The final event of the summer term for the Birkbeck Forum for Nineteenth-Century Studies will feature Rachel Teukolsky (Vanderbilt): presenting on 'Cartomania: Sensation, Celebrity, and the Democratized Portrait' on Tuesday July 1, 2014 from 6:00pm to 8:00pm in the Keynes Library, 43 Gordon Square, London, WC1H 0PD.
Sensation novels, with their lurid plotlines and assorted cast of bigamists, madwomen, and murderesses, have attracted much attention from literary scholars. Yet the term 'sensation' was applied in the 1860s to any scandalous or crowd-pleasing object, from tightrope walkers to mouthwash. In this paper, I offer a multimedia account of sensation that looks to an aspect of its visual culture specifically, the vogue for cartes-de-visite that exploded onto the cultural scene at exactly the same moment as sensation did. Known as 'cartomania,' the cartes-de-visite craze inspired the creation and collection of millions of small photographic portraits. The carte introduced a new kind of celebrity, one based on image, notoriety, and a fleeting kind of fame familiar to us from today's tabloid culture. In the sensation economy of the carte, image was everything, especially the erotic image of questionable women actresses, courtesans, and female criminals. Both sensation novels and cartes-de-visite, I will argue, upended traditional divides of class and gender by foregrounding powerful women of dubious backgrounds.