- 1 See Mark Blackwell, Liz Bellamy, Christina Lupton and Heather Keenleyside, eds., British It-Narrati (...)
- 2 According to Jan Alber, these terms ‘radically deconstruct the anthropomorphic narrator, the tradit (...)
- 3 See Elaine Freedgood, ‘What Objects Know: Circulation, Omniscience and the Comedy of Dispossession (...)
1Eliza Cook (1818–89)’s biographies of things are the Victorian avatars in verse of it-narratives1—also identified as object narratives, novels of circulation or unnatural narratives2—, a particular eighteenth-century sub-genre of fiction that follows the adventures of a picaresque non-human (but sometimes speaking) protagonist, as it travels through places and times, experiences all sorts of adventures and encounters varied characters and situations. This extremely popular form between 1700 and 1800 presents itself as a satire of the consumer society, with the travelling object being first manufactured or purchased, then traded, stolen, rebought or recycled… by all sorts of owners whose morality is generally called into question. Relationships turn into commercial exchanges as these narratives explore the nature of ownership. The Victorian it-narratives developed a moralising dimension more palatable for those who used this form to educate the young readers into science and morality. Coins, banknotes, saucy dolls and petticoats were gradually replaced by more genteel objects, like books, bibles, lumps of coal, pieces of wood or candles.3 Neither eighteenth nor nineteenth-century it-narratives were presented in a poetic form: Eliza Cook’s poems constitute a remarkable exception as she revives this subgenre in her numerous biographies of things, tailoring this format for her own social and political agenda.
- 4 See Solveig Robinson’s entry for Eliza Cook in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- 5 Pauline Nestor, ‘A New Departure in Women’s Publishing: The English Woman’s Journal and The Victori (...)
2Eliza Cook was born in Southwark in a working-class family, the youngest child of a tinman and a brazier.4 She is best-known today as the editor of the very successful but short-lived weekly periodical, Eliza Cook’s Journal (published between 1849 and 1854), addressed to a relatively educated working-class or lower middle-class family readership and complying with all the staples of a rather traditional women’s magazine. However, some radical articles and poems were interspersed between very conventional pieces. As a self-taught woman, she also wrote several very successful books of poems from 1838 to 1864 and contributed poems on a regular basis to different periodicals, for example the Chartist Northern Star, the radical Weekly Dispatch or the literary New Monthly Magazine. For Pauline Nestor, Cook’s major preoccupations as appeared in Eliza Cook’s Journal—women’s employment, single women, emigration...—were presented ‘with a curious blend of radicalism and conservatism’.5 This combination is also at the core of Cook’s verse contributions that expressed sympathy for all sorts of marginalised figures, industrial labourers, poor children, Native Americans, and slaves and pleaded for social reform. Her poems always investigated the relations between the private and the public, notably through the use of objects that function as go-betweens and ensure that the moral, social and political message reaches a wider sphere of influence. Sometimes the same poem, like the extremely popular ‘The Old Arm-Chair’ that made her into a household name, was reprinted in several periodicals, a sure sign that Cook’s didacticism and moralisation of objects had a strong emotional appeal among her readers; but such a circulation also evidences that her objects travelled far and that their sphere of influence may have been much wider than the mere community circle.
- 6 See Solveig Robinson, ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”: The Chartist Poetics of Eliza Cook’s Son (...)
3While some of her hard-hitting poems about the industrious community were explored by Solveig Robinson,6 those about the lives of objects have aroused little interest so far. However when it comes to denouncing the forces of oppression that threaten social peace and the daily life of simple people, biographies of objects—of an armchair, a water-mill, a barn, a clock, a piece of charcoal, …—or autobiographies of things—of a goblet, a seaweed, a church bell, a faggot, ...—may prove very useful, as their purpose exceeds the mere idealisation of provincial and domestic ways of life. Indeed Cook’s poetry of daily life is intertwined with her Chartist engagement. While her biographies of objects appear harmless, they have a hidden motive in denouncing the forces of oppression that threaten social peace and the daily life of ordinary people.
- 7 A significant number of poems by female contributors to the Northern Star advocate temperance while (...)
4The first part of this study will concentrate on Cook’s denunciation of the accumulation and the overvaluation of manufactured objects, precisely those that pile up meaninglessly in the parlours of bourgeois homes and enhance female domestic values. Unlike some other female poets in the Northern Star who contributed poems that reinforce the gender-based ideologies often used to sustain the Chartist movement, Cook focused on objects that do not construct the type of femininity that may have appealed to Chartists, both men and women.7 This article turns then to the lives of things, more precisely of raw material. By giving a voice to inanimate objects, Cook shows that their sense of self-sacrifice ensures the preservation of the community’s identity and promotes social cohesion. Finally, Cook’s biographies of things challenge the economic models of exchange that value profit, property and individualism and present how objects can be exchanged in a renewed and fairer way.
