Oh You Beautiful Doll: Objects in Eighteenth-Century Culture

Beth Kowaleski Wallace
Boston College

Many readers will gravitate to Julie Park’s The Self and It: Novel Objects in Eighteenth-Century England (Stanford, 2010)—and for the most part, they won’t be disappointed. The illustrations are not only eye-catching, they also showcase some amazing archival discoveries—the wax modeler Mrs. Wright, for instance, “dancing” with one of her life-size dolls; one-legged Samuel Foote, on tip-toe, reaching up to caress a wooden puppet towering above him in her wooden pattens; an unpublished Hogarth print, replete with puppet figures mediating the relationship between people and idols. These illustrations demonstrate one of the book’s central arguments, namely, that during the eighteenth century “the language of objects constituted a way of defining the self through things” (xix). The book gives special attention to dolls, puppets, and automata for their crucial role in the definition of modern femininity. But it also engages with a range of objects, considering not only anthropomorphized objects that replicate the human, but also those that supplement the human form—Charlotte Charke’s hat and periwig, for instance.

Overall, the book’s arguments are ambitious, compelling, and powerful. Expanding on a previous body of work on the eighteenth century “consumer revolution,” it contends first that “eighteenth-century consumers were discovering how to develop identities in a strange and newly object-laden world through striking fanciful and intense relationship with those objects ” (xxi). Objects created a “rich and exotic idiom for selfhood” (xiii) and they helped to constitute the self, even while they threatened to displace the subject (xiv). The second major contention concerns the novel, which was and is, of course, itself a consumable object with the potential to objectify the self and deepen “interior reaches” (xviii). Just as consumer culture fashioned human beings as malleable “texts,” so too did the novel shape human subjectivity by transforming how texts about the human were to be written.

Park reads a series of familiar eighteenth-century novels against the fact of emerging consumer culture. For example, she uses Oroonoko (1688) to show how Aphra Behn reconstitutes nature’s products as strange and unfamiliar to make them fashionable (17), thereby enacting “novelty” (18) and demonstrating how worlds and subjects can be consumed and yet reemerge as worldliness (19). When values and positions of objects change, as they do in Behn’s text, so too does the status of the human, and Oroonoko himself as object-text furnishes the key example. Park then reads Clarissa (1748) to show how both Samuel Richardson and Loveless are similarly preoccupied with representing the heroine’s subjectivity. In Park’s interpretation, Richardson stages “the sexual dynamics of fetishism” and exposes both “the sexually constructive properties of the novel of sensibility” and “the fictional properties of the fetishized body part” (52).

A chapter devoted to Frances Burney and automata (a subject previously introduced by Julia Epstein, among others[1]) demonstrates how affect is generated within confines of “mechanized subjectivity” (123). A series of close readings uncover mechanistic metaphors for femininity at work in conduct literature, in Burney’s autobiographical writings, and in her novels. While Burney’s heroines are often depicted as being machine-like beings, indirect discourse itself allows for the depiction of a feminized role that is simultaneously an object and a subject. That is, Burney shows us the character as she experiences herself, as the narrator sees her, and as she sees others experiencing her (137). Here Julia Kristeva’s concept of “abjection” is skillfully employed to elucidate the powerful psychological tension that permeates all of Burney’s novels. Yet ultimately, explains Park, the surplus of emotion produced by abjection is what allows the heroines both to obey and to resist their automatized subjectivity (124).

Park’s conjoining of the object and the book is further justified by the book’s status as “novelty,” and some of her strongest arguments surface in a discussion of this topic. Inspired by Mary Campbell’s exploration of the novelty of “new worlds” in the early modern period, Park significantly expands our understanding of how novelty functions in the eighteenth century.[2] In her reading, novelty “resists comfort as it stimulates the imagination and, like fashion, transforms the self” (10). Also, “its allure lies in its ability to hold in suspension an object’s state of both being real and unreal, both distant and close.” Or, novelty makes real objects seems illusory, and illusory objects seem close (14). It involves “a spatial and locomotive act of overcoming distance: it makes the strange and foreign approachable as well as appropriable” (15). Novelty and fashion share an investment in the idea that the self can be made and remade (25)—but then, so too does the novel, which leads Park to a key convergence: consumer culture fashions human potential into a malleable text, while the novel also transforms notion about how to write about the human. Nonetheless, since neither consumer culture nor the novel can ever be said to have achieved its final goal, both are endlessly repetitive: “Fashion, like fiction, involves the impossible project of mimesis, spurring its practitioners to projects of mimicry and verisimilitude” (27).

So far, these are all excellent points, and they are especially valuable for the way they adroitly synthesize several critical vocabularies, including historical-cultural and psychoanalytical. Other highlights include a reading of Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny (1919), which Park situates in its original, eighteenth-century context, exploring his obsession with the doll in the process. In short, this book articulates well both the pleasures and perils of living in a world full of things. Along with the previously mentioned eye-catching archival work, Park’s key arguments make this a “must-read” book for anyone interested in eighteenth-century cultural studies.

Yet, despite its many accomplishments, it must also be said that the book is uneven and that it is sometimes marred by cloudy or obscure expression and overwritten, if not torturous, syntax. (For example, on page 110: “reason evinces itself in the rationary spirit of mercantilism that motivates the production of fashion dolls.” Or, on page 99: “the doll occupies the interstices between character and reader by making material the abstract fantasies of exemplary personhood that novel characters promulgate.”) Chapter 3 on the doll is the most unsatisfactory, partly because our expectations for clear and powerful argument have been built up by previous chapters. Here there are several problems worth mentioning because they speak to methodological problems that crop up elsewhere in the book.

