The Commodity Fetish in Thackeray’s The Great Hoggarty Diamond
The closer we come … to the object, the more it steals away from us and finally becomes undecidable.
W. M. Thackeray’s short novel, The History of Samuel Titmarsh and The Great Hoggarty Diamond (1841), focuses on a diamond tiepin that exudes the power of a commodity fetish. Its enabling historical context reflects a time when British industrial development produced newly accumulated private capital for middle class individuals, and the diamond tiepin functioned as an iconic symbol of this new excess capital.2 Yet the Hoggarty diamond in Samuel’s tiepin had not always appeared as such a fashionably potent jewel. When Samuel first inherits the family heirloom jewel as a gift from his aunt, the diamond is mounted inside a large brooch “about the size of a shaving box,” and Samuel is inwardly “disgusted” and “disappointed” at having to accept politely such a gift from his aunt (5). The original configuration of the family heirloom brooch is best left to Thackeray’s satirical description that merges a number of contemporary styles of jewelry into a cluster of poor taste: the oversized brooch contains the red hair from 13 family
2 William Makepeace Thackeray, The History of Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond, in The Christmas Books of Mr. M.A. Titmarsh (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1884). Originally published in Fraser’s Magazine, September, October, November, and December, 1841 (vol. xxiv), “Edited and Illustrated by Sam’s Cousin, Michael Angelo.” Michael Angelo Titmarsh, a nom de plume, was “by the middle 1840’s … practically Thackeray’s alter ego,” according to Gordon Ray. Gordon Ray, Thackeray: The Uses of Adversity (New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, Inc., 1955). The full name of the work is cited in the text here, but subsequently the name cited in this text will be shortened to The Great Hoggarty Diamond. In this chapter, further quotations from this source will be parenthetically cited in the text. See also The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray: Volume VIII, Elibron Classics, Adamant Media Corporation, 2007, an unabridged facsimile of the edition published in 1872 by Smith, Elder & Co., London. The text of The History of Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond is also readily available on the Internet. Not only would this novel be suitable for shorter readings in the Victorian classroom (112 pages long); the storyline is exceptionally applicable to current affairs, as it follows the ups
members, a painted miniature of Samuel’s fat grandfather, and the diamond. Here is how Thackeray details its history and appearance:
[It was] a large, old-fashioned locket of Dublin manufacture in the year 1795 … Mr. Hoggarty used to sport [it] at the Lord Lieutenant’s balls and elsewhere. He wore it at the battle of Vinegar Hill3 … In the middle of the brooch was Hoggarty in the scarlet uniform of the corps of Fencibles to which he belonged; around it were thirteen locks of hair, belonging to a baker’s dozen of sisters that the old gentleman had; and, as all these little ringlets partook of the family hue of brilliant auburn, Hoggarty’s portrait seemed to the fanciful view like a great fat red round of beef surrounded by thirteen carrots.4 These were dished up on a plate of blue enamel, and it was from the GREAT HOGGARTY DIAMOND (as we called it in the family), that the collection of hairs in question seemed as it were to spring. (3)5
This bizarre piece of jewelry, depicted imaginatively to look as ridiculous as possible, represents to Thackeray’s reading audience the Irish heritage of defeat and second-rate status at the hands of the English: the Irish rebels had been defeated in 1798 at Vinegar Hill. Through contrast, the diamond’s future transformation further
3 According to Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary (Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Company, Publishers, 1972), Vinegar Hill is in “Wexford SE Eire, East of Enniscorthy on the Slaney river; 398 ft.; scene of defeat of Irish rebels by General Lake June 21, 1798.” According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1930), “Fencibles” is “a kind of militia raised for home service in 1759, and again in 1794, when a force of 15,000 was raised. It was disbanded in 1802. The word is short for defensible.” My thanks go to Sheldon Goldfarb for helping me trace these sources.