No Bottom to Them

Freya Johnston

  • The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660-1900 by Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux
    Yale, 264 pp, £35.00, May, ISBN 978 0 300 23907 2

Like the novel, with whose origins it is contemporary, the pocket is a repository that promises to contain and disburse secrets. Pockets, like novels, can enclose a story about the lost and found. Just as characters in 18th-century fiction are often begged to provide the histories of their lives and adventures, so too they may be talked out of their possessions. ‘You do wisely … when in a Crowd, to amuse the Mob by Quarrels,’ Henry Fielding’s master-criminal Jonathan Wild advises his gang, ‘that while they are listening to your Jargon, you may with the greater Ease and Safety, pick their Pockets.’ In The Beggar’s Opera (1728), Peachum, a thief-catcher, surveys with Lockit the jail-keeper their cache of stolen goods, including ‘seven and twenty Women’s Pockets compleat; with the several things therein contain’d; all Seal’d, Number’d, and enter’d’. This criminal inventory imposes order on what was often a chaotic miscellany of things. The authors of The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660-1900 quote a lawyer at the Old Bailey, cross-examining a woman called Margaret Jones in 1794. Jones’s pocket had been picked. He suggests to her that ‘ladies’ pockets are generally pretty full, they say there is no bottom to them?’ The witness bridles at the imputation: ‘I am very careful that I do not lumber my pockets with a parcel of litter.’ Like the pocket, the 18th-century novel is regularly accused of being overstuffed with random items of little value. One anonymous reviewer complained in 1781 that inferior novelists found ‘throwing together’ anything they might ‘pick up’ a ‘convenient method’ of composition.

Between the late 17th and early 19th centuries, women’s pockets usually took the form of a bag or pouch tied around the waist and beneath the skirts, worn quite independently of other clothing. They might contain (among other things) a work of fiction, a pocket mirror, a snuff box and a sewing kit, as well as money. Lucy Locket in the nursery rhyme ‘lost her pocket’ because it was detachable – by the owner, or by someone else. The primary source of written information in The Pocket is court records of cases concerning the theft and recovery of personal possessions. The book charts the rise and gradual decline of the removable pocket, documenting its material form and drawing on the evidence of art, literature and social history. Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux hope ‘to show how social and cultural practices are materially embodied within artefacts themselves’. Women’s agency is the key concern throughout.

In The Tempest, Prospero’s brother Antonio imagines one of Gonzalo’s pockets being granted the power of speech in order to denounce its owner: ‘Would it not say he lyes?’ Sebastian agrees that it would indeed do so, ‘or very falsely pocket up his report’. Clothing here openly contradicts its wearer, or deliberately conceals the truth. It is not until around a century later that objects routinely behave this way in literature. Most of The Pocket is devoted to the 18th century, during which period tales known as ‘it-narratives’ – first-person novels or novellas with a non-human speaker – enjoyed a surge of popularity. These typically rather shambolic fictions are often narrated by small inanimate objects – banknotes, coins, corkscrews, pincushions – of the sort that can easily circulate, frequently in pockets, and therefore comment on the manners and morals of their human owners. Many such narratives are prefaced by explanations of how the objects acquired the power of speech. The tiny speaker of Helenus Scott’s Adventures of a Rupee (1781) lies unnoticed for two thousand years, labouring to elevate himself from base metal into ‘gold of the purest kind’. Having done so, he instantly becomes the object of human quarrels, the cause of broken friendships and duplicitous behaviour. From this scene of tawdry greed the rupee emerges as the noblest and most innocent character. Just as Swift’s Gulliver, living uneasily among the giants of Brobdingnag, finds ‘that my Sense was more acute in Proportion to my Littleness’, so in it-narratives the diminutive size and inconsequential status of the speaker allow a sharper view of human conduct and motivation than would otherwise emerge.

The idea behind much of the critical attention paid to it-narratives in the last twenty years is that these fictions accompany the rise of the consumer economy in the 18th century. Fictions governed by speaking things – fictions which are themselves consumable artefacts – are said to enact the shift to a society whose hallmarks include the rapid accumulation and equally rapid disposal of stories and material goods. There is plenty of evidence in The Pocket that 18th-century women were especially vulnerable in this marketplace, rarely permitted to assume the status of independent economic agents but liable instead to be corrupted or abused, or degraded into marketable commodities.

