To evaluate the role of jewels in Victorian literature and culture is to engage in the crucial tasks of thinking through characters’ subjective perceptions of jewels in novels and appreciating the historical, culture-wide production of jewels as material objects. While during the nineteenth century, material objects were often thought to be the basis for determining what is real, other quite distinct Western points of view about material objects and the material world have circulated both before and after the Victorian era. Over the past four centuries, for example, Western culture has variously viewed jewels as objects of desire, products of empire, repositories of monetary value, representations of accepted respectability and morality, symbols of class prestige, signs of gender definition, evidence of changing fashion, ideal representations of people carved into cameos, or, in the case of miniatures, sentimental remembrances of particular individuals. This variety demonstrates that perceptions about material objects are contingent and changeable, even though the very existence of these objects is historically and culturally determined. Reviewing some ways that Western culture has perceived objects during the modern period contextualizes and deepens any study analyzing how characters in Victorian novels respond to their jewels, how we can think about those dynamic relations with these material objects, and what we can ultimately learn from such a study. Over the course of this chapter, I tap into what George Eliot terms “the provinces of masculine knowledge,” the domain of knowledge inaccessible to Dorothea Brooke, heroine of Middlemarch (I.7.47). Consequently, in surveying a broad history of Western perceptions of the physical world that have been published and handed down, I necessarily call upon male writings, for to my present knowledge, epistemological considerations concerning the physical world appear to fall into the exclusive domain of this male tradition. I therefore refer to the two related projects that Mary Jacobus delineates concerning women’s writing: first, how women, “necessarily working within ‘male’ discourse … work
… to deconstruct it,” and second, how women might “explore the extent to which patriarchal representation, by contrast, ‘silences’ women.”3 In response to the second project, one would have to ask, how did women who were contemporaries of Descartes in the early modern period think about the physical world and material objects? Or did they? The answers to this question would open up new and exciting areas of investigation in gender studies.