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Friday, March 11, 2011

The Reception of Uncle Tom's Cabin in Victorian Europe

Uncle Tom's Cabin was wildly popular in Europe, particularly in England, leading to the coinage of the term Tom-mania.  The popularity of the novel is reflected by the production of 11 different stage productions in the first year following its publication.  The character Uncle Tom as used in non-slavery related marketing as well, advertising china and coffee.  The novel's popularity revolved around British interest in American society.  The foreign mannerisms as well as the practice of slavery caused British readers to snag copies of the book voraciously.  Among the reading public, Uncle Tom was an instant hit. 

Nevertheless, the press was wary of the novel's possible influence among the English working class.  One periodical in particular, the London Times, relentlessly attacked the work on social grounds.  According to the Times, the slaves of America lived much better lives than the English working class, and the fear was that advocating the emancipation of the slaves would lead to an uprising among the lower classes of England.  Through this reasoning, the Times discredits the abolitionist cause as political ploy for one  group to seize control of the country.  Ultimately, the paper views Stowe's object in writing the novel as an attempt to get the masses riled up to promote social unrest.  Nevertheless, another periodical viewed the novel as an attack on American society that proves the superiority of the English. 

Among her literary companions, Stowe received mixed reviews.  Tolstoy praised Stowe's unparalleled writing acumen while George Sand noted Stowe's "genius of goodness."  Heinrich Heine read a German translation while in Paris and had a religious experience.  Others, however, were not impressed.  Dickens, who championed social causes himself, called the book "noble but defective."

Sources:  Runaway to Heaven (1963), Johanna Johnston
American Slaves in Victorian England (2000), Audrey Fisch

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