This beautifully illustrated volume isn’t a pocket book, at least not by today’s standards, though some 18th-century pockets would have accommodated it with ease. The largest surviving examples located by the authors are an astonishingly voluminous 61.5 cm long and 43.5 cm wide. Jokes about the ever burgeoning pocket seem to have begun quite early: in 1724, Daniel Defoe reported in his Tour of Great Britain that ‘at Stourbridge Fair’ he saw something entirely new, ‘a Pocket of Wool. This seems to be first call’d so in Mockery, this Pocket being so big, that it loads a whole Waggon … and these ordinarily weigh a Ton or 25 Hundred weight of Wool, all in one Bag.’ In the early decades of the 18th century, the mock-heroic form was thriving, and the combination Defoe notices – a seemingly modest container (the pocket) with gargantuan contents (a ton of wool) – is in line with the techniques of such writing. This is a literary mode that yokes ‘mighty Contests’ to ‘trivial Things’ and often concerns itself with women’s clothing and accessories: Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712-17), a poem infatuated with women’s beauty and its props, includes the genealogy of ‘a deadly Bodkin’. This is just the kind of workaday object – used to pierce holes in cloth or to pin up hair – that was carried in women’s pockets; here, it is elevated to the status of an epic weapon. Other mock-heroic poems were devoted to the fan and the petticoat. Like pockets, these poems burst at the seams with items ranging from everyday tat to luxury goods.

There is a mock-heroic aspect to object-driven history of the kind practised in The Pocket, too: its language is strangely excessive in relation to the things it is describing. Very large or loosely defined theoretical claims are made on behalf of objects which cannot possibly live up to what is required of them. ‘Bringing back to life the shapeless dreams and untold stories once entrusted by a real, rather than a fictional, woman to her pocket can be a challenge,’ we are told in this book; it is also ‘vital’. But how is this challenge to be tackled? The Pocket gives us little sense of how to bridge the gap between a small thing and a sketched series of broad arguments about gender, society and history. Instead we have general statements concerning ‘the power of pockets to subvert’, ‘the role of pockets as sites of resistance’ and (rather less audaciously) the ‘major role’ played by pockets ‘in the clothing strategies of large numbers of people’. Confusingly, we are invited to treat ‘the pocket as a lens’ (how would that work?).

Le Ridicule et les poches (1815), a French dialogue between a plain old pair of pockets and the shamelessly fashionable reticule, shows the persistence of the it-narrative strain into the 19th century, at least as far as clothing was concerned. Anna Maria Hall’s story Grandmamma’s Pockets (1849) includes a prolonged dream sequence in which a pair of venerable, well-ordered pockets release various sprites and miniature human beings from their confines, bodying forth visions of good and bad behaviour to the young heroine, Annie. The tale is nostalgic for the superior thriftiness, good sense and durability of the grandmother’s generation, and in making the pockets of the title come alive and unburden themselves of human characters, it works in the same kind of way as fiction of that earlier period. Introducing Mr Thomas Heartfree at the beginning of Book II of Jonathan Wild (1743), Fielding promises ‘to open somewhat of his Character’. We get to know many people in fiction of the period in this way, as if they are pockets that can be opened and turned inside out to display their contents. This way of handling character can be summed up by the 18th-century verb develope – typically spelled, in those days, with an ‘e’ on the end – which meant: ‘to discover or find out for oneself (something previously concealed or unknown, as a person’s true character, an undiscovered fact etc)’. The verb is now overwhelmingly associated with the Enlightenment activity of bringing something or someone ‘to a fuller or more advanced state’ – to ‘develop’ now means, primarily, ‘to improve or extend’. But Jane Austen does not mean this at all when she writes in the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice (1813) that

Mr Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

However long Mrs Bennet existed in the fictional realm, she would not and could not be improved or extended: she does not belong in a Bildungsroman in which people grow up and change. Her limitations are immovable; she never alters, other than by offering new embarrassments and fresh affronts to decorum. Perhaps the majority of 18th and early 19th-century characters are pockets of this kind: what they contain can be disbursed, viewed and apprehended. It is not their business to alter across a lifetime or in the course of a work of fiction, but progressively to be disclosed to us and sometimes to themselves through descriptions, conversations, actions and gestures.

