Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Victorian Glassworlds by Isobel Armstrong

Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830-1880

Glass. We all know it. We all use it. We all look through it dozens of times a day without really thinking about it. We admire it in church windows, we decorate our homes with it and we drink from it. It is an everyday substance we take for granted – and yet, it is far from ordinary. It is, for instance, more liquid than solid. (Take a good look the next time you’re close to a very old stained glass window if you don’t believe me. The pieces of coloured glass are darker at the bottom than they are at the top because the glass has, over the centuries, yielded to gravity and sagged.) It’s an apparently magical material, conducting, refracting and reflecting light, yet impervious to wind and water. It’s made from the most common of ingredients – sand; it occurs naturally – as obsidian – at the rims of volcanoes, and was first manufactured thousands of years ago as a glaze on stone beads.

It was not, however, until the middle of the 19th century when the tax on glass was repealed and the Victorians discovered the secret of mass-production, that it truly began to transform our world.

After several attempts to encapsulate what Isobel Armstrong’s remarkable book is actually about, I’ve decided that I can’t put it any more succinctly than the OUP itself does:

Isobel Armstrong’s startlingly original and beautifully illustrated book tells the stories that spring from the mass-production of glass in nineteenth century England. Moving across technology, industry, local history, architecture, literature, print culture, the visual arts, optics, and philosophy, it will transform our understanding of the Victorian period.

The scope of this monumental work is breathtaking. The author takes as her starting point the proposition that the mass-production of glass in the 19th century quite literally altered man’s view of his world – because thereafter that world would always be seen through the medium of glass – windows, walls, mirrors and lenses. It coloured the language and consciousness of the Victorians to a degree that is difficult for us to understand today – accustomed as we are to a world of glass. They were fascinated by it – by the manufacturing process, by the mystique of the physical transformation that took place, by the heat and light, sounds and smells of the glass factories and most of all by the end product … the looking glasses, chandeliers, the Crystal Palace, shop fronts, optical toys that filled their lives.

For instance: the frequency of window imagery in Victorian novels has often been commented upon; it abounds in the works of Eliot, Gaskell and the Brontës . . . Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, North and South and Middlemarch are all cited by Isobel Armstrong . . . but it had never previously occurred to me that it might be a manifestation of the period’s fascination with the windows themselves – made possible by the manufacture of sheet glass.

Victorian Glassworlds is not written in an accessible style – nor is there any reason why it should be, because it is plainly not aimed at that famous creature, the general reading public.

The following, from the chapter entitled ‘Crystalphiles, Anamorphobics and Stereoscopic Volume’ is fairly typical:

Ruskin parodied the myopic teleology, the heterogeneous metaphor and incoherent description and analogy propagated by the microscope … he recognized the seepage of violence and libido into the language of microscopic displays and their controlled scopic detail.

This is a thoughtful, painstaking and impressively scholarly book which covers an enormous amount of ground in some detail. It will be an invaluable resource for serious students of Victorian society, arts and culture but it’s not one, I think, for the more casually interested reader.

Oxford University Press. April 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-19-920520-2. 400pp.

9 comments on “Victorian Glassworlds by Isobel Armstrong

  1. Lisa
    June 13, 2008

    I’ve been waiting for this review, Moira. Beautiful cover and the book sounds interesting, but that piece you quoted from the ‘Crystalphiles, Anamorphobics and Stereoscopic Volume’ was boggling. Mind you, my brother is a glassmaker and he talks in this sort of incomprehensible language when talking about his work. I bet he’d love this book but I’m guessing it’s not exactly wallet-friendly…Most of the glassmaking in Prince Rupert’s Teardrop came about through discussing glass with my brother. There’s no other material quite like glass, and call me a geek but I find it fascinating.

  2. Trilby
    June 13, 2008

    Yes, it does sound fascinating! I particularly like the detail about glass being more liquid than solid – could spend quite some time ruminating on that! This also reminded me of Carey’s “Oscar and Lucinda”, in which the glass house is such a powerful symbol…

    Lovely!

  3. Ariadne
    June 13, 2008

    Must get this for the shop. Art Nouveau architecture, for example Horta’s here in Brussels, is based thoroughly around glass and light.

  4. Jackie
    June 16, 2008

    Er, Trilby, it was a glass church in O&L, not a house.
    I think I was born in the wrong century for glass appreciation, as I completely understand the fascination the Victorians must’ve had for it. The magical effect resonates with me, too.
    The excerpt does show that one would need to concentrate on this book, but it doesn’t seem too dense. It sounds interesting. I must see if I can get it from the library.

  5. Farah Mendlesohn
    August 29, 2009

    I’ve thought carefully about whether to comment on the language issue. I bought this book, and I’ve just sold it on, having struggled through the introduction, and then skimmed through to see if the language became any more manageable. You write:

    “Victorian Glassworlds is not written in an accessible style – nor is there any reason why it should be, because it is plainly not aimed at that famous creature, the general reading public.”

    Well, I’m not “the general reading public”. I’m a historian, with several well received books of my own behind me. As far as I was aware, the point of writing is to communicate. This book seems to go out of its way to avoid communication. When I do try to parse the sentences, too often I end up with the gossamer threads of meaning sliding through my fingers.

    Here’s another example from the book, selected entirely at random:

    The physics of reflection forms an image convergent with matter but not of it, we have seen. The ethereality of the image fused with the glass returns us to the literally ethereal nature of glass, the product of breath.* here insubstantiality and solidity lose their antithetical values.

    The first sentence is parsable, because I know my physics and my refraction and reflection theory, but it could have have been said so much clearer: Reflections meet at the mirror. Of course, then you get to the next bit, “the literal ethereal nature of glass”, except that glass is not ethereal, it is material. So too, by the way, is breath, you can even freeze it and reduce the gasses to a solid. And that “insubstantiality and solidity lose their antithetical values.” is an assertion. There is no actual evidence.

    There are two reasons I have to write in an accessible style: the first is because I think knowledge and ideas should be available to people and not needlessly withheld; the second is because metaphor is too easy to use to cloud lack of actual things to say. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with metaphor, but when style becomes more important than substance, the result is problematic.

    This may be a good book. I honestly don’t know. But that’s my point: I have no way of telling without more or less translating every sentence.

  6. mike semple
    August 5, 2010

    nice information must search out a copy and read.

  7. Gregory
    January 18, 2011

    A deep, absorbing, and complex book, written about complex things and, sometimes, written in a complex manner. The book demands you pay attention and have a good working vocabulary (especially in critical theory), because not all ideas are easy. The passage quoted by “Farah” above as being difficult seems quite clear, at least to me.

  8. Farah Mendlesohn
    January 19, 2011

    Hi Gregory

    No need for the quotation marks around my name. It really is my name.

    As I note, I can work out what Isobel Armstrong is saying, but then I am faced with the problem that to me it doesn’t make sense. I am genuinely interested (I do not intend to be sarcastic), what does that passage mean to you?

    all the best
    Farah

  9. sasha
    March 14, 2015

    http://www.cmog.org/article/does-glass-flow is a link to an article from The Corning Museum of Glass that explains how glass in windows doesn’t flow down – you have fallen for an old wives’ tale

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This entry was posted on June 13, 2008 by in Entries by Moira, Non-fiction: history, Non-fiction:art and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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