The World for a Shilling: how the Great Exhibition of 1851 shaped a nation by Michael Leapman, The Edge of the Crowd by Ross Gilfillan

The urban underbelly beyond the Crystal Palace
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The Independent Culture

As Michael Leapman suggests in his entertaining and engaging account, the tremendous success of the Great Exhibition owed something to luck. "A Consort anxious to make his mark; a burgeoning manufacturing industry looking to expand its horizons; the dawn of the age of mass travel; a world riven by fractiousness but recognising that self-interest demanded greater levels of international co-operation": all of these converged to ensure that the exhibition housed in Paxton's magnificent Crystal Palace in Hyde Park captured the imagination of the nation and the world between May and November 1851.

Such success could not have been predicted, and there was doubt that the great event would ever occur, let alone on time. Worries about insurrectionists from abroad and anxieties about working-class revolts at home had many observers, particularly fashionable Londoners who lived near Hyde Park, predicting doom and gloom. This was, after all, only a few years after the European revolutions of 1848, and the memory of Chartist uprisings were still writ large in middle-class minds.

The bullish magazine John Bull was particularly xenophobic, fearing "the influx of large masses of visitors, whose moral standard in their own homes is considerably below our own". A scaremongering pamphlet warned that "no history, no poetry, no national code, no religion exists without some allusion to the danger of vast multitudes".

What the Great Exhibition staged was the first mass spectacle – all social classes visited, as many as 50,000 per day – and the rise of the "mass" would dominate the rest of the century in politics, media and education.

Leapman is particularly strong at presenting the detail of the organisation, building and contents. In one chapter, he gives us a walking tour through the national displays, bringing alive what might otherwise be leaden facts. I kept hoping for more analytical discussion of the ideology behind the Great Exhibition, perhaps in relation to the urban, capitalist culture of advertising, publicity and spectacle emerging in wake of the industrial revolution. The attempt to display the culture and technology of the world was an audaciously ambitious one.

Ross Gilfillan's novel The Edge of the Crowd, set in the summer of 1851, might have offered more of that context. Here, a newspaper columnist named Henry Hilditch (modelled on Henry Mayhew) takes to the streets in order to find the lost love of his life. His forays into the underworld and the slums of the East End bring him into contact with an aspiring photographer, who wishes to turn photography into High Art.

Gilfillan's novel is much concerned with the visual impact of London. He tries to convey the feeling of teeming masses packed in traffic jams, and Hilditch adopts the familiar role of the flâneur who enters the crowd only to remain emotionally detached from it.

Yet, the novel never quite manages to exploit the tagline on the cover: "a novel of love, science and photography". It opens and closes with scenes of the Great Exhibition, and notes along the way that while the exhibition represents the dazzling surfaces of contemporary life, Hilditch's urban explorations are evidence of the squalid underbelly. But the idea of urban vision – of how we see and interpret the city in the burgeoning modernity of mid-century London – remains underdeveloped.

The sort of spectacular display on offer at the Great Exhibition, along with the new art and science of photography, and the observational encounters of the journalist, never combine powerfully enough with the central narrative. Gilfillan's is a wonderful idea, and he succeeds in describing London memorably, but the attempt to novelise Mayhew's urban explorations makes the original seem all the more compelling.

Mark Turner