- 8 However active they may have been, women were not fully recognised by most of their male counterpar (...)
5Very poor working conditions increased poverty and social unrest in the 1830s and 1840s. Certain factors like poor housing, small incomes, long working hours and short rest intervals made women, more precisely those employed in textile mills, extremely vulnerable. It is therefore no surprise that ‘[f]emale participation was a crucially important factor in shaping Chartism’ (Chase 41). As one hundred female Chartist groups and societies were formed in 1838–39 (in comparison there were 430 male ones), women organised agitation differently from their male counterparts. Due to their lack of education and their estrangement from literary and political circles and to the underlying Chartist ideology that promoted the virtues of the male breadwinner and his domestic wife,8 some women had no alternative for participating in the reform movement but to mobilise from their domestic sphere, advocating vegetarianism, hydropathy or temperance. They also canvassed door-to-door and organised tea parties to raise funds and circulate petitions rather than assembling in rallies or processions; others created needlework samplers and banners for male demonstrators.
- 9 Brian Maidment includes a ridiculously small number of women in his anthology The Poorhouse Fugitiv (...)
- 10 I have borrowed from Michael Sanders’s research figures about poetical contributions to the Chartis (...)
6However limited their education and their leisure time, women still made rather regular poetical contributions to the Chartist press. Nevertheless, today’s critics have largely overlooked the women’s presence on the Chartist poetic scene.9 Michael Sanders’s study, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History has the great merit of providing very valuable data regarding women’s poetic contributions to the Northern Star.10 According to Sanders’s index, the Northern Star published 77 poems written by women out of 1,700 from January 1838 to July 1852. There may be more poems by women if anonymous contributions are counted in. Over the whole period, Eliza Cook composed 23 poems for the periodical, which made her the most regular female contributor to the Chartist organ. This study will consider some poems Cook contributed to the Northern Star, but it will also refer to poems published elsewhere.
- 11 Chase underlines ‘the gradual transition from a movement that mobilised whole communities to one wh (...)
7In spite of a large female participation in the Chartist movement, at least during the first few years, Chartist ideology generally supported the retention of gender roles as they were.11 Women willingly embraced their position as symbolical mothers and took over the domestic spaces as their womanly response to virile violence outside. Therefore home remained central in Chartist women’s poetry. Cook became aware of the political dimension of material and domestic belongings as she witnessed, in the 1840s and 1850s, the acceleration of industrial growth, the development of manufactured goods, and the subsequent desire to possess things in order to enhance one’s social status. Her biographies of things opposed the prevalent idea that things exist to be ostentatiously displayed.
- 12 Many poems by Victorian women resemble lists of objects accumulated in interiors, gathered in bazaa (...)
8In the wake of the industrial revolution, domestic goods were produced by the millions. But in Cook’s worldview, things should neither be mass-produced nor consumed in excess. Contrary to some middle and upper-class female poets whose poems depict interiors or other social spaces packed with a profusion of useless objects—stuffed animals, flower vases, cards, decorative handcrafts…—12 Cook always cautiously portrays one single object at a time, ignoring objects that are placed in the parlour for the sake of decoration. Her objects contrast with the ones described in Thad Logan’s study of the paraphernalia accumulated in a Victorian parlour (Logan 26). No doubt Cook’s things also participate in what Logan describes as ‘semiotic economy’ as they fit her ideology; but, unlike Victorian bourgeois family members, Cook never ignores their use-value.
- 13 Logan is following Jean Baudrillard’s critique of value in Le Système des objets (The System of Obj (...)
9Logan relies on Jean Baudrillard’s theory of consumption when she underlines that the displayed objects lose their initial use-value in the Victorian household.13 Indeed Victorian objects were bought for their use-value first and then displayed for their sign-value, as their decorative potential enhanced their owners’ social prestige. For Logan, Victorian representations of bourgeois interiors generally serve as critiques of consumption. That fits Cook’s depiction of objects when she criticises the accumulation of consumer goods. She strongly believes that the economic worth of objects only creates more inequalities. Laying emphasis on the symbolic value and use-value of things, she challenges the standards of bourgeois domesticity by refusing to acknowledge economic competition as a legitimate goal.
