The Mysteries of Paris and London
University of Virginia Press, 1992 - 415
In this ambitious and exciting work Richard Maxwell uses nineteenth-century urban fiction--particularly the novels of Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens--to define a genre, the novel of urban mysteries. His title comes from the "mystery mania" that captured both sides of the channel with the runaway success of Eugene Sue's Les mysteres de Paris and G. W. M. Reynold's Mysteries of London.
Richard Maxwell argues that within these extravagant but fact-obsessed narratives, the archaic form of allegory became a means for understanding modern cities. The city dwellers' drive to interpret linked the great metropolises with the discourses of literature and art (the primary vehicles of allegory). Dominant among allegorical figures were labyrinths, panoramas, crowds, and paperwork, and it was thought that to understand a figure was to understand the city with which it was linked. Novelists such as Hugo and Dickens had a special flair for using such figures to clarify the nature of the city.
Maxwell draws from an array of disciplines, ideas, and contexts. His approach to the nature and evolution of the mysteries genre includes examinations of allegorical theory, journalistic practice, the conventions of scientific inquiry, popular psychiatry, illustration, and modernized wonder tales (such as Victorian adaptations of the Arabian Nights).
In The Mysteries of Paris and London Maxwell employs a sweeping vision of the nineteenth century and a formidable grasp of both popular culture and high culture to decode the popular mysteries of the era and to reveal man's evolving consciousness of the city. His style is elegant and lucid. It is a book for anyone curious about the fortunes of the novel in the nineteenth century, the cultural history of that period, particularly in France and England, the relations between art and literature, or the power of the written word to produce and present social knowledge.
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