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Cultural Encounters with the Arabian Nights in Nineteenth-Century Britain$
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Melissa Dickson

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781474443647

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474443647.001.0001

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Magic and Machines at the Great Exhibition

Magic and Machines at the Great Exhibition

(p.141) Chapter 4 Magic and Machines at the Great Exhibition
Cultural Encounters with the Arabian Nights in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Melissa Dickson

Edinburgh University Press

Chapter 4 turns to the accumulation of goods at the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was frequently understood as another theatrical manifestation of the Arabian Nights, within the ‘fairy-tale’ Crystal Palace in the heart of Britain. A new and innovative architectural form, the palace and its contents challenged the viewer’s vision, judgement, and sense of scale to such an extent that recourse was made to the language of magic in an effort to represent its unfamiliar effects. The palace and the objects it contained had apparently materialised like the stuff of dreams. Within this transformative space, the magnificence of Britain’s industrial resources became truly apparent only by way of comparison, by the jostling together of old and new, of fictional and material, and of machinery and magic. Here, an anxious meta-narrative emerged about the nature of modern production and consumption. Casting those products originating from India, China and elsewhere within a framework of magic and the Arabian Nights was, this chapter argues, a part of the rhetoric of British modernity, which made the comparison between nations and their wares more palatable by insisting that supposedly ‘inferior’ nations had employed the agency of magic. Such a narrative generated wonder both for the beautiful, often hand-crafted productions that had supposedly been wrought by magic, and of the advancements of British civilisation, which had apparently gained, through science, all the powers of Aladdin’s lamp.

Keywords:   Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace, India, Thing Theory, Fetish, Thugs, Memory, Material Culture

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