10Cook’s things are never circumscribed in enclosed spaces and never determine the limits of identities. When, for Logan, the production and consumption of decorative objects by and for women only reproduce ‘the ideology of domesticity’ (Logan 100), Cook’s things are removed from the domestic sphere, upgraded as they are given a sense of identity and eventually endowed with a political force. She rejects gendered interiors and indoor seclusion as she destabilises, if not ungenders, the traditional representations of home and domestic objects. She believes that objects duly called ‘feminine’ and interiors could also be renegotiated and empower women. The exploration of ‘The Room of the Household’ and ‘My Murray Plaid’ will highlight Cook’s radical rejection of her contemporaries’ cultural practices and consumption patterns.
- 14 Eliza Cook, ‘The Room of the Household’ in The Poetical Works of Eliza Cook (London: Frederick Warn (...)
11The first poem depicts the poet’s favourite room. Unlike the bourgeois home, there is no obvious divide between inside and outside since household members are free to move in and out of this ‘liberty hall’.14 While idlers and their gossip are unwelcome, all those who are ‘sacredly free’ (184; l. 7) from the constraints of social etiquette are invited to ‘run in and out’ (184; l. 3). Each stanza illustrates one reason why this room makes its dwellers feel independent from social conventions. It never embodies a shrine of domesticity or gentility; however, it looks like ‘a sanctum of bliss’ (l. 1) because Cook favours personal fulfilment over social respectability. Cook deconstructs the function of the parlour and recasts it as a place of carefree freedom. There, objects can be misplaced since they do not fit in Logan’s semiotic economy or what she names ‘syntagmatic chains’ (79):
The romp may be fearlessly carried on there,
No ‘bijouterie’ rubbish solicits our care;
All things are as meet for the hand as the eye,
And patchwork and scribbling unheeded may lie; (184; ll. 9–12)
12This space challenges the social limits between domestic and public life and between ages and genders, and promotes a form of social mix based on the egalitarian model of a modest but educated family. Entertainment is welcome there only if ballroom dancing is replaced by more lively jigs. As for books, they are not chosen as prestigious tokens lining in marching order:
And the bookshelves—where tomes of all sizes are spread,
Not placed to be looked at, but meant to be read;
All defaced and bethumbed, and I would not be sworn,
But some volumes, perchance the most precious are torn. (185; ll. 33–36)
13The poet recommends reading Burns’s poetry or Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield on which Cook draws the model of a truly deserved family fortune. For Cook, objects are valuable as long as they are made useful in a practical way, prevent boredom and contribute to the well-being of the family members. The worn state of the books indicates that the family cherishes education—better access to education was one of the Chartists’ main political claims—as true worth. Similarly, while paintings by the great masters of classical art, Murillo or Titian, find their way on more respectable walls, the scenes of contemporary humble family and rural life are more suitable in this room: ‘But the Morland and the Wilkie that hang on the wall / Of the family parlour, out-value them all’ (185; ll. 27–28). The term ‘out-value’ is a clear reference to Cook’s parallel system of worth that rates a well-spent existence above ‘ostensibly purposeless leisure’ (Veblen 59).
14While the ideal room welcomes joyful family members, the domestic objects also contribute to the well-being of their users. In ‘My Murray Plaid’, the poet addresses her plaid as if it was a true friend. Each stanza illustrates one reason why the plaid, a simple rough piece of cloth, is highly praised by the unconventional speaker. First, this material is fit for outings and outdoor games. Indeed it is not meant to be lovely, with its dark shades and rough feel; it keeps the poet warm and does not wear out or attract dirt; and the poet’s dog can lay its paws on it without spoiling it! It has nothing in common with the tartans mechanically produced from the 1850s following Victoria and Albert’s visits to the Highlands and the subsequent fashion for Scottish tartan designs. Being unfit for the ballroom, the plaid is an obvious sign that the poet ignores social, sartorial and gender conventions:
And, somehow, mine’s a foolish heart,
That, once endeared, ’tis hard to part.
