Focusing on the representation of Indian shawls and Indian tea in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, this article has two aims: first, it argues that the novel creates its ideology of domesticity and proper femininity through the creation of a readable object world. It is evident that one of the consequences of the empire was to Indianise its English subjects, thereby making them more cosmopolitan and making the English home a monument to imperial Britain’s success in the global system of commodity production, distribution, and consumption. These links then brought together the materiality of the empire and the Victorian preoccupation with material culture, constituting an imperial culture based on domestic interiority, visual and tactile pleasure, and political economy. Second, the article attempts to show how the ambiguities that enter the text along with these foreign objects unsettle the status quo established by the novel’s middle-class ideology and propose utopian alternatives to it through a mobile, boundary-crossing female body and a more porous domestic setting. These alternatives are entirely speculative, incomplete, and restrained, but significant nonetheless, precisely because they turn this ideology’s emphasis on the middle-class female body inside out, so as to recompose this body and its habitual spaces in new ways.
- North and South
- material culture