Deborah Cohen


On her book Household Gods: The British and their Possessions

Cover Interview of December 08, 2009


In Britain, the locomotive of Victorian acquisitiveness was powered, in part, by an engine that ran on the unlikely fuel of spiritual striving.  My book deals with the pentimento of militant Christianity, the shadowy imprint that remained even after damnation and eternal punishment were no longer preached from the pulpits.  Edwardian critics liked to believe a world of difference existed between themselves and their more devout ancestors.  But the distance between self-denial and self-expression was perhaps not as great as we might imagine.  Most significantly, evangelicalism forced a concentration upon the self which was, in the generations that followed, modified, but not abandoned.  While wealth, as Max Weber believed, may well have exercised a “secularizing influence,” that secularization was itself indelibly colored by religious antecedents.

Consumption served to define and to differentiate an extremely heterogeneous middle class.  Taste—no less than occupation, religion, or political affiliation—should be considered a crucial ingredient in the making of middle-class Britain.  Consumerism has re-oriented the social and political landscape. Writing in 1913, the historian G.M. Trevelyan saw a connection between the diffusion of consumer goods and the extension of the franchise.  The right to vote, he observed, only came, “when the coats [that working men wore] were better.”

© 2009 Deborah Cohen