Author(s): Kirby-Jane Hallum (University of Otago)
This essay seeks to extend the study of male consumption in the Victorian period, focusing specifically on the practice of aesthetic collecting in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860). I compare male characters in this text, in terms of class and gender identity, in order to offer a pre-Wildean understanding of the Victorian male consumer. The novel’s treatment of the aristocracy and the middle classes offers substantial textual evidence of a relationship between consumption and masculinity, especially with regard to the collection of art as the acquisition of cultural capital. Drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, I clarify the connection between class position and the possession of cultural capital in nineteenth-century Britain, and explore other cultural assumptions concerning aesthetic proficiency, social status and consumer behaviour. I consider the theory of cultural capital in its relation to practices of collecting by taking into account the aesthetic tastes and cultural goods ascribed to the nineteenth-century collector figure. In this way, a collector’s embodied cultural capital translated into a capacity to identify the aesthetic properties of artistic objects. The recognised ownership of such culturally-valued works of art represents the collector’s objectified cultural capital. How a collector comes to be in the position to distinguish, or indeed to own, art objects reflects his own social situation in terms of his class status, education and access to economic capital. My argument, in brief, is that the very notion of the collection differs between the classes. I argue that the practices of aesthetic collection carried out in The Woman in White validate the notion of cultural capital.
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