EXQUISITE MATERIALS: EPISODES IN THE QUEER HISTORY OF VICTORIAN STYLE by Abigail Joseph, Reviewed by Yvonne Ivory
 


EXQUISITE MATERIALS: EPISODES IN THE QUEER HISTORY OF VICTORIAN STYLE
By Abigail Joseph
(Virginia, 2019) xiv + 308 pp.
Reviewed by Yvonne Ivory on 2020-12-28.

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Abigail Joseph here delivers two books for the price of one. The first is a series of case studies that gets to grips with the simultaneous--and even mutually constitutive--emergence of haute couture and the figure of the homosexual in the late nineteenth century; the second compellingly reads the content, form, and material fate of Oscar Wilde's letters during the last five years of his life. Structurally, too, the work falls into two distinct parts. The introduction and the first three chapters average about forty pages each, and the fourth chapter--broken into an introduction and three parts--runs to seventy-five. The Wilde part occupies just the final chapter, but it's quite a finale. With its rich, dense footnotes and engaging, informed readings of De Profundis, The Importance of Being Earnest, and The Critic as Artist, it could have stood alone as the core of a monograph on the queer materiality of Wilde's final years. Though this may be the main weakness of Joseph's study, it also forces her to re-articulate regularly the arguments that unite her disparate chapters, a strategy that succeeds insofar as it re-orients the reader throughout the work.

Joseph contends that by studying "the relationship between queerness and material objects" (102) and by recognizing that material objects can be "vectors of desire" (199), we can expand the notoriously ephemeral queer archive and thus find traces of affective histories long thought lost. While she highlights "materials" in the sense of textiles--dresses, bustles, bunched skirts, frills, ruffles, trimmings, theatrical costumes, suits, and even straw boaters--Joseph's "exquisite materials" also include accessories, furniture, books, décor, and bibelots as well as published descriptions of all these things. In her Wilde chapter, physical letters take center stage. We need to take the materiality of letters seriously, she argues here; they are "at once more vulnerable and somehow wilier than published texts," so that what they say and the "very paper on which they say it" speak volumes, potentially capturing otherwise transient "histories of feeling" (172).

While Joseph accentuates what objects mean to the queer individuals who create or consume them, she also calibrates the impact they have on third parties who read or hear about them in a queer context. For this reason, public scandal is another thread that stiches together all four of her chapters. Her study opens with the Boulton and Park scandal of 1870-71, epitomized by the photograph displayed on the cover of her book and also shown below, with Frederick Park (right) as Fanny and Ernest Boulton as Stella.

Though well covered by historians of Victorian sexuality such as William Cohen (Sex Scandal, 1996) and Morris Kaplan (Sodom on the Thames, 2005), the Boulton and Park scandal has not previously been linked to the role played by fashion in the investigation, trial, and newspaper coverage of events. At a time when the crinoline (decorous, roundly balanced) was giving way to the bustle and train (revealing at the front, excessive at the rear), the very fashionableness of the dresses worn by Boulton and Park when posing as Fanny and Stella was used as evidence against them, in the courts of both law and public opinion. The "sodomite's bustle," Joseph concludes "... divulges, or arouses, anal eroticism," and "its queer materiality ... bespeaks the 'unspeakable'" (77).

The second chapter treats another cross-dressing scandal that is more obscure than the Boulton and Park affair but still deserves to be more than a footnote to it. In 1882 a woman named Jane Furneaux was arrested for impersonating Lord Arthur Clinton, an aristocrat disgraced for having lived with Boulton and Park in a ménage à trois. By exploiting a rumor that Clinton had not in fact died in 1870 but was living under an assumed name, Furneaux convinced a number of people that she was Clinton, lying low and living as a woman while waiting for "his" name to be cleared. Tried for fraudulently taking money from ardent supporters, she eventually pleaded guilty to the charge. According to Joseph, her impersonation of Lord Arthur succeeded not just because she assumed his dress and pose but because she replicated his "notorious profligacy, fashionability, and ... attraction to glamorous objects" (99). Furneaux, we are told, "continually redecorated her home" and "collected fancy objects" (99), "eccentric possessions" (102) that fascinated reporters when they were auctioned off to appease her creditors. "[L]ike the prosecutorial display of Fanny and Stella's dresses," notes Joseph, the public spectacle of the auction of Furneaux's curios "gives us a kind of live-action, high-stakes view into the relationship between queerness and material objects" (102). For Joseph, the Furneaux case also shows how scandal allowed stories about queer practices to circulate and generate even more queer practices. "[S]candal can," she writes, "in its immediate afterlife, be deployed as a kind of toolbox for the shaping of selves," and in Furneaux's case she finds "queer cultural transmission at work, operating through the circulation of Victorian news media" (81).

