Novelty fair

British visual culture between Chartism and the Great Exhibition

Author: Jo Briggs

First performed on 21 May 1850, the satirical play Novelty Fair; or Hints for 1851 opened at almost exactly the middle of the 19th century. Its plot juxtaposes 1848, Chartism and republicanism, with 1851 and the coming Great Exhibition. Using Novelty Fair as inspiration, this book brings together Victorian people, things and places typically understood to be unrelated. By juxtaposing urban fairs and the Great Exhibition, daguerreotypes and ballads, satirical shilling books and government backed design reform, blackface performers and middle-class paterfamilias, a strikingly different picture of mid 19th-century culture emerges. Rather than a clean break between revolution and exhibition, class-consciousness and consumerism, popular and didactic, risqué and respectable, an examination of a wide range of sources reveals these themes to be interdependent and mutually defined. As a result, the years of Chartism and the Great Exhibition are shown to be far more contested than previously recognized, with bourgeois forms and strategies under stress in a period that has often been seen as a triumphant one for that class.

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