Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros84 AutomneObject Lessons: The Victorians an...

Object Lessons: The Victorians and the Material Text

Leçons de choses : les Victoriens et le texte dans sa matérialité
Mary Elizabeth Leighton et Lisa Surridge

Texte intégral

  • 1 We gratefully thank our copy editors, Emma Woodhouse and Megan Halford, and our student assistant, (...)

1The most notorious object lesson in Victorian literature appears at the beginning of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854).1 Schoolteacher Thomas Gradgrind is delivering a lesson: ‘Girl number twenty’, he demands of Sissy Jupe, ‘give me your definition of a horse’. Sissy, whose father works with circus horses, is ‘thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand’ (4) and unable to respond. Another student, Bitzer, produces a response that satisfies Gradgrind: ‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy counties, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth’ (6). Bitzer’s answer is clearly memorized and regurgitated; it reflects no actual knowledge of horses. By contrast, Sissy, who lives in the circus and knows a lot about horses, is unable to formulate her experiential knowledge in a way that Gradgrind might recognize. Dickens thus satirizes the corrupted form of the so-called object lesson that had come to dominate Victorian schoolrooms by mid-century: non-experiential, involving rote learning, and—very markedly—involving no object at all. No horse appears in Gradgrind’s classroom, not even a picture of one.

2By contrast, as originally envisaged by Romantic educator Johann Heinreich Pestalozzi (1746–1827), the object lesson actually involved objects. Pestalozzi conceived of a schoolroom in which children held in their hands familiar objects (a shell, a piece of glass, a thimble, a rubber ball) and responded to their teacher’s open-ended questions about the things themselves: ‘What do they feel like? What are they made of? What can they tell us?’ (Young 16). Embracing the Romantic idea that children apprehend the world by means of the senses, the object lesson demanded that students actively investigate the material object by touching, smelling, and weighing it, considering such categories as form, colour, size, texture, brittleness, elasticity, flammability, flexibility, durability, solubility, transparency, and adhesiveness (Mayo 22–26; Ricks 1–5). Elizabeth Mayo, who promulgated the object lesson in England by means of her book Lessons On Objects: Their Origin, Nature, and Uses (1839), insisted that students’ investigations must be guided by their teacher’s questions but that the teacher must guard against ‘telling too much to their pupils’, a pedagogical failure that would allow students’ minds to ‘remain almost passive’ (21); instead, teachers should ask open questions, pushing students to engage in their own learning about the object. Were it to follow Pestalozzi’s precepts, then, Gradgrind’s object lesson on horses would require a real horse in the classroom. Corruption of the object lesson by the Victorian education system, which led to rote learning and memorization of Latinate terms (such as quadruped and graminivorous), completely undercut this Romantic vision of how the mind could learn from the senses’ apprehension of and engagement with the material world.

  • 2 See Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830-1880 (2008); An (...)

3In our moment of critical fascination with the materiality of Victorian life—from ‘glass worlds’ and ‘novels behind glass’ to ‘the ideas in things’2—it is worth remembering that it was nineteenth-century educators themselves who trained their eyes on the object, the thing itself, ‘the edifying, moralizing poetry already hidden in every piece of the material world’ (Young 17). Included in this focus on the object were not only common domestic items such as glass, loaf sugar, gum arabic, leather, sponge, wool, and wax (22–29), but also books. Interestingly, Mayo suggests an object lesson in which pupils consider the book in all aspects of its material form, paying attention to its outside, inside, edges, corners, binding, paper, back, sides, top, bottom, title page, preface, introduction, contents, end, leaves, pages, margin, beginning, type, letters, numbers, stops, words, sentences, syllables, title, lettering, stitching, and lines (46). For Mayo, then, the book inhabits the world of familiar things in all their materiality: that is to say, the book, like gum arabic, is both well known and worth investigating as a material object. The same is true for scholars in this volume, whose investigations of books take the form of object lessons: we invited them to hold Victorian books in their hands, to sniff and weigh them (both literally and metaphorically), and to consider What do they feel like? What are they made of? What can they tell us? This volume, then, offers to readers a series of object lessons on Victorian publications from broadsides to Bibles, asking what the material forms of these texts teach us about their significance in Victorian culture.

