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  • Nineteenth-Century Auction Narratives and Compassionate Reading
  • Elizabeth Coggin Womack (bio)

Sales by auction resulting from bankruptcy or insolvency are common scenes in nineteenth-century literature, and scholars often take this frequency as evidence of the horror they provoked for contemporary readers. Certainly, the public dismantling of a private home by market forces was a familiar and fearful spectacle during the period; prior to the passing of laws such as the Limited Liability Act of 1855, even well-to-do members of the Victorian middle class were vulnerable to sudden losses. Such scenes constitute, in John McVeagh's words, "an omnipresent calamity in the whole creative writing of the age" (205n7).1 However, this essay argues that the ubiquity of the nineteenth-century auction also posed a problem of representation for novelists, who had to contend with their readers' overexposure to the common threat of bankruptcy—a threat represented in biweekly newspaper reports from the Court of Bankruptcy, but much more frequently through auction advertisements, "a crowd of which," William Makepeace Thackeray notes, appeared "every day in the last page of the Times newspaper" (Vanity Fair 169). While both were appearing in serial form at the height of the 1847 panic, Thackeray's Vanity Fair and Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son preface sentimental appeals on behalf of dispossessed families with allusions to the often-satirized tropes of these auction advertisements. Acknowledging their readers' familiarity with auction print culture and its euphemisms for financial disaster, Dickens, Thackeray, and their contemporaries ask readers to overcome compassion fatigue and restore the narratives of individual suffering that auction advertisements partly elide.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, auction advertisements were a particularly overdetermined genre that served both social and commercial functions. We can get a sense of these dual functions by recalling the line in When Harry Met Sally (1989) when Harry suggests using the obituaries to find a New York City apartment: "What they can do to make it easier is to combine the obituaries with the real estate section. Say, then you'd have 'Mr. Klein died today leaving a wife, two children, and a spacious three-bedroom apartment with a wood-burning fireplace.'" What Harry intends as a morbid joke is actually a straightforward description of how British auction advertisements were understood for almost two hundred years: they combined listings of newly available real estate and furnishings with oblique references to the personal misfortunes of a proprietor, perhaps a "gentleman going [End Page 229] abroad." Of course, not every auction resulted from bankruptcy or death, but the number of satirical sketches by George Augustus Sala and others mocking the open secret of auction conventions allows us to infer that the nineteenth-century reading public was skilled at interpreting auction ads as narratives of misfortune. Cynthia Wall calls eighteenth-century auction advertisements, with their faint suggestions of character, setting, and action, "quasi-novelistic" (10). She speculates that these conventions might have given attendees the sense that they were participating in a drama; moreover, by purchasing goods at the home of a prominent figure, they could write their own story of social ascent. Surely, these pleasures of emulation were accompanied by an element of schadenfreude, for bankruptcy and insolvency were associated with "fraud and chicanery," as Barbara Weiss has shown; while the loss of a home certainly prompted a measure of pity, especially for the women and children living there, bankrupts were often considered undeserving of sympathy (36). Nineteenth-century auctioneers took some steps to neutralize the auction's gossipy dynamic and to create a more detached and efficient marketplace; the move to centralize proceedings at a new auction mart, for example, signified a hope that "encounters in the auction room would be mediated by nothing more than their own commercial disinterest" (Fitz-Gibbon 312). Yet as Desmond Fitz-Gibbon notes, "the entanglements of social relations were never so easily kept out" (313), and the custom of "quasi-novelistic" advertisements lingered.

In novels exploring the competitive dynamics of the British middle class, allusions to auction advertisements are especially potent due to their characteristic jargon. The conspicuous diction, syntax, and paratextual markings of phrases such as "The Capital Modern Household Furniture, &c...


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pp. 229-246
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