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We often use the word thing to indicate a matter that is vague or uncertain and about which we are unable or unwilling to particularise (‘that kind of thing’) rather than to describe an object that is materially present (‘that thing there’). The etymology of thing reveals that its abstract meanings in Old English – as ‘a thought, an idea; a notion; a belief, an opinion’ (OED sense 5b) – come into being alongside, perhaps even predate, its connotations as ‘a material object, an article, an item; a being or entity consisting of matter, or occupying space’ (OED sense 11). It is apparently only from the 16th century onwards that the English language refers to a ‘thing’ as ‘a being without life or consciousness; an inanimate object, as distinguished from a person or living creature’ (OED sense 15).

Critics and historians have tended to emphasise the uses and applications of things, trying to press objects for information about gender, power, and domestic and social order. But The Pocket, while ostensibly dedicated to those ends, resembles an exhibition catalogue; we want to look at these beautifully preserved objects. For all the title’s emphasis on female lives, it proves difficult for the authors and the reader to keep human beings in mind in any meaningful sense. A study that is thing-centred will not necessarily help us focus on people, or to understand much about them. Here’s one example from The Pocket. In 1770 Elizabeth Warner, an unmarried servant, was charged with murdering her newborn daughter. Her afterbirth was concealed in a leather pocket, and her dead baby wrapped in some underclothes. Having informed us of this, the authors move on: you have to flip to an endnote if you want to find out what happened next (Warner was acquitted).

People are not equivalent to things, and things don’t give us all we need to make sense of the world or the people in it. Burman and Fennetaux quote Eliza Haywood’s criticism of modish accessories in The Female Spectator (1745):

The Snuff-Box and Smelling-Bottle are pretty Trinkets in a Lady’s Pocket, and are frequently necessary to supply a Pause in Conversation, and on some other Occasions; but whatever Virtues they are possess’d of, they are all lost by a too constant and familiar Use, and nothing can be more pernicious to the Brain, or render one more ridiculous in Company, than to have either of them perpetually in one’s Hand.

They note that Haywood is ‘castigating the follies of fashion’, but so convinced are they of the subversive and enabling role of pockets in creating female agency that they construe the passage in positive terms: ‘Haywood accurately observed that pockets allowed women to carry around the props and accessories they needed to play their parts in the theatre of sociable occasions.’ The point of what Haywood is saying, however, is that the more often you take such things out of your pocket, the less you tend to have in your head. Like mobile phones, snuffboxes and smelling bottles rot the brain. There is another version of this scene in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels, in which the hero considers a ‘Scheme for entirely abolishing all Words whatsoever’, and replacing them with ‘Things’. Gulliver can’t help letting slip that the idea has some drawbacks:

Many of the most Learned and Wise adhere to the new Scheme of expressing themselves by Things; which has only this Inconvenience attending it, that if a Man’s Business be very great, and of various Kinds, he must be obliged, in Proportion, to carry a greater Bundle of Things upon his Back, unless he can afford one or two strong Servants to attend him. I have often beheld two of those Sages almost sinking under the Weight of their Packs, like Pedlars among us, who, when they met in the Streets, would lay down their Loads, open their Sacks, and hold Conversation for an Hour together; then put up their Implements, help each other to resume their Burdens, and take their Leave. But, for short Conversations a Man may carry Implements in his Pockets, and under his Arms, enough to supply him; and in his House, he cannot be at a Loss; therefore the Room where Company meet who practise this Art, is full of all Things ready at Hand, requisite to furnish Matter for this Kind of artificial Converse.

Talking only through things results in wise men being reduced to pedlars; or in being restricted to conversations scaled down to the size of their pockets; or in having to stay at home, where such ‘artificial converse’ is easier to accomplish. In such object-based talk people voluntarily place all their faith in things and in so doing become less human. Plenty of ‘object-attentive’ research has this burdensome, fabricated character. Our understanding of the past is often impeded by a focus on the very objects that are imagined to facilitate it. There is something empty at the heart of material culture: the pocket is its emblem.