialectic that produces Victorian culture’s spectrum of affect in the form of a range of emotional responses to cultural beliefs and practices, as they are symbolized in objects, and where jewellery in particular creates subjective identity through reflection. This thesis represents a fascinating contribution to the growing body of scholarship on consumption and commodification in the nineteenth century, in which the Great Exhibition of 1851 has been noticed as a turning point, or a ‘monument to consumption’, leading to what Thomas Richards called ‘the era of spectacle’ (39). Commodity, it is argued by many critical historians, is tied closely to sight and commodity is bound up with class and gender identity. Summarizing her own engagement with this theme Arnold writes:

Here, then, is the project before us: we shall read history and fiction to discover ways that characters creatively use culturally symbolic jewelry; we shall probe character-object relations that reveal alternative uses of these symbols in the process of constructing individual identities. As we shall see, the uses of gems—the way characters hoard, hold, exchange, envy, wear, or refuse to accept them—reveal character loyalties and character discontents immersed in affective experience. (43)

3This highly ambitious project is tested by reference to a relatively small group of texts. In Thackeray’s The Great Hoggarty Diamond the diamond becomes a commodity fetish, symbolizing capital, where the fate of the diamond is inextricably bound up with the fate of its owner. In this novel Samuel Titmarsh, the owner of the Hoggarty diamond looks upon his jewel as a fetish, whereas in contrast, the eponymous gem in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone is never long enough in the possession of one person to fall into that category. Instead a whole range of characters vies to establish the moonstone’s symbolic meaning. In each case the precious stone allows insights into the fascinations and disadvantages of the British Indian Empire. George Eliot’s Middlemarch presents jewellery as aesthetic objects where they become gendered markers of taste. Similarly in Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds the heroine uses a diamond necklace to confront social and legal barriers against women and in doing so explores the possibilities latent within her own identity.

4In a sense these test cases, interesting as they are, are just the beginning of a much wider project which could open many new avenues into the analysis of Victorian culture. It would be fascinating to see how Arnold’s thesis might be applied to visual texts and whether the works of, say, the Pre-Raphaelites, might be placed in the dialectic between subject, object and space. Rossetti, for example, was very interested in the semiotics of jewellery, and carefully placed precious stones, wrought metal, rings and brooches on his models or elsewhere within the picture space. Other painters like John Singer Sargent or Alma-Tadema used jewellery as punctuation marks in intensely materialist settings. Jean Arnold should be congratulated on writing a book that while it is focussed on one significant aspect of Victorian material culture, suggests new avenues of discovery and insight and will certainly act as a stimulus to many critical historians of the Victorian period.

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J.-B. Bullen, « Jean Arnold, Victorian Jewelry, Identity, and the Novel: Prisms of Culture », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 78 Automne | 2013, mis en ligne le 16 mai 2014, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL :

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J.-B. Bullen

University of Reading

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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