[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. — Katherine Miller Weber]


Illuminated initial I n recent years, numerous historians and literary critics have explored the well-traveled terrain of Victorian domesticity from the vantage point of material culture. Judith Flanders's highly accessible Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England (2006) examines the middle-class home room by room, detailing the furnishings, chores, and daily occupations that filled such spaces as the drawing room, nursery, and kitchen. Informing us that dining rooms favored dark, "masculine" colors and that gas for a single jet in the parlor could cost up to twenty-five shillings a year, Flanders documents life throughout the Victorian home. In contrast, Thad Logan's ambitious The Victorian Parlour (2001) explores a single room; drawing on social and cultural history and the decorative arts, he treats the parlor as the nexus of many currents of private and public life, a space inflected by Victorian ideologies of class and social status. Victorian space has likewise caught the attention of literary critics in studies such as Monica Cohen's Professional Domesticity in the Victorian Novel (1998) and Karen Chase and Michael Levenson's The Spectacle of Intimacy (2000), both of which show how domestic spaces affect Victorian fiction and Victorian life. These analyses reflect a broadly spatial turn in literary studies, an interest in the dynamic interactions between characters and the rooms they inhabit.

Taking its place in this rich and growing body of work, Andrea Kaston Tange's book blends literary, historical, and cultural analysis as it explores a fascinating mélange of texts and artifacts, from novels, memoirs, and letters to architectural treatises and histories, paintings, engravings, architectural plans, and housekeeping manuals. Tange builds on "geographers' theories of space," and specifically on the theory that space and geography shape identity (Tange 13). Her argument involves a complex understanding of gendered space as shifting and provisional. Challenging the easy assumption that domestic interiors are feminine (à la Ruskin and Coventry Patmore) and public spaces masculine, Tange follows John Tosh in finding sites of masculine authority within the home. For Tange, the solid edifice of the Victorian middle-class home offered only the illusion of a stable locus whose orderly rooms and passageways clearly divided its inhabitants by gender and class. Actually, she contends, the house permitted complex intersections and overlappings of gendered spaces and activities.

Thus, while the drawing room often served as a "feminine" retreat and the dining room as a bastion of male prerogative (where men enjoyed after-dinner drinks and cigars as ladies retired to the drawing room), both were also collaborative spaces, allowing for some improvisation and flexibility even as they appeared to segregate the sexes. As Tange emphasizes, conventional assumptions about gender and the proper use of space often collided with pragmatic and utilitarian needs. In theory, as many housekeeping manuals asserted, a woman's province was the management of home decoration, housewifery, and cookery, leaving men to oversee "rougher," more physical tasks like plumbing and home renovation. In practice, however, couples such as Jane and Thomas Carlyle ignored this division of labor during frequent bouts of remodeling their London house: while Jane moved furnishings and superintended the workmen who tore down walls, her husband fled to the country to write. Similarly, Elizabeth Gaskell apparently understood the market value of hay and the intricacies of drains far better than her minister husband did.

The structure of Tange's book deftly reinforces her argument about space. In the first chapter, she shows how the concept of gendered domestic spaces informed both Victorian architectural treatises aimed chiefly at male readers and housekeeping manuals meant for women. Tange then offers a series of "spatially" organized chapters that each examine a specific locus within the middle class Victorian home: the drawing room, the dining room, the passageways and corridors between them, and the nursery. Moving from analysis of contemporary cultural documents and artifacts to readings of Victorian fiction, most of these chapters interweave diverse texts and material with illuminating results. At times, however, the approach can lead to redundancy, as Tange recapitulates arguments she has already made about space in literature.

The "interchapter" on the series of home renovations made by Jane and Thomas Carlyle provides a diverting interlude. In her case study of what the Carlyles' did to their house, Tange aims to chart "a spatial understanding of their relationship" through their "constant redrawing of boundaries" (115). Each architectural renovation or re-organization of the home, she shows, increased space for Thomas's work while reducing space for the use of Jane. Initially, Thomas claimed the drawing room for his study, denying Jane her conventional feminine retreat. Later, as the Carlyles began to entertain more, Jane could express her own taste by redecorating the drawing room, but in a sense it became even less her own; by day it was Thomas's study, and by night a reception room for their guests. In 1852, further renovations enlarged the drawing room by taking three feet from Jane's bedroom," another "sacrifice" of Jane's "private space" (125).