4As such, this volume takes its inspiration from the ‘material turn’ in Victorian studies, a ‘pervasive . . . interest in material culture and its meanings and significances’ (Pykett 2) that Lyn Pykett dates back to Asa Briggs’s Victorian Things (1988). Nadine Boehm-Schnitker and Susanne Gruss helpfully divide the current emphasis on material culture into three related scholarly streams: first, material culture studies, which analyzes material objects in relation to ‘the social and symbolic practices involving them’ (9); second, thing theory, which analyzes ‘why and how we use objects to make meaning, to make or re-make ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, to sublimate our fears and shape our fantasies’ (Brown 2003, 4, qtd. in Boehm-Schnitker and Gruss 9); and third, commodity studies, which analyzes commodities ‘in terms of how they are implicated in capitalist modes of production and consumption’ (9). This interest in the object as commodity, of course, looks back to the Victorians themselves and Karl Marx’s definition of the commodity, which, as he writes, ‘reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the product of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things’ (Marx, qtd. in Pykett 3).

  • 3 See Jerome McGann, Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web (2001); Lorraine Janzen (...)

5This material turn has subsequently given new life to the study of the Victorian book and periodical. As long-time interdisciplinarians, mid-twentieth-century Victorianists had already embraced bibliography and book history, from Kathleen Tillotson (with Novels of the 1840s, 1954) and Richard Altick (with The English Common Reader, 1957) to the early contributors to the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals who formed the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals (RSVP) in 1968. The formation of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP) in 1992 and the publication of its annual, Book History, from 1998, confirm the centrality of the study of the book for our discipline. But the recent fascination with all things material has further ignited scholars’ imaginations as they consider the material book as cultural object: as Jerome McGann, Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Linda K. Hughes and Michael Lund3 remind us, the form of the material book—from Victorian serials and poetry editions to annuals and giftbooks—always matters. The critical compulsion to trace the function of the material book in culture at large perhaps reaches its apogee in How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (2012), in which Leah Price investigates things that Victorians did with books other than to read them: use their pages as ‘curlpapers or pie plate liners’ (10), eat the pages of the Bible (11), select books to match one’s decorating ‘color schemes’ (11), or hit someone ‘with a Latin Grammar’ (72). Her work reminds us of the book’s relentless materiality; she deliberately distinguishes between ‘“text”—a string of words’ and ‘“book-object”: a physical thing’ (4), directing our attention to the latter.

6It is this fervent emphasis on the ‘book-object’ that this special issue of Cahiers Victoriens et Édouardiens embodies. Some of our contributors direct their attention to the neglected material forms of the Victorian period—the blank journal, the almanac, the broadside temperance ballad, the thumb Bible, the Illustrated London News’s special issue printed at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and magazines for blind readers. Many of these print objects were so ephemeral that they are largely absent from scholarly archives. Some of us have perhaps never actually seen or held some of these rare print forms, but this issue offers readers an expert guide in each case. Other contributors consider the under-studied original material forms of now-canonical texts: the serial and first edition of Sketches by Boz (1836), the first ‘whole book’ (Jackson) written by Dickens as he emerged from his early journalistic career; the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), whose page layout constructs an active child reader; and the neglected serial edition of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), written as a marketable commodity by a writer who scorned—but could not afford to ignore—the commodity market. Such contributions remind us—as we teach or study from recent scholarly editions—that the print objects encountered by Victorian and Edwardian readers differed markedly from those on our own shelves. Spanning a temporal range from the 1820s to 1912, all contributions focus attention on the physical ‘book-object’ as nineteenth- and twentieth-century readers encountered it—in all its insistent physicality.

