Material Relations: Domestic Interiors and Middle-Class Families in England, 1850-1910

March 17, 2011

Good theses do not necessarily make good books - particularly, perhaps, when the final product has been 10 years or so in the making. And Material Relations, it must be said, almost certainly betrays something of its origins in its 48 pages of footnotes, its 30-page bibliography, its constant references to the literature and its meticulous recapitulation of its arguments at the end of each chapter.

This, however, is a lively, interesting and important book. Taking as her starting point the proposition that "The domestic spaces that people create and the objects they choose for them can both reflect and shape their identity, emotions and relationships", Jane Hamlett sets out to explore the thoughts and feelings of the Victorian and Edwardian middle class by examining the homes in which they lived.

It proves a stimulating and successful assignment. Peering into nurseries and schoolrooms, peeping into drawing rooms and dressing rooms, poking about in servants' quarters and even university halls of residence, she uncovers a mass of illuminating - and sometimes affecting - oral, visual and written material. Charles Reilly, an architect's son, recalls that his Victorian childhood was "rather in the hotel at Brighton in which I am now spending my days. We knew one another, but not intimately...As in the hotel, the management and servants were more important to us than the fellow-guests."

Unwilling, quite rightly, to let such testimony speak for itself, Hamlett uses the material she has collected to challenge a number of commonly held beliefs about the late 19th- and early 20th-century middle class. She confirms that this was a group that, like the working class, was neither as clearly defined nor as tightly united as historians once supposed. It was difficult, it goes almost without saying, for those living in small houses on modest incomes to segregate their rooms and maintain their privacy as the prevailing etiquette demanded.

In fact, Hamlett suggests, it is easy to exaggerate the Victorian and Edwardian desire for privacy. The formal segregation of space, so often observed in middle-class homes, can be misleading. The dining room, although commonly decorated in "masculine" style, could serve a number of functions. She cites the case of Cornikeraium, a four-bedroom house in Southampton: its dining room, when it was inventoried in 1907 and 1908, contained not just a dining room suite but also, inter alia, "lady and gent's easy chairs", "a smoker's companion", books, dominoes, a cribbage board, pliers and two pairs of nail scissors.

The author is also at pains to modify the view that late 19th-century men participated in what has been dubbed a "flight from domesticity". She finds rather that when young men left the family home, they surrounded themselves with items that were as likely to celebrate home as to reject it. Even in the "abrasive environment" of the single-sex public school, they managed to install favourite objects from home, sometimes recreating the feminine domesticity of the parlour and drawing room. "If anyone here was in flight from domesticity," Hamlett concludes, "it was perhaps the rebellious girl students who decked their rooms with tokens of the hunt."

Material Relations is a fine achievement. Engagingly written, attractively produced and generously illustrated, it has emerged from its long gestation very different from many PhD theses. It is all the better for that.

Material Relations: Domestic Interiors and Middle-Class Families in England, 1850-1910

By Jane Hamlett. Manchester University Press. 288pp, £60.00. ISBN 9780719078637. Published 1 November 2010

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