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What does it mean to point to your nose with your right index finger? The Victorians would immediately understand the meaning of this gesture that appears in George Cruikshank’s “A Chapter of Noses” from My Sketch Book (1834) and “The Jew and Morris Bolter Begin to Understand Each Other” for Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838).  Pointing to your nose was a way to signal to another that you share a private understanding, that you are “in the know.” Through Victorian illustrated books and periodicals, “‘In the Know,’ Victorian Style” illuminates aspects of Victorian culture, which—like gesturing to the nose—are not readily understood by readers today.  This inside look into life in the Victorian age is designed to help today’s readers be “in the know.”

The first case, “In the Know in Victorian Life,” provides information on the economic reality of Victorian times.  For example, one could buy an installment of a popular serial for a shilling, but for 1/12th of that same shilling, a family could buy a stale 4-lb. loaf of bread to feed a whole family.  The binding of a bound book (boards, cloth, leather, gilding) tells us how much it was worth in Victorian times and who could afford to purchase it.

The second case, “In the Know Inside the Victorian Home,” recognizes that material objects spoke volumes to the Victorians.  To the Victorian viewer, the small figurine of Paul Pry on Mrs. Corney’s mantel in “Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney Taking Tea” from Oliver Twist was immediately recognizable. Paul Pry, a stock character from a well-known play by John Poole also called Paul Pry (1825), was known to appear at inopportune moments and pry into another’s business.  The figure signals Mr. Bumble’s corrupt motivation for marrying Mrs. Corney.  

The third case, “In the Know about Victorian Love,” illuminates Victorian style courtship etiquette.  For example, Victorian valentines were popular missives of love, and they contain flowers rich in meaning. Today we still associate a rose with love, but those “in the know” recognize there was an entire language of flowers to convey your sentiments.  

The fourth and final case, “In the Know about Victorian Humor,” illuminates what Victorians considered to be funny. Changing dynamics of Victorian life and customs were prime vehicles for humor.  While today a hat is not a necessity for a gentleman, Robert Seymour captures Samuel Pickwick at the height of indignity in The Pickwick Papers (1837) as he chases after his runaway hat to the amusement of the hatted onlookers.

This exhibit comes from EN 228H, “The Victorian Illustrated Book,” under the supervision of Professor Catherine J. Golden, Department of English; Wendy Anthony, Special Collections Curator; and Jane Kjaer, Public Access Assistant.

The exhibit will be on display until July 14, 2017.

Click here to see a slideshow sample of images from the exhibit, and learn more in this booklet created by EN 228H, "The Victorian Illustrated Book" students and Professor Catherine J. Golden.

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