When Things Are in the Saddle

Nov 19 2006
The Boston Globe
Katharine Powers

“After I read this wonderful book, Charles Dickens’s surreal anthropomorphizing of material things, especially houses and domestic accoutrements, and his reification of their owners began to look like straightforward reporting. “
http://www.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2006/11/19/when_things_are_in_th...

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Concentrating chiefly on the years from 1830 to 1930, Cohen traces the growing British middle class’s changing attitude toward household possessions and material display, and shows how its members defined themselves through consumption.  The first half of the 19th century was dominated by an evangelical temper antithetical to worldly gratification and ostentation, but a substantial increase in the wealth and size of the middle class in the second half brought a concomitant imperative to spend as a means of asserting and displaying one’s social position.  Still, as Cohen points out, though the ideal of austerity no longer prevailed, the sense of morality endured and even intensified, attaching itself to material things.  The notion that one could be morally and spiritually improved – or the reverse – by one’s domestic surroundings, by furnishing and decoration, gained currency.  For a time the home took on a quasi-religious aura.  In one manifestation of this, church furniture became popular – and then, as with all fashion, denounced, with one advice manual warning the reader to be careful “or he will have a church corona over his dining-table and an ecclesiastical scuttle for the reception of his secular coal.” 

Ideals for salutary home decoration burgeoned, competed with, and succeeded one another.  The desirability of creating a moral domestic environment, variously expressed, gave way to the priority of artistic exaltation, and from there to favoring the expression of personality.  The passion for modernity and for antiques both arrived in their turn, setting up camp in the home.  Throughout, however, we see the strengthening of the bond between people and their homes and possessions, a bond that is tantamount to identity.  After I read this wonderful book, Charles Dickens’s surreal anthropomorphizing of material things, especially houses and domestic accoutrements, and his reification of their owners began to look like straightforward reporting.