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The It-Narrative as Material Culture Methodology: Practical Applications for Historians

By Kerry Love (@kerrymlove)

A popular novel format in the eighteenth century was the ‘it-narrative,’ or ‘novel of circulation,’ whereby the story was told by an inanimate object, such as a coin, quill or a coach, or an animal such as a pet dog, in first person. Their treatment in literary studies has been covered by Mark Blackwell and others, but I would suggest that the it-narrative holds worth in other disciplines beyond literature, such as material culture history or museum studies. [1]

Eighteenth-century studies have paid significant attention to the grand, luxurious and richly decorated products of the period: inextricably tied to colonialism, these histories bring images of chinoiserie, fine porcelain, and lavish textiles to mind. However, novels of circulation centre on the everyday object, interpreting the way in which individuals of all classes might interact with an object, unconstrained by such boundaries. The repeated appearances of mobile objects are what entice the social or material historian, but from a literary perspective they allowed the story to be salacious and scandalous without tarring a narrator with such immoral behaviour as gossiping. Thomas Bridges’ The Adventures Of a Bank-Note (1771) tells of various interactions in being passed from person to person, ‘overhearing’ conversations about the ‘Middlesex election’ and ‘American troubles’ – the roots of the eventual American War of Independence – in a coffeehouse. Money is the perfect object for this literary format: easily circulated, used by a variety of individuals, and facilitating sociability in a public space. These facts all lend themselves to a lively plot, but they are no less true when we consider the life of a bank note from a historical perspective.

Frontispiece and title page of Pompey the Little (1751).

My thesis focuses on political objects in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, but I have also recently recorded lecture content introducing how to study objects as historical sources for GCSE students, and have found that the concept itself can enable us to critically consider the lives of historical objects. Given material culture methodologies often place the object at the centre, subverting the focus for historical analysis away from people, and on to our relationship with ‘things,’ the it-narrative’s reversal of narrative focus feels remarkably similar. The fact that they emerged in my period of study provides additional interest – but considering the lives of historical objects is without a doubt what sits at the core of material culture studies, and the thread that connects so many disciplines to the study of objects.

It-narratives can also serve as a good starting point when considering the emotive response individuals may have to objects, as well as their role in shaping them. The narrators often centre themselves as the most reliable narrator, satirising the novel by conveying the ‘true’ experiences they witness, devoid of the sentimental persuasions of a human. [2] Emotions and tactile responses, however, are not something the material culture historian should lose sight of. Sensory experiences of the object, derived from its physical form and how it was used, can be very useful in analysing the ways in which eighteenth-century commerce defined, and was defined by, the needs of the consumer. In the context of my own work, emotions are equally important, acting as the driver behind crafting a banner, or displaying a political plate in one’s home.

The self-awareness of this peculiar literary form draws in even the most cautious of other disciplines and forces the historian to look at their sources from a fresh perspective. The multi-disciplinary nature of material culture studies is referenced in almost every key text. Although imperfect, this literary connection could benefit historians looking to think creatively about how objects move from place to place as well as highlighting that contemporary writers were equally as aware of consumerism and the man-made object as any historian today. Perhaps in writing material culture history, we construct our own it-narrative, and so as the most basic of objects hold their place in our lives, so do their stories.


[1] Mark Blackwell, ‘The It-Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Animals and Objects in Circulation,’ Literature Compass, Vol. 1, (1), January 2003 ‐ December 2004.

[2] Crystal B. Lake, ‘Feeling Things: The Novel Objectives of Sentimental Objects’ The Eighteenth Century, Vol. 54, No. 2, pp. 183-193

Image 1: An Illustration from prominent it-narrative Pompey the Little (1751). The illustration from Pompey the Little is made available through the British Museum’s online collection at https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1868-0808-3916

Image 2: The image of the frontispiece and title page of Pompey the Little is licensed under Creative Commons License CC BY 2.0 and can be found at https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/1ec7e56f-bc7e-4306-9b20-0ae5ba8f89fd

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