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It was not, however, until the middle of the 19th century when the tax on glass was repealed and the Victorians discovered the secret of mass-production, that it truly began to transform our world.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