Tag Archives: 1851

‘What connection can there be?’: Objects, People and Place, c.1851″; paper at MIVSS, 29th June

On Friday 29th June, I presented a paper at the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar which focused on the theme of “Victorian Things Revisited” (full conference write-up here). My paper “‘What connection can there be?’: Objects, People and Place, c. 1851” represents a new direction in my work, developing an emerging interest in material culture and the ways in which objects can be reconsidered in the context of space and mobility.

The paper originated in some research on Bleak House last summer, when I began to think more about the significance of the Great Exhibition for the national-global relations in the novel. I was particularly interested in some images by George Cruikshank (below), and the many questions they open up around the relationship between people, things, and place. As I blogged at the time, in looking at these images one can’t help but recall the central question of Bleak House: “what connexion can there be […] between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nonetheless, been very curiously brought together!”

Cruikshank’s images illustrate the text of Henry Mayhew’s comic novel 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys and family who came up to London to ‘enjoy themselves’ and to see the Great Exhibition, and it was this that formed the focus of my paper. Most attention to this text has focused on the glimpses Mayhew gives us of the Exhibition, where we find an interest in the objects on display, the new people present in an internationalised London, and the potential social good of the Exhibition (against the backdrop of Mayhew’s other work of the same year, London Labour and the London Poor). But what interested me most was the way in which the narrative surrounding this also demonstrates a continual interest in things, people, and place, and their changing relations to one another. As the Sandboys family make their way to and around London, they encounter a continual stream of comic accidents and misfortunes in which people and things repeatedly surface and come into contact in unexpected ways. In particular, it’s the connections forged through the mobility of people and things, and the implications for the space of the nation, which emerges as a key question of the text.

The wider framework for this reading, which I’m still teasing out somewhat, is the move towards thinking about objects in the context of global networks of mobility. This has emerged particularly in the context of imperial networks of commodities, and John Plotz’s Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move is a fascinating study of objects “on the move”, suggesting that pieces of “portable property” become resonant repositories of national identity in an increasingly global, mobile world. Plotz’s main concern is with objects moving out from Britain, and his reading of “reverse portability” is concerned primarily with identifying an “imperial panic” raised by objects coming into Britain. I think, though, there’s a lot more to be said about the circulation of objects (both British and foreign) within Britain not just as producing an adverse imperial reaction but also for the narratives of national identity, and physical traces of national space, that mobile objects create. There is, too, further scope for thinking about the ways in which objects function within a world being physically reshaped through mobile networks; objects make visible the abstract concept of a compressing world space, leave tangible traces of the connectedness of the nation to wider networks of mobility.

These are ideas that I’ll be exploring as I develop the paper further, and the discussion that followed was extremely helpful in shaping some of the directions this will take. I’ll be thinking more about 1851 alongside Bleak House, another novel written in the wake of the Great Exhibition and similarly preoccupied with the connections between people and things on the move; I was reminded, though, that there’s the potential for connections to work as a more positive, benevolent force in Dickens, whereas my reading of Mayhew focused more on the anxiety surrounding these interactions. There’s also more to be said around ideas about bodies and/as places/things: my discussion of body-thing interactions started to stray into ideas around embodiment and of the body-as-place, with feminist geography theory lurking in the background; in my next reading of the text I’ll be thinking more about the mobility of the gendered body and the more nuanced readings of place/space relations that this might open up.

I’m entering into discussions of objects from the perspective of someone more familiar with ideas around space and mobility rather than material culture and I’ve still got a way to go with fully drawing out the nuances of these arguments – and I’m aware that a lot more reading (and re-reading) on material culture awaits – but I’m excited by the wealth of ideas this has opened up; it feels like this work will be productive both in terms of the perspectives on objects and material culture that it provides, and for refreshing my thinking on mobility and space.

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“What connection can there be?”: the Great Exhibition of 1851

All the World Going to the Great Exhibition

I took a short research trip to the British Library last weekend, doing some work on the Great Exhibition of 1851 as context for current writing on Dickens’s Bleak House, and while I was there I took the time to look at the originals of these pictures which I’ve come across in a couple of articles on the subject. They’re illustrations from Henry Mayhew’s comic novel 1851: or, The Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys and Family, who came up to London to “enjoy themselves” and to see the Great Exhibition. I haven’t yet read 1851 (the title doesn’t exactly leave much to the imagination, but I do know that the Sandboys never actually make it to the Exhibition…) but these images are wonderful depictions of the anxieties surrounding the Exhibition. The opening image, above, shows “All the World going to see the Great Exhibition of 1851”; with the Crystal Palace standing on top of the world as the triumphant, celebrated achievement of the modern era, people of all nations encroach in to see it. Cultures are identified through stereotypical tropes typical of the period, but whilst people are visibly different in the bottom half of the picture – there’s a clear sense of a scale of “civilization” operating across this globe – closer to the Palace the crowd becomes a homogenous, undistinguishable mass of people. This visibly depicts Prince Albert’s words that the Exhibition signalled “that great end, to which, indeed, all history points – the realisation of the unity of mankind”. It’s notable, too, that this is a boundariless and borderless world; people are different, but the space in which they move is one.

dispersion

The final image of the book, titled “The Dispersion of the Works of All Nations from the Great Exhibition of 1851”, is suggestive of the uncertainty of such unity: the objects of the Exhibition burst out from the Crystal Palace, dispersing into random confusion. Whilst the Exhibition attempted to impose neat systems of categorisation and re-asserted national borders by arranging objects by country, this image shows the complete disruption of organising systems; bringing all the world together does not result in a harmonious unity, but rather a descent into chaos that resists all containment. Notably, it’s only objects that are dispersing, not the people of the previous image; things overrun the globe, highlighting the move into global capitalism that the Exhibition space stands as representative of. The Palace itself is in the centre of the picture, obscured by flying objects, yet in tact and unharmed – I can’t decide, looking at it now, if it’s suggesting a spontaneous explosion of objects out of the building that can’t contain all this chaos, or rather an active expulsion of things away from British shores (as implied in the title “dispersion”). Both readings work, I think, and stand to assert the problems inherent in the Exhibition’s global project and the counter-response of national introspection that we find in a novel like Bleak House.

Finally, these two images bring to mind one of the central questions of Bleak House: “what connexion can there be […] What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nonetheless, been very curiously brought together!” (256). We might easily substitute “things” in place of “people” and read the Exhibition as an attempt to form the connections between the diverse places and cultures of the world but which, as Cruikshank’s second image suggests, simultaneously signalled the impossibility of such understanding. The question lingers through Dickens’s text as another element of the novel’s anti-Exhibition project, never giving us the totalizing view but rather revealing the impossibility of knowing the whole in a world in which everything is “moving on and moving on”.