Monday, December 31, 2007

Judith Flanders - Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (2006)

I'm an absolute sucker for well-written books of Victorian cultural and social history, and Flanders' CP fits that bill exactly. Flanders has written two other books on the Victorian period which I haven't had the pleasure to read. However, this one, on a subject which I haven't seen explored at any more than chapter-length in most popular books I've read on Victorian history, was really fascinating, giving both an excellent social history of the explosion of leisure among the working classes, and of mass consumption and the technologies which drove it; and, though treating little with personal narrative, an excellent sense of the concrete, day-to-day realities of Victorian life across the classes.

In terms of subject matter, CP deals with the Great Exhibition, the development of the shop (from retail to department) and advertising, the modern newspaper along with serialised and commercial fiction, travel (especially by road and train), holidays and tourism, theatre and spectacle, music, art (especially the development of the artist from a figure of patronisation to a commercial individual, as well as public museums and galleries), sport, and Christmas. Personally, I would've liked to see a chapter on the commercialism of sex and sexuality (surely the ultimate activity involving 'leisure and pleasure'), as well as on drinking and recreational drugs (and all of these, a two-faced attitude to sexuality, a change in the nature of the 'corner pub' and the substances consumed, or the rise and cultural role of 'opium dens', or example, would be fascinating); but and of these would perhaps be another work, and these topics are already covered, to greater or lesser degree, in other works on the era - besides which, at 500-odd pages, CP is already a fairly significant brick.

As well as tracing the grand outlines (the changes brought to peoples' lives in terms of psychologicality, temporality and geography by the new availability of consumer goods, travel and entertainment, and the struggle, mostly class-based, of what forms these new pleasures were to take and who would be included and excluded), Flanders' work is a wealth of fascinating incidental asides on the less-considered aspects of Victorian life (it was impossible, for example, for a woman to visit a bathroom outside her home until the development of the tea shop and the department store, thereby leading to a considerable increase in her outside-the-home purchasing hours; traditional Christmas plum pudding developed from an earlier standard Christmas-porridge, beef broth thickened with bread, dried fruit, wine and spices, beloved in England but 'a dish few foreigners find to their taste'; or the legal necessity for 'low' or popular theatres, forbidden to perform serious works, to produce Shakespeare in tableaux featuring signs in order to get around the rule against spoken performances of 'high'[er] art). But the book is also excellent at tracing the unexpected synchronicities of technology and discourse, and the non-directed developments, of the period which lead to its classic manifestations; for example, the combination of new technologies developed entirely separately in metalwork and in rubber, a good road system covering a relatively small area, a view of lower-middle class men in office jobs as effeminate indoors weaklings, led to a huge boom in the production and use of the bicycle (first mooted in the late 1860s) among the general population.

The Victorian period is usually understood, with justification, as the beginning of the contemporary period as we understand it. In reading Flanders' book, the embryonic outlines of many of today's practices are quite clear (sometimes even near-fully-formed) and the way in which our primary identities, as self-constructed consumers and possessors of individual and shaped personalities, as well as our mentality of constant growth and 'improvement', can be seen, without explicit links being drawn by Flanders herself. The way in which it traces the connection between leisure, consumption and identity, without specifically addressing itself to this subject as an academic topic in itself, is one of the work's great strengths. However, without specifically laying it out (and particularly in the areas where we venture into the eighteenth century in search of the roots of the nineteenth and the historical context in which these changes were occurring), it also gives some truth to the argument, laid out in other writers' work on the period, that the classic schematic separation between pre- or proto-modernity, and contemporary modernity as we know it, took place halfway through what we consider 'the Victorian period' - and we can understand the period better in this light.

Overall, I'd second A. N. Wilson's description of CP: 'as packed with goodies as a rich Victorian Dundee cake'. To be put on the shelf along with works like Wilson's own The Victorians or Liza Picard's Victorian London to return and be dipped into to at leisure (and, of course, at pleasure).

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