7What do we learn, then, from these modern object lessons? First, from Jeffrey Jackson, Linda K. Hughes, Kirsten MacLeod, and Brett Beasley, we learn about each Victorian author’s own—often ambivalent and complex—relationship to contemporary material forms. Jackson urges us to take seriously Dickens’s 1836 two-volume version of Sketches by Boz, arguing that its loose generic form exhibits the ‘endless fecundity’ of Dickens’s youthful and journalistic imagination. Often described negatively as lacking narrative drive and closure, the 1836 Sketches, he argues, reflects ‘Dickens’s ambivalence in the 1830s’ toward book authorship, which, as manifested in the 1839 revised edition of Sketches, expressed itself in ‘trope[s] of death’. By contrast, Hughes invites us to consider how popular material print forms allowed Middlemarch to come to life: her discovery of a hitherto unknown notebook containing Eliot’s record of her Greek studies as she prepared Middlemarch prompts reflection on the famous author’s relationship to a mass-produced commodity item such as a blank journal: Hughes’s article ‘offers an opportunity to reflect on the ways that commodity analysis, premised on large-scale production, and the study of a unique holograph manuscript written by an author often termed ‘great’ . . . can come together and become mutually illuminating’. In turn, writing on the little-known Collier’s Weekly’s serial edition of The Turn of the Screw, MacLeod shows what James’s story meant for the struggling magazine and its new editor (Robert J. Collier); what the popular serial format meant to James as ambitious author; and what that format meant for weekly readers, who absorbed the serial parts by delicately ‘sip[ping]’ the story, while reading in book form was associated with gluttonous ‘gulp[ing]’ (Howells 307, qtd. in MacLeod). As a final step in this exploration of Victorian authors’ relation to form, Beasley explores the three different versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray—the spring 1890 typescript, first published in 2011; the 1890 Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine version; and the first volume edition of 1891. He suggests that these three versions are better understood as a triptych (that is, as a series of related textual events) than as competitors for the definitive meaning of the novella. Beasley highlights the need for scholars to undertake object lessons: that is, to ‘determine the object of study and decide what kind of object that object represents’. As he concludes, ‘the most satisfying and productive definition of ‘the Work’ will be the broadest one, the one that is able to incorporate elements like revisions, editions, the author’s personality, the press, and so on’ (Beasley).

8The object lessons in this issue also invite us to contemplate the relationship between readers and print objects, some of which objects are now almost forgotten by scholars. Brian Maidment, for example, reminds us of the broad popularity of that now-neglected form, the comic almanac, which ‘boasted a starry list of late-Regency humourists among its writers, including William Makepeace Thackeray, Horace Mayhew, Gilbert À Beckett, George Cruikshank, and Henry George Hine’. Maidment argues that the comic almanac exemplifies the ‘restless, experimental, and commercially sensitive marketplace for print to be found in late Regency London’, offering through ‘satirical pastiche’ a ‘witty and mischievous travesty of establishment values’. Moreover, while scholars may associate the year 1855 with the reading of canonical texts such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South or Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Maud and Other Poems, Kirstie Blair emphasizes that ordinary Victorian readers would have been more likely to hold in their hands some of the more than ten million pages of temperance literature produced by the Scottish Temperance League in that year alone. ‘The Drunkard’s Raggit Wean’—almost unknown today—was one such temperance broadside, an example of ‘Victorian working-class verse culture in its sentimental deployment of child suffering to aid a social and political cause’. While for middle-class readers, late 1855 heralded William Dorrit’s imprisonment in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, in Dickens’s serialized Little Dorrit (1855-57), for working-class readers of broadsides, the same months introduced ‘a wee bit ragged laddie . . . wand’rin through the street. / Wadin’ through the snaw wi’ his wee hackit feet’ (Blair).