Let ladies sneer, and dandies scoff,
I cannot, will not fling thee off;
And wonder not, if I’m arrayed
On wedding-day in Murray plaid. (189; ll. 67–72)
15The plaid makes her feel empowered to speak her mind, as the modal form ‘will’ clearly indicates. Contrary to tight clothes that constrain body and soul, this plaid provides her with greater freedom of movement and autonomy of thought. Feeling completely safe in her plaid, she is entitled to go outdoors and take a seat in unwomanly places: ‘The ridge of chalk—the pile of clay— / The gravel bank—the ruin grey’ (189; ll. 45–46). Finally, homemade objects, kept longer than outfits for special occasions, become as valuable as lifelong friends. Wrapped up in her plaid, she is able to identify the like-minded few, willing to accept her as she is:
I shun the world—I cannot bear
The worldling’s greeting, wordling’s stare—
And placed among them, soul and eye
Grow strangely haughty, strangely shy:
I’m happier far when I can find
The few, the genial, and the kind;
Whose warm, fond spirits are betrayed,
And welcome me in ‘Murray plaid’. (189; ll. 57–64)
16Cook’s Chartist poetry constantly criticises the social practices that lead to more inequalities and drive people to value material wealth. Yet, while the denunciation of social inequalities threatening the social fabric perfectly meets her Chartist poetic agenda, Cook’s poems about her domestic environment also challenge traditional gender representations that Chartist (female) poetry may have supported.
17This study now turns to other very unusual and rather innovative poems that portray primary commodities. By giving a voice to the raw material, Cook pursues her objective of defending the underdog and reinforcing social cohesion, particularly when the rural community members suffer from the degraded value of their work. Cook gives work and workers their dignity back by presenting the raw materials which praise their own worth and usefulness as a powerful force of cohesion.
- 15 Cook’s connection with Hood is authenticated by a letter owned by the Armstrong Browning Library (B (...)
- 16 Sanders has emphasised the importance of the voice over the hands in Chartist poetry. Workers who h (...)
- 17 It was made very popular in the 1870s after Annie Carey, a science populariser, published two volum (...)
18Christopher Flint suggests that, in eighteenth-century it-narratives, the animal or vegetable narrators are substitutes for human actors while the manufactured narrators are meant to satirise human societies (Flint 212–16). Similarly, in Cook’s poems, raw materials certainly are closer to humans as they are endowed with the power of speech and lead long lives. The hempseed, the faggot or the seaweed of Cook’s poems are given a poetical voice, therefore the power of speech, of which the processed things have been deprived, after losing their identity when they were turned into commodities. Not only do they receive the power to express themselves, but they do it in songs, unlike objects in 18th-century satirical it-narratives. By calling the autobiographies she published in the 1840s ‘songs’, Cook may have been inspired by Thomas Hood’s ‘Song of the Shirt’ (1843), an extremely popular poem about the suffering of needlewomen in early Victorian London.15 Cook used the format of the ‘song of a thing’, the poetical version of the it-narrative, as a political tool from 1843, as shown in Sanders’s index of the poetry published in the Northern Star.16 Cook may not have invented the sub-genre of the poetical autobiography of raw materials, but she was one of the first to make an extensive, and political, use of it in the early nineteenth century.17
19In Cook’s poetry, ‘things’ gain value as they talk, though not an economic but symbolical one. Indeed, by singling out some raw materials, Cook gives a voice to the most insignificant things often consigned to oblivion even if they cannot be dispensed with for the production of any manufactured good. The autobiographical form provides a voice to the speechless and the powerless, in particular those that are literally moulded in the hands of others. In these poems, references to work are replaced by comments on the missions of the materials. Indeed, the poems describe why and how they carry out their tasks, being placed at the service of others. Being fully aware of their responsibility for social cohesion, they willingly accept their social mission. When the raw material speaks for itself, it claims that its worth lies in its use and discards the importance of excessive production and conspicuous consumption.
- 18 See ‘Old Dobbin’, a poem about the donkey of the poet’s youth: ‘We broke him for service, and tamel (...)
20‘Song of the Hempseed,’ a paragon of Chartist engagement, was first published in the Northern Star on October 21, 1843. The hempseed speaks in the name of those who want to see their work benefit the whole hard-working community and who look for meaning in their industrious lives. It fulfils the mission it is made for precisely because its unprocessed nature makes it flexible enough to be useful to all the community members and thus to create more cohesion between them: ‘I have many a place in the busy world’ (245; l. 13). Each stanza is dedicated to the specific tasks of those who carry out their duty: it is used as rope for the sailors and for the executioners; it holds the weight of the village church bell; it stands for all the landmarks of human existence—as a pillow for the head of the deceased, a rope to bind the hay stacks, the material for the fishermen’s nests. The hempseed describes itself as a slave, a defining characteristic common to most of Cook’s subaltern creatures,18 but a kind of free-willing slave as it acknowledges it is made to serve all:
There am I, a worshipped slave,—
On ocean and earth I’m a goodly thing;
I serve from the playground to the grave. . . .
