Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Little Book for Little Boys

The first World's Fair was 1851's Great Exhibition in London, housed in a grand structure known as the Crystal Palace. After the exhibition's original run was over, the palace moved to its current location in Sydenham and became home to Waterhouse Hawkins' sculptures of prehistoric beasts, including famously inaccurate statues of Iguanodon and Megalosaurus (I'm smitten with these sculptures, and have written about them here a few times).

Great Exhibition 1851 London
Queen Victoria opens the Great Exhibition, shared by World Expo Blog via Flickr.

Idly perusing the halls of Google Books recently, I came across a unique perspective on the exhibition's promise. It comes from a time before the dinosaurs were introduced, but as a Victorian artifact of the Crystal Palace I thought it was worth posting. As the Great Exhibition was set to begin in 1851, the James Nisbet company published The Crystal Palace: A Little Book for Little Boys, which is exactly what it says it is. It tells the story of Frank and George, two little boys who await their chance to visit the Crystal Palace with fevered anticipation. While Frank is a good, obedient child who minds his elders and trusts in the wisdom of his grandmother, George is unashamedly greedy and impatient, often shocking his friend with the depth of his selfishness. He sneaks out when he's told to stay in. He thwarts his governess Mary's attempts to discipline him. He bullies younger children and throws tantrums.

The exhibition, organized to show off the wealth of England as the industrial revolution gained steam - excuse the pun - was seen as a way to showcase the potential of technology to pave the way to a better future. The Crystal Palace is a pious work, clearly written to remind the adult "Georges" of the world that their technological wonders could not offer true peace. It closes with Frank's dying friend Harry using the glass that encloses the wonders of industry as a metaphor for people reshaped by the hand of God: " this very furnace of affliction has my heart of flint, and my loose sand of character, that would not fix itself to any good, been melted down by God, to what you see."

It's basically an eighty page tract, and a nice little peek into the changing Victorian world.

Of all the precociously articulate language put in the children's mouths, my favorite bit by far is this mama's-boy fantasy, dreamt up by Frank. He's just become aware of just how put-upon George's mother is, and imagines himself switching places to serve as the doting son she so richly and desperately deserves.
"I should like to sit upon a stool beside her," said he to himself," and read some pretty book, and talk it over afterwards, and put her pillows smooth, and watch when she seemed tired, and then hold my tongue awhile, and let her fall asleep. I would walk on tip-toe in her room, and never talk too loud to make her head ache, and run of all her errands, and so try to save the servants trouble. Mary would not grumble then, I hope. I must persuade poor George to turn over a new leaf, and see if he is not more happy by it."
The fate of George is left open at the end, but I bet he snuck out of the house the first chance he had once the Hawkins dinosaurs were unveiled.

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