9Far from lost to scholars, the Cornhill Magazine has attracted considerable scholarly attention; Simon Cooke suggests in this issue, however, that its ‘material presentation’ has been neglected, especially its transition from the ‘paper ephemera’ of its slim monthly issues to its status as ‘gift book for the parlour’. The key to the Cornhill’s ‘making its pitch’, he argues, was ‘the journal’s physical form’, which acted to ‘orient the artefact in its social setting’. Intense in colour—printed on orange paper to contrast with Dickens’s green and Thackeray’s yellow covers—the Cornhill wrapper, with its clever visual pun on the actual grain harvest, emphasized that the fruits of culture were available to all, from the ‘artisan’ to the ‘professor’ (Thackeray, Letters 4, 161, qtd. in Cooke). The wrapper’s symbolism, Cooke argues, evoked the qualities of the classical world even as it positioned the journal for success in the competitive print market of the 1860s. Material form thus emerges as critical to market success for this prestigious family magazine.

10As the Cornhill’s status as a family magazine suggests, children were increasingly important to the Victorian print market in their roles as both consumers and readers. The production of children’s books was a highlight of the period, now recognized as the first ‘golden age’ of children’s literature. Alyssa Currie highlights the importance of material form to the thumb Bible, a unique Victorian object that combined the qualities of plaything and spiritual guide. Designed to be featured in a ‘baby house’—the Victorian term for a doll house—thumb Bibles echoed their larger gift book counterparts in their emphasis on binding, illustration, and material appeal. Sold with tiny bookshelves to be part of a child’s (and doll’s) miniature library, thumb Bibles captivated small readers with their exquisite tiny forms. Taking Charles Tilt’s The Little Picture Testament (c. 1830) as her case study, Currie argues that, by ‘combining elements of play activity with religious instruction’, this tiny Bible ‘reflects the permeation of evangelical values into domestic life’. Play forms an essential part, as well, of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)—word play, play with logic and numbers, play with literary forms and allusions. Virginie Iché argues for the role of the material book in this play: as she elaborates, the page layout of the first edition of Alice empowered child readers by inviting them to engage actively in the book’s most fantastic effects: making Alice grow or shrink, propelling the lizard, Bill, out of the chimney, and prompting the Cheshire Cat to disappear, all by flipping pages from recto to verso. While Lewis Carroll’s prefatory poem seems to construct a passive reader, drifting through the narrative in a kind of dreamy state, Iché suggests that the act of turning pages turns the child reader into an active participant in meaning-making:the page layout of the original editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass also regularly empowers the reader, who has kinesthetic experiences while reading the books and, consequently, takes an active part in some of their most dramatic episodes’.

11The sensory experiences prompted by the material print object take centre stage in Vanessa Warne’s examination of Victorian magazines for blind readers. Designed for finger reading, these magazines differed significantly from their ink-press counterparts. Wide rather than tall, embossed rather than ink printed, with text on only one side instead of both sides of the page, and using heavier paper to receive and retain the raised print, these magazines opened up the world of contemporary print culture to blind readers. Drawing on the unique collection of raised-print books at the University of Manitoba Archives, Warne explores both ‘the small-scale movement of readers’ fingers across pages and the large-scale movement of these magazines by mail’. Her article identifies these magazines as having formed ‘a reading community defined as much by its appetite for periodical reading as by sensory difference’. As in Warne’s study of periodicals for blind readers, the relation of production and material form is a prominent concern for Paul Fyfe, who meticulously analyzes the May 1851 issue of the Illustrated London News’s weekly supplement to the Great Exhibition. Boldly advertised as having been ‘printed at the great exhibition’ and featuring on its verso a large image of the Applegath vertical printing press that the ILN operated at the exhibition, the sheet appears manifestly to be what it proclaimed itself to be: a product of the exhibition itself, printed on-site to the admiration of Crystal Palace visitors. Fyfe, however, shows otherwise: his research reveals that, while the letterpress was printed on the Applegath rotary press at the exhibition, the actual image of that press was not. In the early 1850s, a rotary-drum could print only type, not images. Ironically, then, the image of the rotary press had to be printed at the ILN’s offices, using a ‘reciprocating’ press that deployed type and images set together in large flat forms. In fact, then, the sheet exhibits the technological limitations of mid-century printing, an interval before the rotary press could print text and image simultaneously on a single sheet. As Fyfe argues, the exhibition sheet thus ‘represents an artefact born at the intersection of the ILN’s own competing claims about what made it unique, including its industrial origins, temporality, reprographic fidelity, and material accessibility’.

