I’m Going To See The Exhibition For A Shilling
Let all the world say what they will,
I do not care a fig.
The Exhibition I will see,
If I don’t dash my wig;
If I sell the pig and donkey,
The frying pan and bed,
I will see the Exhibition
While it is a bob a head.
Never mind the rent or taxes,
Dear Polly come with me,
To the great Exhibition all
The wonders for to see.
London, Disley, Printer, Arthur-street, Oxford-street (1851)
Letter From Charles Dickens to G. W. Curtis (April 1851)
“As you do not say that you are coming to see the great exhibition I conclude that you intend to be the man, memorable through future ages, who didn’t see it” (Letters 371)
27 April 2010
Dickens and the House of Glass
There has been much discussion about the shift in Dickens’ writing starting with Bleak House, how his style and tone darkened. Surely there were a number of different motivations that caused this shift in style and tone; however, there is one event that seems to have some amount of influence in the writing of Bleak House: The Great Exhibition of 1851. The Exhibition is one of those events that modern life has a hard time understanding. How could something that could be described as a museum or a trade show alter society, much less a book? To understand the answer we must first understand the Great Exhibition itself.
The Great Exhibition was the first international exhibition ever held. “The history of the world, I venture to say” wrote Henry Cole, one of the most important men involved in the planning and execution of the Exhibition, “records no event comparable in its promotion of human industry, with that of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in 1851. A great people invited all civilized nations to a festival, to bring into comparison the works of human skill” (Gibbs Smith p7). In essence The Great Exhibition was a trade show; something that has been around since the Middle Ages, but the scope of it was what set it apart from the trade shows of the past. The goal was no less than the inclusion of every important type and process of manufacturing then known, the successful appeal to all classes of the population, the stimulation of trade, the creation of holiday travel, and to promote education of the public. The location for the Great Exhibition was known as the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London. The building was a gigantic structure of wood, iron, and glass that stretched out to the length of over six football fields. Half of the 990,000 square foot building was given over to the British and the other half to the nations of the world. Each exhibit would be grouped into one of six primary categories and thirty sub-categories. The six major divisions were: Raw Material, Machinery, Manufactures: Textile Fabrics, Manufactures: Metallic, Vitreous and Ceramic, Miscellaneous, and Fine Arts (Gibbs-Smith pg 16). There were 13,937 exhibitors showing over 100,000 exhibits. It was opened for only five months and fifteen days. It had over six million visitors (Gibbs-Smith pg 24).
So what does this have to do with Dickens? First off in May of 1850, a committee set up by Prince Albert to “promote the interests of the working classes at the exhibition and to interest them in it” (Auerbach 130). Known as the Central Working Class Committee (CWCC), they consisted of members of Parliament, the clergy, and a few known literary figures such as Thackeray and Dickens. The CWCC requested to be officially sanctioned by the Royal Commission, the agency ultimately responsible for the Exhibition. The request was denied. Dickens proposed to dissolve the CWCC. It had been in existence for less than a month. According to one of the members of the CWCC, the Royal Commission refused to exhibit any artifacts...