First, there is a tendency for citations to be taken out of context and used as “evidence” without much regard for the situation or tone. For example, that “Teraminta” writes in Spectator No. 277 of her wild enthusiasm for a French fashion doll scarcely seems to support Park’s claim that because the doll was larger and “closer in scale to the viewer’s body than the reader’s to the novel,” it “invited a more radically mimetic cross identification between the woman and doll than woman and bauble might” (107). Teraminta is clearly Eustace Budgell’s satiric creation, and it seems a bit of a stretch to take his little joke as evidence of anything much at all, let alone a historically specific and characteristically female psychological investment in a mimetic object. Later, an advertisement from Ross’s Fashionable Female Emporium is used to build an argument about how women privately embraced fashion dolls. That Ross’s Emporium sold itself as “a space where women and dolls [could] commune, rivaling, and ameliorating each other,” however, provides no evidence about how actual women responded to what Ross was hoping to sell (109).

Second, then, lacking documentary evidence about how real-life women responded to fashion dolls—from diaries, letters, or autobiographies, for instance—Park often falls back on what appears to be a set of fictitious “eighteenth-century women.” Unlike the historical female consumers studied by Amanda Vickery,[3] these women have no actual identities, though Park appears comfortable giving them a clear psychological profile and a set of behaviors. For example, these eighteenth-century female shoppers were “implicated in the ceaseless desires and fantasies of consumer society” (85). But what does it actually mean to cathect with a fashion doll, as does the fictitious Teraminta? Does the imitator aim to copy the doll—or just the doll’s clothes? How can we know or surmise the deep and complicated psychological responses that occur when a woman first encounters an emblem of high fashion and decides “that’s for me!”? What would Park’s argument do with the collection of wax fashion dolls in the Victoria and Albert collection at Bethnal Green, lovingly and meticulously dressed by several generation of Powell women, in miniature copies of clothes that the women themselves wore? Apparently crafted to commemorate changes in what the Powell women wore, the dolls convey a continuous investment in fashion as a shared generational interest. They testify to the many possible uses of fashion in general and fashion dolls in particular.

Would eighteenth-century women have been better off imitating not fashion dolls (as Park’s tone seems to suggest) but instead fixating on something else in order to arrive at a more “authentic humanness” (103)? What would that have been? Park writes, “In other words, being a woman in the eighteenth century was an intensely mimetic and modern project, capturing not what women are but what women are like” (103). This statement clearly begs the question of what women “are”—or were—and it defaults to a Marxist vocabulary of subjectivity while ignoring several decades of feminist theory of anti-essentialist, performative female subjectivity—and all the possibilities of a subversive engagement with consumer culture. Not that Park’s argument is necessarily wrong, but it seems unduly reductionist and quick to judge in the absence of convincing evidence.

In general, Park’s arguments about both dolls and puppets come across as bleak and moralistic, with little emphasis on the creative potential of play or transformation that these objects can also set into motion. Following Max Von Boehn, she relies heavily on the effigy to explain the genesis of the modern fashion doll. Because of this lineage, dolls are painful surrogates for humans (103): “If the doll [like the effigy] is already the sign of loss—of being human, of being alive—then the project of emulating a doll might seem to result in the reinscription of loss. Such acts of reinscription suggest that femininity in the eighteenth century was a project of artificial reproduction that progressively distanced itself from nature and authenticity” (103). Here once again the doll takes the blame for distancing woman from her “authentic” self.

But von Boehn also traces dolls to ex-voti, or objects thought to have curative powers through their ability to substitute for injured or diseased body parts. Baby dolls in particular appear to have evolved out of wax ex-voti, as modelers who once made the sacred objects began to use their craft to make secular playthings. To perceive the doll as having evolved from the ex-voto is to recognize its potential as an agent of healing or magical transformation. Indeed, evidence suggests a terrific human capacity to animate and nurture just about anything as a “doll”—dolls don’t only reinscribe loss. In modeling an alternative world of perfect personhood, they can also carry human hopes and aspirations by allowing us to project what might be. Anyone who has ever really played with dolls knows this intuitively—as does Freud in “The Relation of the Poet to Daydreaming” (a 1908 essay not mentioned by Park), when he uses child’s play as the model for the poet’s creative act.

In a nutshell, how do we really interpret the relationship between people and the world of objects? How do we, as individuals with gendered identities talk about all the complicated processes, psychological and otherwise, that are set in motion by virtue of our existence among a plethora of things? Park is certainly to be commended for splendid archival work that takes us back to an earlier moment in the history of commodity culture and that probes how we, as women and men, learned to define ourselves in relation to “stuff.” Yet her book might have been even stronger had it shown a willingness to acknowledge what eludes certainty, what remains to be discovered, and what still awaits a full and thoughtful reflection.


[1]  See Julia Epstein, “Marginality in Frances Burney’s Novels,” The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel, ed. John Richetti (Cambridge, 1996), 198–211.

[2]  See Mary Baine Campbell, Wonder and Science: Imagining Worlds in Early Modern Europe (Ithaca, 1999).

[3]  See, for example, Amanda Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter (New Haven, 1998).