Karen Chase & Michael Levenson, University of Virginia
An epigraph. You have it there in front of you.
What do you think of the Great Exhibition, sir? I shall be there. Me and my mates. We are going to send in a copy of werses in letters of gold for a prize. We’ll let the foreigners know what the real native melodies of England is, and no mistake.
The first sentence of Henry Mayhew’s Exhibition novel, 1851, reads as you see it next. “The Great Exhibition was about to attract the sight seers of all the world the sight seers, who make up nine tenths of the human family.” They may make up nine tenths of the species and certainly Mayhew is just the man who would want to count but according to the OED, that word “SIGHT SEERS”; was only two years old at the time when Mayhew began his hasty collaboration with George Cruikshank that gives the odd object, the novel 1851, with a subtitle too long to read in a 20-minute talk..
To a discipline that can be shy about expressing judgments of value, 1851 is a relief. It’s so easy to dislike, easy to recognize the flaccid writing, the weak plotting, the coarse representations. It’s a pleasure to say, without scruple, that this is a bad book.
But then no surprise we immediately say that this bad book is an interesting book, and a useful way into the complex response to the events in Hyde Park. For the sake of the happily uninitiated, we will just say that the story concerns Cursty Sandboys and his Lake District family, who set themselves to resist the lure of the Great Exhibition and to stay home by the lakes, even as all their friends and neighbors desert the village to make the way to the magnet that is London in the year 1851.
They fail. They are forced to follow the human tide south to the Exhibition. And so begins a tedious string of misadventures, held together by a weak comic thread: namely, that no matter how many times Mr. Sandboys sets out to visit the Crystal Palace, he will never succeed in entering the building. Yet in failing to enter the great interior space, he marks out the still greater exterior space, the spectacle beyond the spectacle, the social and cultural network emanating from the building in Hyde Park out into the London web.
In seizing on the new word “sight seer” for the opening sentence of his book, Mayhew is showing his alertness to the emerging conditions of middle class tourism characterized not just by the aura of certain resonant places and artifacts, but by the massification of the tourist experience. To be a “sight seer” is precisely to be someone eager to visit sights seen by others, and moreover, to be willing to see those sights in the uncomfortable, but exciting, conditions of the tourist mass, the crowd of onlookers; never greater in all of history, insists Mayhew, than at the opening of the Crystal Palace.
In this context we recall another early sentence from the novel, where we read that as the opening day approaches, “Every city was arranging some ‘monster train’ to shoot the whole of its inhabitants, at a halfpenny per ton, into the lodging houses of London.” The new power of the railways to move masses of tourists toward the magnetic spectacle _ this is part of the immediate historical register of Mayhew’s remark. But there’s a second register that appears in the off-hand reference to London’s lodging houses.
Those lodging houses, after all, had given some of the most scalding images of filth and immorality in Mayhew’s early writings on the London streets. The heaping of the poor into the confined and dirty spaces was a mark of shameful social failure--an urban catastrophe that not only repelled (and intrigued) Mayhew, but one that became an obsessive preoccupation of the reformers. During this same year 1851, Lord Shaftesbury forced parliament to concentrate on the scandal of lodging house degradation, in which human beings were [quote] “packed upon the floor, in rows, the head of one being close to the feet of another. Each body is placed so close to its neighbour as not to leave sufficient space upon which to set a foot.”
Against the contemporary background, which Mayhew knew and recorded more closely than anyone--it’s all the more extraordinary that in his Exhibition novel, crowded lodging houses became the scene of endless frivolity. In one long sequence, the novel recounts the arrival of French visitors to the exhibition city. One of them insinuates himself into the best bedroom at a girl’s school, and though it first appears that he is alone in the space, we soon have a “small battalion” of forty-eight bearded Frenchmen crushed together in the room, mocking, smoking, romping--all drawn by the exhibition opportunity.
We take this an uncanny moment in the year 1851. Alongside the lurid portraiture of lodging house degradation, appearing in other documents in the same weeks and months, here we find a sunny farce of too many French bodies crammed into small spaces. No disease, no crime, no depravity--no sweat, no theft, no sex.
This is Crystal Palace humor. Mayhew was a sedulous professional, not to say a consummate hack, who suffered no scruples in turning a new London sensation into a publishing calculation: making the unsentimental bet that the fascinated Exhibition public would want to keep reading about its fascinations.
And yet what makes Mayhew such an indispensable witness to the year 1851 is that his opportunism is mixed with conviction. The flabby, rollicking tale of the Sandboys in London --cheated by the Frenchman, victimized by the landlady--is framed by the ethnography of London Labour and the London Poor, which itself turns out to be a surprising source of Exhibition insight.
As the date of the opening approached, Mayhew was conducting his interviews with the poor on the London streets, and at several telling moments--as in our epigraph-- the Exhibition looms up as a gorgeous possibility for the street economy. He interviews a milk seller, who comments--this is on the sheet--that
I don’t understand about this Great Exhibition, but, no doubt, more new milk will be sold when it’s opened, and that’s all I cares about.
