ow and then along comes a book that really opens the lid on the astonishing diversity and energy of the Victorian period. It might be something out of the way, like Ruth Cowen's new biography of Alexis Soyer, our first celebrity chef (Relish, 2006); or something apparently quite "standard," like Lionel Lambourne's wonderfully wide-ranging Victorian Painting (1999). But whatever it is, the smoggy skies of the nineteenth-century are suddenly lit up by dazzling displays of individual genius. The focus in Consuming Passions is on the growth of consumerism, with the author, Judith Flanders, often delving into the eighteenth-century background to demonstrate her thesis — the democratisation of the marketplace, not just for goods, but for all sorts of leisure pursuits. An unlikely subject, perhaps, for such illuminations. Yet here they are, aplenty.
The Great Exhibition Opens, Pewter Figurine. [Click on Thumbail for larger image.]
With her own instinct for drama, Flanders starts with Prince Albert on the dais at the Crystal Palace, at the opening of the Great Exhibition. At once the epitome and showcase of the age, the Great Exhibition overflowed with marvels. The grand ones are well known — "mechanical inventions" like railway locomotives, or major trends and ideologies in the arts, like Pugin's fabulous Medieval Court. But Flanders is more concerned with gadgetry and curiosities, such as the sportsman's knife with eighty-five blades (with etchings of Crystal Palace on them — a cutting edge "multi-view postcard"?) and a reversible jacket for morning and evening wear. Such apparently trivial items were evidence of a major economic and sociological development: the shift towards mass-consumption. It is touching to read of the surprise and relief that greeted the well-behaved crowds who flocked in as "shilling admissions." These day-trippers, coming to gawk but taking home with them a desire to possess or take advantage of what they had seen, were to be the pickers, choosers and users of a vast new range of commodities. The title of Chapter 1 is perfect: "From Arcadia to Arcade."
For all its, well, showiness, the Great Exhibition was just one factor in this development. The railways were vital to the transporting of both people and goods, and feature prominently here. Then there were those other disseminators, the newspapers and magazines with their advertisements. Fortunes could be made through these: consider the case of Thomas Holloway (not mentioned by Flanders) who invested heavily in advertising his patent medicines and became one of the wealthiest men in the country. Royal Holloway College, London, was built on this fortune. Cometh the time, cometh the man — or, rather, men. For a whole host of such entrepreneurs now burst on the scene, from shop proprietors like Arthur Liberty to the travel agent Thomas Cook, to impresarios like Albert Smith, less remembered now for the exotic extravaganzas described by Flanders, than for his working friendship with Dickens (for example, his adaptation of The Cricket on the Hearth, and his promotion of Dickens's dramatic readings). All these and many more crowd the pages of Flanders's book, combining to produce new ways for people of all classes to spend both time and money.
The process of democratisation quickly gathered pace, bringing a much greater cross-section of society into the market. London was the big winner, of course, but other parts of the country were close behind. The industrial north, for instance, not only sprouted new shopping areas, like Grey Street in Newcastle, and theatres and music halls for the local population, but suddenly found that its factories, coal-pits, canal locks and so on could be placed on a sightseeing trail. One "gentleman's daughter" put "poor children winding silk" on her itinerary (260; that such a sight was deemed picturesque goes a long way to explaining why factory reform took time). But even the factory workers had their day, or indeed their week. The seaside was now accessible to all. Again, it was touching to see that when Rowland Hill, the inventor of the Penny Post (himself an exacting boss) became chairman of the Brighton-to-London railway line, he insisted on lowering the fares to allow the working classes to use it. Elsewhere, new resorts like Bournemouth (a mere hamlet in 1812, a town with a population of nearly 17,000 by 1880) grew up entirely on the back of this new market. And again, it wasn't only in the south. Whitley Bay in Northumberland would have been another good example for Flanders, expanding from almost nothing to a thriving holiday spot once the railway arrived — enabling the Scots to come down in August when the Scottish factories closed.
Sandown Park. (1875) [Click on Thumbail for larger image.]
But, with a "Select Bibliography" running to almost fifty pages, Flanders has more than enough material to deal with already. Her chapters on the music and art markets are fascinating, and aptly illustrated. However, many will be particularly drawn to the penultimate chapter, "Sporting Life," with its history of racing, football and cycling. The eighteenth-century origins of both racing and football are examined in some depth, perhaps more than is strictly necessary — though the history of racing, of course, beautifully illustrates the running battle between (as Flanders puts it) "exclusivity" and "access" (229). As usual, "access" won, but in this case at a particular cost — the enclosure of very large areas of common land. And as spectator sports became big business, with money pouring in not only at the gates but also through betting, drinking and other spin-offs, it became increasingly clear that the lines between democratisation and exploitation, and commercialisation and debasement, were very narrow indeed.
The last chapter itself, subtitled "A Christmas Coda," inevitably raises the same issues. In this case, the commercialisation had more widespread benefits. From the distinguished artist whose work appeared on the new Christmas cards, to the humblest hawker of mistletoe and holly, few could afford to ignore the business opportunities of this new holiday season. Yet occasionally we are reminded of a whole world where less benefits accrued: where did the exotic "foreign nuts" mentioned by Charles Manby Smith come from (488)? How much did the increased confectionery sales benefit the sugar plantations in the West Indies, mentioned in an early chapter on eighteenth-century shops, but now in decline? And wasn't some of our sugar now provided by slave labour in Cuba?
Flanders declares in her Preface that she has "chosen to look not at the contents of the world of leisure, but at the containers" (xvii), yet the contents jump out at us all the same, along with the galaxy of entrepreneurs and impresarios who promoted them. All this is a valuable corrective to the gloomy view of the period still being foisted on us at school, where most children's first encounter with it is through the plight of the chimney sweep. Still, Flanders is right in a sense. She has looked into a huge range of sources, including parliamentary reports, diaries, journals and privately printed histories (such as those of the newsagent W.H. Smith, and the National Gallery), and succeeded admirably and entertainingly in her own project. But by bringing together in one book an enormous number of facts about the Victorians' "consuming passions," she has opened a Pandora's box of issues which could now, themselves, do with a fuller airing.
Flanders, Judith. Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain. London: Harper, 2006. 604 + xvii pp. £20.00. ISBN-13 978 - 0 - 00 - 717295 -5
Last modified 12 September 2004