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Free Content Economy, Empire, Extermination: The Christmas Pudding, the Crystal Palace and the Narrative of Capitalist Progress

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In December 1850, some six months before the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851, Charles Dickens’ Household Words published the short story ‘A Christmas Pudding.’ The tale appears to sit comfortably with the way in which many Exhibition commentators set out the meaning and outcomes of the cosmopolitan industrial display, working allegorically to confirm the exhibitionary conceit that global trade was distinguished by peace and progress. However, ‘A Christmas Pudding’ is not straightforward; the formal dialogue through which it explicates industrial capitalism and its impact upon the world is dialogical, rendering problematic the moral which is offered by the tale. Consequently, the story can be understood to problematise a mid-nineteenth century narrative of capitalist progress which was bound up with the Great Exhibition, and which fed into the conceptualisation of rational, modernising, and peaceful English mission to make sense of the way the world the worked. Seen in this light ‘A Christmas Pudding’ undercuts the Exhibition, refusing a laudatory account of international commerce, and offering instead evidence of the imperial intolerance and violence which characterised the Victorian process of globalisation.

Keywords: Great Exhibition; Household Words; Imperialism; Political Economy

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Exeter

Publication date: March 1, 2005

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  • Literature & History is a biannual international refereed journal concerned to investigate the relations between writing, history and ideology. It provides an open forum for practitioners coming from the distinctive vantage points of either discipline (or from other adjacent subject areas) to explore issues of common concern: period, content, gender, class, nationality, changing sensibilities, discourse and language. Unique in its essentially plural identity, Literature & History began publication in 1975 and since 1992 has appeared under the imprint of Manchester University Press. Special issues devoted to a particular period or theme (produced under guest editorship) are published from time to time. Literature & History is a well known, theoretically self-conscious, and much referred to landmark in interdisciplinary studies and has consistently attracted contributions of high calibre.

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