“We all expects to do great things during the Exhibition,” says one informant, and another, a street-seller of ices, tips Mayhew a friendly wink:
You’ll keep your eyes open, sir, at the Great Exhibition; and you’ll see a new move or two in the streets, take my word for it. Penny glasses of champagne, I shouldn’t wonder.
“All these poor men,” observes Mayhew, “look forward to the opening of the Great Exhibition with earnest hope and anxiety that the influx of visiters will add greatly to their sale and profits.”
And yet as the thread of the exhibition winds through London Labour, the hopeful tone breaks when the street-sellers--hovering around the building to sell their ices and flowers, their watercress and broadsheets--when the street-sellers begin to realize that they may not be a welcome part of the Crystal Palace tableau. Writing of the street sale of souvenir medals, Mayhew observes that:
The great sale is at present of the Crystal Palace; and one man had heard that there were a great many persons coming to London to sell them at the opening of the Great Exhibition. “The great eggs and bacon, I call it,” he said; “for I hope it will bring us that sort of grub. But I don’t know; I’m afraid there ’ll be too many of us. Besides, they say we shan’t be let sell in the park.”
This is a tension that recurs, the fear that the poor will be deprived of the greatest exhibition, the chance to seize an economic opportunity on an unprecedented scale.
Against the background of these interviews, the novel 1851 offers an astonishing anodyne correction. The London of the novel is the abundant city, the city of inflation, of sight-seers beyond number looking for pleasure without end. It’s not that the world of London Labour is excluded from the fiction; rather that it enters at such an oblique angle and with such a radical shift in valence. Eerily, the novel moves through the same London precincts that Mayhew was then traversing in his journey through poverty, but now an entirely different landscape is displayed. The street sellers are cynical, grasping, amoral--most importantly, they are context-less. The great imaginative act of London Labour and the London Poor – the reach toward the universe in which the poor must dwell--this is entirely lacking in 1851. The Sandboys are cheated by a flower hawker and his confederate, who appear as mere villainous swindlers blocking an innocent family from the joys of the Crystal Palace. The poor here are cadging, filching emanations from a nasty nether world.
Partly, this change has to be seen as an effect of the publishing stratagem--the direct discursive pander to the middle class sight-seer, invited to take up the distracting comic novel as a fit accompaniment to a visit to the Palace. But more interestingly, the wilful anodyne vision of 1851 is a result of Mayhew’s determinedly affirmative reading of the Exhibition as precisely a therapy for the degradations he found on the London streets. Although he has a moment of doubt well captured in Anne Humpherys’ pioneering research, Mayhew moves steadily to the view that the Exhibition is the cure for the urban disease described in London Labour. At the center of the novel, after the long deferral, we readers are allowed to enter the Palace that will forever elude Sandboys. And when the narrative eye finally enters the building, it races around the space with ever-increasing delight. In perhaps his best-known judgment of the event, Mayhew writes that
“The Great Exhibition of the Industry of all Countries is the first public national expression ever made in this country, as to the dignity and artistic quality of labour.” Within its jaunty, exhausting mode of farce, the book 1851 lays bare the distortions of spectacle, the hoopla of sight-seeing, the mystifying pageantry, the opportunism everywhere--including the opportunism of this book which exposes it. But it also conveys the sense, there at its center, of an authenticity beneath the fakery, the utopic scene of an encounter with the truth of labor.
From the first appearance of Mayhew’s writings on the poor, readers begin asking what could be done about the horror. In the year 1851, at least for as long as the Exhibition lasted, there seemed to Mayhew the terms of a solution--which was not philanthropy, nor the assistance of the state, but instead the mere, sheer spectacle of the Exhibition. It would, in effect, be the antidote to the Penny Gaffs of the east end, that theater of license and sensuality which, alongside the lodging-house, serves as the moral anti-type within London Labor.
As opposed to these degraded spaces, the Crystal Palace was London’s clean space of “dignity”, a telling word--because once the contents of the exhibition are seen, fully seen, then human labor will be transformed. The next quotation:
One great good the Exhibition assuredly must do, and that is to decrease the large amount of slop or inferior productions that are flooding the country, and which, in the rage for cheapness, are palmed off as equal to the handiwork of the most dexterous operator. Were the public judges of workmanship -- had they been made acquainted with the best work of the best workmen, and so possessed some standard of excellence by which to test the various kinds of labour, it would be impossible for the productions of the unskilful artisan to be brought into competition with those of the most skilful....Hence we see the tendency of affairs at present is, for the worse to drag the better handicraftsmen down to their degradation, instead of the better raising the worse up to their pre-eminence.