12How do material forms dictate how authors enter the canon? Sarah Parker and Jeremy Valentine Freeman identify the anthology and the poetry collection respectively as key mechanisms in the formation of the English literary canon—and, moreover, show that the very layout of such collections (their images, margins, borders, and technological modes of reproduction) plays a critical role in that canonization. Parker’s analysis demonstrates that, for John Lane at the Bodley Head Press, the period after the 1897 closure of the Yellow Book marked a turning point in his effort ‘to sustain [the press’s] status as a promoter of cutting-edge poets’. As she elucidates, William Archer’s Poets of the Younger Generation (1902) offered Lane an opportunity to consolidate the reputations of many poets who had regularly published in the Yellow Book: Laurence Housman, Richard Le Gallienne, Edith Nesbit, Charles G. D. Roberts, Arthur Symons, Rosamund Marriott Watson (as Graham R. Tomson), and W. B. Yeats. However, as she argues, the framing of poets was not gender neutral. Even as Archer identified women such as Nesbit, Watson, Alice Meynell, Nora Hopper, Sigerson Shorter, Tynan Hinkson, and Margaret Woods as among the most promising poets of their generation, he framed them in relation to the poetess tradition, judging them ‘by their ability to measure up to his expectations of femininity as sweet, emotional, and confiding’. Moreover, the anthology distinguished women poets from their male counterparts by deploying decorative borders around their woodcut portraits: these borders, Parker argues, ‘frame them as objects, frozen pictures to be looked at and admired’. While Parker focuses on the relative valuing of male and female poets, Freeman suggests how Elkin Mathews’s 1912 collection, Some Poems of Lionel Johnson, deftly negotiated the posthumous reputation of Lionel Johnson (1867-1902). Acting as a pivot between Victorian and modernist publishing practices, the collection balances both Johnson’s ‘basic English traits’ (Guiney 16, qtd. in Freeman) and ‘his interest in the dark, the pagan, the erotic, and the transgressive’. Paying attention to details such as ‘lack of decoration, lack of manner, and prosaic impulse’, as well as to the cheap paper, paucity of decoration, and lack of white space between poems, Freeman argues that the format of Mathews’s Vigo Cabinet Series ‘renders Johnson’s poems as simple lines of type routinely following each other from beginning to end’, thereby downplaying their ‘rich hybridity of decadent styles, complex religious affiliations, and obscure traditions’. The collection thus pits form against poetic content, negotiating a poet’s posthumous reputation by means of material form.

13Spanning from the thumb Bible in its tiny doll’s house bookshelf to Some Poems of Lionel Johnson in Mathews’s Vigo Cabinet Series, this issue of Cahiers Victoriens et Édouardiens comprises, if you will, a cabinet of object lessons. Indeed, a cabinet was the very container proposed by Chartist and cabinetmaker William Lovett in 1840, when he imagined a classroom set up to promote the object lesson: he envisaged that ‘every school would house a cabinet of object lessons, its drawers full of items ready for investigation’ (Young 18). For Lovett, the object lesson promised children’s equal access to education: a common object, readily available to all, would form the foundation of democratic schooling and exercises in inquiry. Fascinatingly, Lovett suggests the usefulness in the object lesson of a compositor’s case of type, suggesting that teachers prompt their students not only to touch, feel, and investigate the object per se, but to compose the names and qualities of the object in actual type, making spelling and words themselves the object of students’ study.

