Death as spectacle: the Paris morgue in Dickens and Browning
Martens, B. print (2008) Death as spectacle: the Paris morgue in Dickens and Browning. In: Friedman, S. print, Guiliano, E. print, Humpherys, A. print, McKnight, N. print and Timko, M. print, eds. (2008) Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction. (Volume) New York: Ams Press, Inc., pp. 223-248. ISBN 978-0-404-18939-6
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As an object of macabre fascination, the Paris morgue is without parallel in the Victorian imagination. This article explores the representation of visits to the morgue in Dickens’s Uncommercial Traveller and in Browning’s dramatic monologue “Apparent Failure.” In both cases, this gruesome display of French sensational culture is used to explore a very British middle-class dilemma in the 1860s: how to reconcile the attraction to new forms of sensational entertainment (notably through journalism and fiction) with the fear of succumbing to a “vulgar” sensationalism that had hitherto been the preserve of the working class. Dickens’s traveler experiences the voyeuristic crowd as an extreme version of the mass readership, echoing the idiom of reviewers of sensation novels; yet despite distancing himself from these working-class foreigners, he inescapably shares their fascination with the sensational. Similarly, Browning’s poem exposes the tourist’s (ultimately vain) effort to deny his fascination with the sensational and to claim the moral high ground over French mores. This article thus combines instructive cross-national comparisons with reflections on a specifically British middle-class anxiety over the growth of sensational culture.
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