Then scatter me wide, and hackle me well;
And a varied tale shall the Hempseed tell. (247; ll. 106–114)
21It is precisely by being beneficial to all that a thing gains respect and self-recognition. With its usefulness confirmed by all the community members, the hempseed can now ensure social cohesion and transmit local history. Not only is the hempseed used on the workplace, but it also has two missions high on the Chartist agenda: educating the young and spreading the seeds of rebellion: ‘I carry the freeman’s flag unfurled; / I am linked to childhood’s darling toy’ (248; ll. 111–112), proclaims the hempseed, well aware that its mission is much more important than its own life.
22While the hempseed serves mainly within the community, the faggot widens its sphere of influence and acts as a necessary go-between from local to national history. In ‘The Song of the Greenwood Faggot’, Cook rewrites history from the perspective of this bundle of branches. Once turned into dead wood, ‘a seared and sapless thing’ (252; l. 16), the faggot becomes first a source of entertainment as it burns in the community’s bonfires. But it is also a major contributor to national events, as Mary Queen of Scots had religious dissenters burned at the stake. Acknowledging its darker past, it also claims more glorious times when it supported William Tell in his struggle against the tyranny of aristocracy: ‘I was the beacon flame that rose when chains and Gessler fell, / And the bonnie Greenwood Faggot shone on liberty and Tell’ (253; ll. 39–40). The faggot has to comply with its duty because its sacrifice, as a thing of very low status, is necessary to connect the national history of heroic figures and the story of each individual life.
23The growth in social awareness and emotional development is the central message of another first-person narrative, ‘Song of the Seaweed’, published first in 1844 in New Monthly Magazine. Barbara Gates states that seaweeds were of great interest for Victorians and that collecting them was a popular occupation for young ladies (Gates 525). As Cook was certainly aware of this seaweed craze, she may have wanted to remove the plant from the parlour to which it had unnaturally been transported. For Cook, seaweed collecting is no genteel activity, but has a much more noble dimension. However the seaweed has to understand the true value of its life as it goes through all sorts of picaresque, yet moralised adventures. The poem therefore has a didactic dimension, with the seaweed’s journey regarded as a metaphor for its growing consciousness and sense of morality.
24The thoughtless seaweed gradually learns that its self-sacrificing duty is more meaningful than its playful and selfish existence. ‘I am born where human skill / Cannot bend me to its will’ (309; ll. 5–6), claims the proud and rebellious organism. Sheltered under water from figures of oppression that disrupt its friends, such as the anemone on the surface, it is free to travel at a maritime pace, illustrated by the regular rhythm of the rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameters. The solitary and egoistic seaweed changes directions when opportunities come, sticking first to a mast, then mixing with the white foam sputtering from the mouth of a drowning man. Each new adventure is expressed in a different meter and rhyming pattern that mirror both the colourful events and the seaweed’s changing moods as the elements of the picaresque follow one another to serve a moral and didactic purpose. The more tragic moments and deaths it witnesses, the more it becomes sensitive to man’s suffering and the further it rejects the lure of riches. As it floats past forgotten treasures after a ship has run aground, it is momentarily blinded by the treasures it wants to make its own:
Gems of all hues for a king to choose,
With coins and coffers are round:
The wealth and weight of an Eastern freight
In the Seaweed’s home are found. (312; ll. 138–141)
25But it soon admits that all sea creatures should share them since only the sea is the seat of law and authority as indicated with the paronomastic monosyllables ‘bar/ban’:
Here are pearls for maiden’s curls—
Here is gold for man;
But the wave is a true and right safe bar,
And its murmur a dreaded ban. (312; ll. 142–145)
26The seaweed leaves its treasures behind and carries on in its journey to the southern seas with the nautilus. The vision of sailors dying of thirst and so desperate that they are about to kill themselves anticipates the fate of the seaweed in the final part of the poem, dried out on a rock at low tide onshore. The song of the seaweed ends in the arrival of a group of merry kelp collectors. The death of this useless seaweed means fruitful life for the others: ‘ ’Tis my death-dirge they are singing, / And thus the lightsome troll is ringing’ (314; ll. 188–189). The last three stanzas compose a jolly chorus of voices as the workers praise the true value of the seaweed. Having dried out on the shore, it has turned into sea wrack, necessary to the fertilisation of the soil. The frivolous seaweed has found a second life, this time dedicated to the welfare of the community of the land: ‘So gather and carry, for oft we need / The nurturing help of the good Seaweed’ (314; ll. 198–199).
