19th Century London: A Not-So-Distant Mirror

This fall we’re featuring two exhibits in the Walter Havighurst Special Collections exhibit gallery. Both focus on 19th century London, but expose different facets of the outcomes of the Industrial Revolution. Both also feature some of our more wonderful books. The exhibits are free and open to the public and will be available through December 14, 2012.

The Heart of London: Charles Dickens and Social Reform features three of his major novels along with contemporary non-fiction that address some of the social issues that Dickens felt strongly about, including: the workhouses and criminalization resulting from the New Poor Laws of 1834, whose evils he described in both Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend; the debtor prisons that formed the setting and theme for Little Dorrit; as well as the social climbing and avarice arising from the new market economy of the day, addressed in the latter two titles. Dickens’s remarkable storytelling abilities, sympathetic  characters and his intimate knowledge of London contributed to his effectiveness as an apologist for social reform.

The mechanization of papermaking and printing also revolutionized the available formats of published works, sparking the century’s boom in the periodical press. Dickens’ novels are shown in a variety of these formats, from the first chapter of Oliver Twist as it appeared in the magazine Bentley’s Miscellaney in 1837, to the chapters of Our Mutual Friend issued in separate parts, to the three volume “three-decker” edition of Master Humphrey’s Clock.

The Crystal Palace & the Great Exhibition of 1851, curated by Special Collections Librarian Kim Tully, provides a different perspective on a London forever changed by the rapid evolution of transportation, manufacturing and commerce. An early world’s fair, the Great Exhibition provided a venue to display the benefits of the Industrial Revolution: its wide array of goods, its conveniences, and its technological capability to bring the world closer together. We have several original documents from the Great Exhibition showcasing the remarkable Crystal Palace, an icon of the age.

In the course of developing the Dickens exhibit, it occurred to me more than once that our own age has quite a bit in common with that of Dickens. We are seeing the results, both positive and negative, of our own economic transition: some are foundering at the same time others enjoy the fruits of that transition. As a society we struggle with how to resolve these contradictions.

I hope you’ll visit us to see both exhibits and consider whether we might have more to learn from the Victorians than we often assume.

Elizabeth Brice
Assistant Dean for Technical Services and
Head, Special Collections & Archives