The Crystal Palace incites in Mayhew an entire metaphysics of labor--a vision of the world as divided between inert matter and the aesthetic redemption of work. Or as he puts it in the next sententious remark:
“Ars is the power of mind, in contradistinction to the In-ers, or power of matter.”
A shaping mind encounters shapeless matter--this is the condition of all work and all art--and when it is done poorly, as it done so very shabbily in the London streets, it is a political catastrophe and a metaphysical blight. On the other hand, when labor lives up to its proper dignity, there is no other word than ‘art’ to describe the achievement.
The Crystal Palace for Mayhew was the annunciating moment in the visionary convergence of art and labor. It would offer the cure for shoddiness--for exactly the cheap jim-crack that London Labour was describing. In place of the broken glass, the wilted flowers, the bits of lace, the colored sand, the key rings, the shells, the rat poison--in their place Mayhew thrills to the image of well-made objects, whole and intact, glinting with the aura of honest labor.
Indeed, the sharpest criticism that Mayhew offered of the Great Exhibition was that it failed to understand what it had put on show. It thought in terms of objects, not in terms of the work that makes objects. Its great blunder lies in--next quotation--lay in
the confounding of processes with products. In an Industrial Exhibition to reserve no special place for the processes of industry is very much like the play of Hamlet with the part of Hamlet omitted....
Hamlet is work, Hamlet is the performance of labor, the drama of production, the aesthetic transformation of the dead material world.
Mayhew encourages us to think further into the phenomenology of sight-seeing: to think of gazing versus possessing. In his account of the Exhibition, the central daydreams are those of labor not of ownership, of production rather than consumption. Or to put it more precisely, what is consumed is not the commodity--no one walked away with the reaping machine. What is consumed is a reverie of production, an image of labor as art. Gazing at the power in machines: this is the essential tableau for Mayhew: productive people, workers, looking at productive powers, machines.
And yet there is another sense, a last sense here, in which Mayhew--unsystematically and indeed inadvertently--points to the place of the commodity, the brand, and the markets of exchange. This is not through his explicit writings on the Exhibition as a localized event in a physical space. It’s rather in the power of the spectacle back on the streets of London where the poor hawk their meager wares.
Because his urban ethnography began before the Exhibition and continued afterward, Mayhew’s writings lead up to and down from the event, and within the pages of London Labour and the London Poor, we see the Great Exhibition rejoin the current of the streets.
They may have been watched and harried by the police around the Crystal Palace, but in their own regions the poor could possess the commercial resource of exhibition imagery. And what they possessed, they turned to their own needs and devices. Within Mayhew’s survey, the Great Exhibition shows up in all manner of patched-together items offered for sale: it is printed on envelopes, etched in mugs, carved onto walking sticks, or simply sung out to hook a customer--as in the testimony of an interviewee, there on your sheet, who says,
It’s my dodge to cry... Last week I sung out,“Here’s your Great Exhibition mackarel.” People laughed, but it weren’t no great good.
Here was a commercial failure, but elsewhere Mayhew reports that
One of the books which a poor man had found the most saleable is entitled, The Great Exhibition Song book; a Collection of the Newest and Most Admired Songs. Embellished with upwards of one Hundred Toasts and Sentiments.
Perhaps most interestingly, the “Comic Exhibition” is a name for a series of cheap pennyworths that Mayhew meets on the streets. They began, he points out, as illustrated humorous engravings of the Crystal Palace world: the prince, the politicians, the crowds, the many nations, etc. But though the Great Exhibition was the determinate, datable source of the new street pennyworth, very soon the subjects changed, so that Comic Exhibitions became satires of a wide range of official targets: the Pope, the Church of England, John Bull. “It is somewhat curious,” writes Mayhew,
that the sale of any humorous, or meant to be
humorous sheet of engravings, is now becoming very generally known in
the street sale as a ‘Comic Exhibition.’
Here is a form of commodity exchange – the commodity of the visible spectacle, the recognizable name, the Great Exhibition brand--taken up on the street and turned to new purposes. “Great” inverts to “comic,” and “exhibition” is now the name for a reversal of gaze, a name for all the parodic/satiric artifacts that play against the spectacle of officialdom.
After his loving descriptions of the gleaming
machines in the Palace, Mayhew comes back to the streetware--the cheap
confections that he had hoped the Great Exhibition would begin to eradicate:
the shoddy vehicles of penny commerce. We began with those sight-seers,
newly named and quickly transported, and we end with the street-criers--calling
out their Comic Exhibitions. The stubborn persistence of low technologies
among the poor, their appropriation of a major spectacle for a minor sale--this
isn’t the lesson the Mayhew had hoped to teach, but it is still a lesson
worth learning: that no one controls the meanings of a spectacle like the
Crystal Palace, which are always greater than the greatest exhibition,
and that the poor who were encouraged to rise to the dignity and nobility
of the occasion might instead bring it down to where they lived, making
meanings and mackerels of their own.