27The seaweed turned into fertiliser plays a pivotal role in the whole food chain as it nourishes the crops and helps feed the farmers: ‘The land must be till’d, the tiller must feed, / And the corn must be help’d by the good Seaweed’ (314; ll. 218–219). Not only does it have beneficial effects on everyday consumption, but it also eventually changes into true riches. For Cook, treasures are so useless that they lie at the bottom of the sea while genuine gems come from nature and are democratically shared for the sake of all. The seaweed sacrifices itself for the community and, by giving its life, is reborn as a future source of wealth: ‘And a smouldering heap of treasures we’ll keep / In the ashes it leaveth behind’ (314; ll. 212–213). Cook’s egalitarian views lead her to consider that the wealth of nature can be fairly distributed thanks to the investment of all creatures in the local economy. Recycling wrack into soil fertiliser for the benefit of small farmers and checking waste (jewels and crowns being deemed as metaphors of ineffective human treasures) are strong arguments against individualism and excess. The speaking weed learns that waste, caused by its own egoistic behaviour, is detrimental to all. By saving itself for the well-being of others and not squandering its own natural wealth, it experiences moral evolution.
28‘Song of the Seaweed’ supports Cook’s chartist message that there are economic models—even those grounded in exchanges—that do not threaten lives and identities. The following section of this essay analyses poems that preserve the dignity of things and of those who produce and make use of them. Cook’s poems explore new forms of exchange and, by doing so, the possibility of a fairer society.
29Elaine Freedgood, whose study provides a significant list of Victorian it-narratives, notes that the objects represented in these tales are comparable with all sorts of impoverished individuals or groups: ‘The commonplace objects that spin their tales hold much in common with the dispossessed—with slaves, many women and children, most of the working class, the colonized, and other oppressed or marginalized people of Victorian Britain and its empire—who cannot make themselves heard inside the world of their stories’ (Freedgood 84). Cook’s objective is certainly not diametrically opposed to the aims identified in dozens of such narratives. Yet, she prefers to show that there is no poverty anymore once objects start circulating among members of the community, making the latter rich with knowledge and experience—very much unlike the narrators of eighteenth-century it-narratives that have very little agency and wisdom.
- 19 See Igor Kopytoff, ‘The Cultural Biography of Things’ in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in (...)
30Cook’s fascination for things is not so different from the interest of today’s ethnologists who scrutinise the whole life of artefacts from past production to present display in museums and who believe that they also have a real social life. Her biographies of things can be read against the backdrop of social anthropology. For Arjun Appadurai in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (1986), commodities are subject to ex/change according to the value attributed by their human handlers and by their cultural situation. According to him, things are always things-in-motion, ‘in a certain situation’ within a specific human and social context; their use as commodities is only ‘one phase in the life of some things’ (Appadurai 17). That is why objects must be analysed from production, through exchanges to consumption, because each phase of their lives reveals a new aspect and constructs different kinds of social relationships. He believes that it is necessary to consider things in a kind of fetishistic way, as if the object were endowed with supernatural powers, in order to understand social bonds. Indeed, even if things are devoid of intentions, they play an active social role (Appadurai 5). Value emerges from exchanges, or ‘trajectories’, not only from use-value: ‘Value is embodied in commodities that are exchanged. Focusing on the things that are exchanged, rather than simply on the forms of functions of exchange, makes it possible to argue that what creates the link between exchange and value is politics . . . . This argument justifies the conceit that commodities, like persons, have social lives’ (Appadurai 4). Igor Kopytoff, from whom the reference to ‘biography of things’ was borrowed in this study, complements Appadurai’s thesis. For him, a commodity is only one phase in the full life of the thing. It can be singularised, therefore lose its nature of commodity, becoming sacralised and sometimes recommoditised according to the type of exchange it is concerned with.19 For Appadurai, Kopytoff and Cook, any thing, however negligible it may be, can reveal its active social potential.
31In the four poems under scrutiny, Cook explores new types of exchange that increase the value of her objects. She portrays how these things were acquired, how they passed from hand to hand, how they constructed identities because they were used in a specific way, and even sometimes in a counter-cultural manner. Excluded from monetary exchanges but given a social life because they have belonged to the family for generations or have been shared by all the members of the community, they are not true commodities any more. Cook’s approach to things is clearly fetishistic to use Appadurai’s term: things are turned into tokens of stronger and healthier social bonds. Their value is connected with and constructs people’s lives.
32Cook’s objects lead a whole life, but unlike humans, they do not literally die and can either be recycled or transferred as heirloom, therefore having other social lives. Anthropological studies have showed that things acquire a biography and a life ‘similar to persons’ precisely because ‘they pass between people’ (Joy 544). That’s what Cook means when she insists on all the moments in the lives of the objects from procurement, production or exchange, to maintenance, recycling or re-use. She enhances the moments of exchange that construct or strengthen the relationships with the members of the family or the community.