Central to Tange's argument, then, is the notion that the Victorian middle-class home is not "just a series of spaces" but rather "a dynamic location of passageways--literal throughfares from drawing room to dining room, metaphoric movements between feminine pre-eminence and manly authority, consistent efforts to create fixed identities from flexible parts" (115). While the drawing room and dining room represent, in theory, ideal polarities of feminine and masculine lived experience, they also bear witness to daily interactions between actual men and women.

The drawing room, for instance, was both feminine in its privacy and masculine in its accommodation of the public. On one hand, we learn, both housekeeping manuals and architectural treatises define it as a feminized space: "the Lady's Apartment essentially," wrote the Victorian architect Robert Kerr (The Gentleman's House, qtd. Tange 68). "The ideal drawing room," Tange writes, "much like the ideal middle-class woman, was delicate, tasteful, orderly--a location bespeaking quiet, feminine authority" (63). Supposedly reflecting an individual woman's taste and character, the drawing room also conformed to a generalized female ideal. Yet this feminine retreat--this private space to which a lady might retire during the day--could also serve as a public sphere for social gatherings, which might affect a husband's career or the amorphous spaces of public opinion and public life.

In most of her chapter on the drawing room, Tange argues that the title character in Margaret Oliphant's novel Miss Marjoribanks fashions her identity largely by means of "the domestic spaces she occupies" (79). When she sets about managing her widowed father's household, Lucilla Marjoribanks must first construct her own drawing room, a process sometimes described by Oliphant in mock-epic, militaristic terms. Lucilla can establish her own identity only by converting what Oliphant describes as the "howling wilderness of her father's drawing room" into her own spatial domain. To this end, she fills it with her own prized possessions and, after a number of initial blunders, "claim[s]" it as her own. In this feminized social space, she hosts gatherings that make her the social "queen" of Carlingford, giving her a measure of influence that allows her to affect a local election. For Tange, then, the social function of the drawing room allows women like Lucilla a measure of power as long as they operate within boundaries set by others (110).

Persuasive as it is, though, however, Tange's detailed analysis sometimes understates the dry humor of Oliphant's prose. When Lucilla hurries her cousin Tom through his marriage proposal so that she can see to the hanging of some pictures in her drawing room, Tange admits that the scene is "comical," but her interpretation of it ignores its many ironies: Lucilla's "need to insure that things are done correctly," she asserts, is sanctioned by conduct books and "attests to the cultural power accorded to a woman's judgment and taste" (93-4).

This is a small flaw, however, in a work that sheds new light on numerous Victorian novels through its subtle and telling analyses of how they represent domestic space. Particularly insightful is her exploration of Wilkie Collins's sensation novel No Name (1862). Collins's fictions are often richly architectural, with flamboyant and gothic depictions of domestic interiors. When Magdalen Vanstone, the novel's protagonist, is dispossessed of a fortune on the grounds of illegitimacy, she takes on a number of roles and disguises to win back her position. Hired as a servant by the new occupants of her old home, where she seeks to uncover documents regarding her inheritance, she is now confined to passageways and corridors outside the rooms she once entered so freely. Tracing Magdalen's peregrinations around the house, Tange shows how her social identity drives them. Magdalen not only has to spend her days in passageways and corridors; she must also creep along them stealthily rather than striding through them confidently-- with a sense of entitlement and ownership.

Appropriately, the final space that Tange considers is the nursery, where a gendered persona is tested and formed before the demands of adulthood. Tange persuasively argues that lessons and games turn children into middle-class individuals by teaching the privileges and limits of gendered identity. On one hand, the nursery lets children experiment in a relatively safe place as they try on adult identities or construct new worlds through games and stories. On the other hand, the roles they are thus prepared to play in adulthood are distinctly limited.

Painstakingly researched and persuasively argued, Tange's book seamlessly interweaves diverse sources and texts. Reconfiguring the brick-and-mortar edifice of the Victorian home as a fluid site of dynamic interactions, it sheds new light on Victorian domestic space and Victorian domestic fiction as well as on the provocative and subtle interactions between them. Paradoxically, as the space of home is illuminated, it remains more complex and mysterious than ever.

Related Material


Andrea Kaston Tange Architectural Identities: Domesticity, Literature and the Victorian Middle Classes. Toronto, 2010. xiv + 341 pp.

Social History Victorian Web Overview Victorian Design

Last modified 9 July 2014