Victorian Novels as People Museums

The Victorians have a history of loving different things from different cultures. Often these are things that they label as oddities and keep in places for the public or the wealthy to ogle at like the crystal palace. I propose that the Victorians were not just collecting items from other cultures but also people. More specifically, that the Victorians collected different people in their writing similarly to how they would collect different objects in their lives. I believe that two good examples of this are the books A Study in Scarlet and Daisy Miller. I believe that both of these book display odd aspects of, primarily, the American people to present to the reader to be fascinated over. In A Study in Scarlet the primary culprate explains to the reader that he had been enacting his revenge on the devout Mormon men that led to his lover’s death and that of her father. The novel focuses a great deal on the background of the victims and how the Mormon church functions in the way of their faith. While there are Mormons in England and there were Mormons in England then, based on their depiction and demonetization in A Study in Scarlet I would argue that they were treated as odd and strange. A similar treatment occurs in Daisy Miller. Throughout the novel Daisy Miller and her family are treated as odd and semi-wild. There are often commented on in ways that leave even the narrator perplexed and fascinated by them. Often characters find themselves confused with what class the Miller family belongs to, this being strange to most of Europe, and utterly fascinated with how oddly they all behave in comparison with how well they dress. As a matter of fact, the book is dedicated to focusing on how peculiar Daisy alone is. Daisy not only acts with a complete disregard of social expectations and manners, but also pursues what she desires in the way of her own sexuality and interests. These aspects of Daisy and the American Mormons are treated as so odd yet fascinating the writers of these books have dedicated a good portion of the book to explaining how odd these people are. In this sense, I believe that this was the writer’s way of presenting people as oddities to ogle over in writing. This, I believe, is not only done to fascinate the Victorian reader, but also to hold their attention and draw them into the story in a way that only an oddity could. 

One thought on “Victorian Novels as People Museums”

  1. I agree that many of the Victorian novels we’ve read this semester (especially the ones you’ve mentioned) have ogled at particular characters who that represent an unfamiliar concept or institution. In the case of the Mormon, he represented a type of religious community that was unfamiliar and therefore threatening to the British at the time. If you want to even look at Sherlock Holmes and how he is “othered” by the narrator and characters in the book, you could see how his oddity is the fact that he shows signs of being neurodivergent in some sense. I am unsure of whether his character is a stab at trying to tackle the existence of intellectual diversity (not sure if that is the right phrase), but it is clear that Holmes represents an existence for which most Victorian people at the time (including Arthur Conan Doyle the physician) did not have the vocabulary to describe. Finally, Daisy Miller represents American culture, which at that point had strayed even farther away from its British origins.

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