33‘The Grandfather’s Stick’ illustrates Cook’s singularisation and subsequent fetishisation of the stick, born and used within the community:
There were sticks in abundance, from bamboo to oak,
But all eyes and all hands singled that from the rest;
For business or fun that old staff was the one,
For all times and all purposes that was the best. (230; ll. 29–32)
34She questions the validity of private ownership as the stick appears to be no one’s property: ‘It was all very just—he [the grand-father] might call it his own, / But every one else seemed to claim it as well’ (230; ll. 7–8). As it is made of ash, a strong but elastic wood, it is suitable for all sorts of missions. It is meant for defence or protection against all kinds of danger, but it is also passed on from generation to generation and handed to anyone in need. Contrary to the hempseed that is useful at work, the stick is a circulating object in various simple situations. It certainly supports the weight of the old man, but it is also used as a hobby horse for kids and even as a lucky charm. With it, villagers can drive the sows out of the gardens, beat the carpets, shake fruits off trees and make their way through brambles, briers and nettles. At the time of the old man’s death, the stick is turned into a secular ‘relic’ (231; l. 72), not to be revered with religious devotion, but to stand for common good. It is eventually transmitted to the old man’s prodigal son who squanders his inheritance but preserves the stick as the only valuable object, though devoid of economic worth:
He parted from all, from his land and his gold,
But, with wealth or without, it was all one to Dick;
The same merry laugh lit his face when he told
That he’s nothing more left save his grandfather’s stick. (232; ll. 81–84)
35Its mission is to act as a physical and symbolical link between generations or individuals. As the old stick is never discarded or replaced by a more efficient, modern or pleasing one, and only merely customised by each handler, it incarnates the strength of social bonds in a healthy community that believes in the symbolic and the use values of objects.
36In ‘The Old Farm Gate’ (published first in the Weekly Dispatch on April 21, 1839), the object does not circulate, but is the meeting point of the community members and contributes to social mixing. Cook describes the effects contemporary bourgeois forms of production and consumption may have on lives. Indeed, the old gate that maintained the social balance of the community is replaced by a more modern one, in keeping with the style of bourgeois decoration that is becoming fashionable in private estates: ‘With its glittering latch and its trellis of white’ (51; l. 4). Technical progress is not synonymous with social improvement as the gate, once serving as a crossing point, is now called ‘a barrier’ (51; l. 3) that separates individuals. The old gate was a landmark in the lives of the villagers, used for all sorts of activities, particularly those that bridged the gender and age gaps. It turned into a plaything for kids, a place for romance or for sharing gossip or news about the nation; when slammed, it made a noise clearly identified by the whole community. Substituting standardised means of production and modern materials has detrimental effects on social life and on the poet’s state of mind. While Cook considers the new gate as the sign of ‘fashion and form of a modernized date’ (52; l. 7), she denounces the rising consumer society that destabilises the peacefulness of traditional communities. It is only when items are produced in a traditional way—or when primary commodities remain unprocessed—that objects keep their identity and their dignity.
- 20 Cook’s armchair is very different from the settees and beds regularly eroticised in eighteenth-cent (...)
37As Cook describes objects passed on in the community, she also questions the validity of the legacy, a highly unequal process as privileges and capital are transferred from one generation to the next and maintain social inequalities. In other words, she only values the sentimental and symbolical transmission as a way to safeguard the integrity of the community. In ‘The Old Arm-Chair’ (published first in Weekly Dispatch in May 1837 and reprinted in Eliza Cook’s Journal in November 1850), Cook’s best-known and most often anthologised poem, she tells how the armchair that belonged to her mother was bequeathed to her daughter, the poet, when her mother died. Cook does away with the description of the armchair, giving no information about its colour, its material, its shape or its state. It is as if the armchair had always been old and had been transmitted from generation to generation only to maintain the family link alive. Cook insists on its didactic value as it was the place where the daughter was educated into Christian and humanistic values by her mother.20
38The history of the armchair is a pretext for writing about the mother/child relationship. It is transformed into a sort of transitional object that supports Cook’s remembrance and mourning processes. Indeed Cook depicts it as a kind of shrine, therefore endowing it with a spiritual and magical value:
I’ve treasured it long as a sainted prize;
I’ve bedewed it with tears, and embalmed it with sighs.
’Tis bound by a thousand bands to my heart.
Not a tie will break, not a link will start.