Scandal is not quite the right word for the media coverage of the central figure in Joseph's third case study, the "man-milliner" Charles Worth of Paris (below right). A trailblazer at the very inception of haute couture, Worth was "an apparently heterosexual" (119) Englishman whose French dress-making nevertheless generated anxious columns in English periodicals. The prevailing "suspicious view of the man-milliner's interaction with feminine materials," Joseph writes, led to intimations about his "gender and class transgressions" (120); he was skewered in such publications as Charles Dickens's All the Year Round. According to Joseph, Worth's supposed "violation ... of regimens of taste and comportment" stemmed from "the material lavishness of [his] products" as well as "the performative qualities of his self-presentation" (116). Consequently, Joseph argues that Worth's use of exquisite materials at both his fashion house and his opulent country retreat made him--in the eyes of British reporters--just as transgressive as Boulton, Park, and Furneaux. By including Worth in this study, Joseph sees herself as "[resurrecting] a busy cultural conversation" that provides us with "a new body of evidence for thinking about queer history, the history of fashion, and nineteenth-century culture more broadly" (116).

Finally, the Wilde chapter presumes, correctly, that the reader knows about his 1895 scandal, its newspaper coverage, and its afterlife as a touchstone for the queer generations that followed. Rather than revisiting the rupture caused by the affair itself, Joseph foregrounds the links between Wilde's literary work of the early 1890s and his letters of the entire decade. The things admired and collected by characters such as Dorian Gray and Algernon Moncrieff, Joseph shows, resemble what Wilde writes in his love letters about Bosie's poses and gestures, what he writes in De Profundis about Bosie's excesses of consumption, and what Wilde's late letters to his close friends reveal about his serial obsessions with "not only boys but also cities, artworks, landscapes and flowers, rituals, artifacts both sacred and profane" (228). In taking her title, Exquisite Materials, from a line in Wilde's "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." (1889), Joseph sharpens the point that for Wilde, "material" was always the "source of artistic inspiration" (218); after his disgrace, Joseph writes, things and descriptions of things allowed him to "[exist] vitally in the fugitive present" (229).

A project like this one on the power of material culture might easily fall into the trap of "positivist historicism," a mode of exhaustive description that eschews theory and fetishizes "the accumulation of information," as criticized in the first thesis of the manifesto of the V21 Collective. But Joseph deploys a range of theoretical tools on the material she is (also) mapping in careful detail. Citing José Esteban Muñoz (Cruising Utopia, 2009) on what constitutes a queer archive, she notes that it might include conventionally "unreliable" evidence such as anecdotes, rumors, or gestures (116, 211-12, 215); she carefully explains how her study complements the work done by Bill Brown and others on objects, things, and "thingness" (11-12, 24, 219-20); and she deftly applies recent queer theory--especially work on queer affect and queer temporalities (21-22, 29-30, 110-12, 173).

Her own theoretical positions are sometimes slightly awkward. I am not convinced, for instance, that a foray into psychoanalytical object-relations strengthens her arguments about De Profundis (187-88). But when she argues for the potential productivity of queer negativity or queer refusal (29-30, 200-201, 234), her theories illuminate the entire study. Supported by such works as Heather Love's Feeling Backward (2007) and Jack Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure (2011), Joseph makes us recognize the aesthetic productivity of Wilde's "bad romance" with Lord Alfred Douglas (201), and, in retrospect, makes us reassess all of the failures, disappointments, and scandals presented in previous chapters. Neither historicist nor anti-historicist, then, Joseph rightly asserts that her "critical methodology falls somewhere between these two camps," and she suggests we think of it as "archival presentism" (21, emphasis in original), a method that "insists on the material reality and significance of the details of the past" and yet is motivated by Carolyn Dinshaw's notion of the "touch across time," and "embraces links between past and present ... with little regard for chronology or causality" (21). "Historicism, 'unhistoricism,' thing theory, and queer theory have their different, sometimes conflicting, methodologies and aims," writes Joseph, "but they have all enhanced our critical capacities to reach back in time" (31).

Joseph's index has one lacuna. Though it guides readers to the numerous aspects of queer theory, history, and experience that she considers (queer aesthetics, queer affects, queer spaces, and so on), it omits one key recurring facet of her analysis: queer attention. Building on the work of Muñoz and Wayne Koestenbaum, Joseph's introduction designates queer attention as the force "by which a banal object can become a precious 'thing'" (11). It is this "inflamed responsiveness to the objects of the material world," she contends, that helps form "queer psychic and social lives, throughout the Victorian period and beyond" (12). Wilde's "sympathy with the very soul of things," she writes, rearticulates precisely this kind of "tender, attentive relationship to material objects" (18, emphasis in original). She later explores how the theoretical writings of Elaine Freedgood and Eve Sedgwick support this contention (50). But in her final chapter, where she turns her/our attention to the physicality of Wilde's late letters, she provides her own object lesson in "how objects can attract queer attention and how, conversely, that attention can transform objects" (249). Joseph's attention to Wilde's letters transforms them for us. More than anything, queer attention is the glue that binds the discrete sections of her study together.

In her recent review of Dustin Friedman's groundbreaking Before Queer Theory: Victorian Aestheticism and the Self (2019), Joseph lauds Friedman's attempt to show precisely "how queers have been able to deploy the intellectual and aesthetic resources that their cultures offer, finding creative ways to survive and thrive in the world even as they also imagine a better one." With her own contribution to this project, Joseph further explains how things (and popular writing about things) spur queer creativity and offer models by which some queers survived and thrived in the Victorian world.

Yvonne Ivory is Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.


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