14This collection, too, turns its attention to the material object and the compositor’s art, asking readers to contemplate not only the heft, slimness, ornamentation, binding, paper quality, print, or embossing of the print object, but also how, where, and for what purpose that object was produced. In an era of Google Books, when the digital object threatens to supplant the material book, this issue invites readers to focus their eyes and attention on the book-objects that Victorians read, touched, fondled, pored over, shared, and played with. Ironically, like Gradgrind in his schoolroom, we have to offer object lessons without objects: we suggest that the ideal way of reading this issue would be in the archive, with some of these print objects before you, thus enabling you to turn the pages of Alice, handle Tilt’s tiny thumb Bible, and run your fingers over the embossed pages of Kneass’ Philadelphia Magazine for the Blind. Failing that possibility, our authors offer thick material descriptions of these print objects as well as, in many cases, photographs of them.

15Writing in The Prelude (1850), William Wordsworth upheld the crucial importance of quotidian things: ‘I remember well’, he wrote, ‘That in life’s every-day appearances / I seemed about this time to gain clear sight / Of a new world’ (Book 13). Prophet of the everyday, proponent of physical encounters with the world around us, Wordsworth challenged his contemporaries to find their highest truths in the ‘ennobling interchange’ of the outside world and the perceiver’s interactions with it. He urged his contemporaries to embrace the physical world as an object lesson comprising the highest ‘spiritual dignity’, as he extolled ‘the excellence, pure function, and best power / Both of the objects seen, and eye that sees’. We too—with the authors in this issue—want to extol the value of the physical object. From Dickens’s 1836 Sketches and the comic almanacs of the early century to temperance broadsheets and mass-produced blank notebooks, from magazine wrappers to magazines for the blind, this cabinet of print objects offers lessons in scholarly observation, teaching value, archival importance, and—not least—aesthetic pleasure.

Haut de page


Boehm-Schnitker, Nadine, and Susanne Gruss. ‘Introduction: Spectacles and Things—Visual and Material Culture and/in Neo-Victorianism’. Neo-Victorian Studies 4.2 (2011): 1–23. Web. 14 June 2016.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Oxford. OUP, 1992. Print.

Mayo, [Elizabeth]. Lessons on Objects: Their Origin, Nature, and Uses. For the Use of Schools and Families. Illustrated with Fifty-Two Engravings on Wood. N.p.: Haswell, Barrington and Haswell, 1839. Google Books. Web. 14 June 2016.

Price, Leah. How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. Princeton, Princeton UP, 2012. Print.

Pykett, Lyn. ‘The Material Turn in Victorian Studies’. Literature Compass 1.1 (2003): 1–5. Web. 14 June 2016.

Ricks, George. Object-teaching. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1895. Hathi Trust Digital Library. Web. 14 June 2016.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude. The Four Texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850). London: Penguin, 1995. Print.

Young, Adrian. ‘Material Wisdom: Learning from Object Lessons’. Cabinet: A Quarterly of Art and Culture 50 (2013). Web. 14 June 2016.

Haut de page


1 We gratefully thank our copy editors, Emma Woodhouse and Megan Halford, and our student assistant, Kelsey Kilbey.

2 See Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830-1880 (2008); Andrew H. Miller, Novels Behind Glass: Commodity Culture and Victorian Narrative (1995); and Elaine Freedgood, The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel (2006).

3 See Jerome McGann, Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web (2001); Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Poetry, Pictures, and Popular Publishing (2011); and Linda K. Hughes and Michael Lund, The Victorian Serial (1991).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Mary Elizabeth Leighton et Lisa Surridge, « Object Lessons: The Victorians and the Material Text »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 84 Automne | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2016, consulté le 24 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée
  • Logo ERIH +
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search