Boffin's books and Darwin's finches: Victorian cultures of *collecting
Although wealthy continental virtuosos had passionately and selectively accumulated a variety of natural and artificial objects from the Renaissance onwards, not until the nineteenth century did collecting become a conspicuous national pastime among all classes in Britain. As industry and empire made available many new and exotic goods for acquisition and display, the collection as a cultural form offered the Victorians a popular strategy of self-fashioning that was often represented in the literature of the age as a source of prestige and social legitimation. Through interdisciplinary readings of Victorian fiction, narrative nonfiction, and poetry, my study examines how textual representations of collecting helped to define nation, class, and gender in Britain from the 1830s to the turn of the century and beyond.
Combining literary analysis with cultural criticism, including approaches from museum studies, I explain how Victorian writing about collecting, from Charles Dickens's earliest works to fin-de-siècle lepidopteran narratives, participated in the formation of individual and collective identities. During the first half of the nineteenth century, prominent author-collectors asserted their specifically male authority and British dominion abroad through travel narratives about acquiring exotic artifacts for the nation or assembling proprietary collections exhibited back home. Meanwhile, Victorian novels included an array of collectors of all ranks, many of whom seek to enhance their professional or social status through their collections, which are often the products of competition or emulation. However, from midcentury on, a period in which museums proliferated and the British empire grew during the age of the New Imperialism, authors increasingly turned to the figure of the collector to convey anxieties about habits of consumption that threatened personal identity or social stability and a world of objects that were not necessarily under the consumer's control. Thus, even as collecting helped to order knowledge, material culture, and social relations in nineteenth-century Britain, it also posed certain challenges to the social identities and forms of subjectivity the Victorians attempted to forge for themselves, as their collections and texts show.