CFP: [Victorian] NEMLA - Domestic Objects in the Victorian Novel

full name / name of organization: 
Leslie Graff
contact email: 

Northeast Modern Language Association Conference
Buffalo, NY
April 10-13, 2008

More Than Decoration: Domestic Objects in the Victorian Novel

John Ruskin once remarked, “Taste is not only a part and index of
morality, it is the only morality. The first, and last, and closest trial
question to any living creature is ‘What do you like?’ Tell me what you
like, I’ll tell you what you are.” This assumed link between one’s taste
and one’s identity is commonly employed in the nineteenth century novel as
descriptive passages of domestic settings purport to provide material
illustrations of characters’ inner lives. Beyond demonstrating class
status, material objects are presumed to also serve as manifestations of
moral and intellectual identity. Dickens’ depiction of the dirty and
disheveled Jellyby home, for example, stands as an unmistakable testament
to Mrs. Jellyby’s failures as a homemaker, mother and woman.

This panel will address the materiality of the home as presented in the
Victorian novel to explore the relationship between domestic space and
character development. I am interested in papers which contest the
assumptions behind Ruskin’s position on the inherent link between taste
and identity as well as those which give subtlety to our understanding of
how identity is exemplified or created through a preference for particular
material goods which are chosen for the home. Specifically, how are homes
and the goods therein extensions of the self, be that a “real” or “ideal”
self? How are material objects employed to give readers evidence of
immaterial qualities of identity? How and why do novelists such as
Dickens rely on the trope that “good” characters have “nice” homes and
vice versa? Is it always true that “nice” homes emerge out of characters’
goodness and distasteful residences betray their owners’ immorality, or
are homes artificially created spaces that can be manipulated through
material consumption?

While much of the current interest in materiality in Victorian studies
addresses the object in arenas of the public sphere such as the
marketplace or museum, this panel will look at those “things” which
populate the most intimate and sacred of spaces in the Victorian
imagination, the home. I seek to develop our understanding of the
motivations for and methods of decorating the Victorian home, both
physical domiciles and literary structures. How did the rise in both the
variety of domestic goods available and access to those commodities affect
the way Victorian consumers and novelists imagined domestic spaces? If
home is where the heart is, how is the heart of a character put on display
in the process of filling personal space? This panel seeks interrogations
of all domestic spaces, be they conventional family homes or unexpected
residences, areas established for public consumption such as parlors and
dining halls or private chambers closed to all but the readers’ eyes,
finest family seats of the fashionable elite or humble, makeshift hovels
of the lowliest of citizens.

Please send 250-word abstracts via email to Leslie Graff at by October 10, 2007.

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Received on Sun Aug 26 2007 - 08:46:31 EDT