Would you learn the spell?—a mother sat there;
And a sacred thing is that old Arm-chair. (31; ll. 3–8)
39The religious metaphors illustrate Cook’s fetishistic relation with the armchair. When she singularises this item by turning it into a relic or a memorial, she makes it stand for her love that never dies, objects lasting longer than people in Cook’s line of thought. For her, transmitting family values is more meaningful than bequeathing a material heirloom.
40Finally ‘My Old Straw Hat’, published in the Northern Star on November 9, 1844 and the New Monthly Magazine also in 1844, describes the poet’s thoughts and feelings when she had to part with her old companion. Instead of simply discarding the worn-out hat, she writes an elegy to her ‘old friend’ (314; l. 1) in which she recalls all the merry moments they shared, as the hat contributed to the poet’s sense of happiness and freedom:
The cap of Liberty, forsooth!
Thou art the thing to me in truth,
For slavish fashion ne’er can break
Into the green paths where I take
My old straw hat. (316; ll. 45–49)
41She feels empowered by her ‘Minerva’s Helmet’ (315; l. 37), a very different type from that on rich ladies’ heads ‘that bear / The jewell’d clasp and plumage rare’ (315; ll. 33–34). It allows the poet to enjoy all sorts of outdoor activities. Eventually, when the poet takes leave of her hat, ‘Farewell, old friend, thy work is done’ (316; l. 61), she only means that she is putting her hat away at the end of summer. They will meet again in the following spring for further adventures, as real friends never drift apart. The old hat’s legacy also lives on in another way through the response of an anonymous contributor to the Northern Star. It was a frequent practice to use the literary space of the poet’s corner in weekly magazines to exchange views with other contributors. Here, the poem ‘The Old Straw Hat’s “Address to its Owner”’ published six months later (May 24, 1845) corresponds to the alleged response of the hat itself. It even quotes some of Cook’s passages from the earlier version. Winter has gone by, spring has returned, and time has come to don again the old hat eaten by moth and mildew. The hat acknowledges it is only an old hat, unable to adapt to the modern world, but it promises it will always protect its owner, as it owes her its very life:
O, what a bitter lot was mine
Had Fate not spun my thread with thine?
I ne’er had been immortalised
But kicked about—by all despised. (ll. 46–49)
42The hat proves its true friendship in return, being as long lived, though in a poor condition, as the straw hat industry in Dunstable:
Whilst Dunstable shall famous be,
For making hats of straw like me,
Whilst of my crown there stands one platt,
I’m ever thine, the OLD STRAW HAT. (ll. 58–61)
43The durability of the hat and the unbroken circle of voices are signs of the sustainability of friendship, the most valuable virtue for Cook and her like-minded correspondents.
44Things cannot be considered as mere belongings once they influence the lives of the community members as social actors, once they control their own discourse and identity and once they become autonomous individuals deserving respect and recognition. Cook defamiliarises and politicises everyday objects, by endowing them with a voice, a conscience, an identity and eventually a whole life. Therefore, they can never be reduced to the state of mere commodities, as they become singularised objects. Furthermore Cook’s things disrupt the general production and consumption cycles as they serve to enhance the lives of those who have always been excluded from the consumption of certain commodities.
45As Appadurai suggests, objects may modify social bonds in a very unique way, when they create stronger links and stimulate consumer awareness about the true value of things. For Sanders, there is ‘a strong sense of an inverted moral, political, and economic order [in Chartist poems. … They] are frequently organized formally around reversals whether implicit or enacted’ (‘Poetic Agency’, 128). Cook’s poems perfectly bear out and combine these views when they empower those who speak from the margins of society. They explore the democratic nature of things; they enable things to play a social, cultural and political role; and eventually they help reverse roles and statuses. Cook’s critique of production, consumption and waste also anticipates modern political ecology, although it is as a Chartist and from a social perspective that she pinpoints future environmental issues.
- 21 This study has left unexplored Cook’s numerous biographies of animals; it may be time to dig into t (...)
46Even if objects give value to the least visible members of society, they never try to do so by deceiving readers, as the poet does not redefine their uses in some unusual manner. For example, the straw hat never becomes a piece of decoration or a flowerpot. When objects are used in an unconventional way, it is only temporarily and for the sake of the community, as the stick becomes a toy for local kids. Indeed objects always keep their identity, that is to say the purpose for which they were created. Cook declines to alter or enhance their status. Her objects always reveal their noble nature and have a constant value in the hands of those who share common knowledge and culture. Like other Chartist women contributing social poems, she chooses to speak from the perspective of her local environment; yet unlike those who sanctuarise and feminise the hearth, Cook selects simple objects that she repoliticises by recasting them as social actors.21