Temporality and the Victorian Novel (in progress)

In this list, I aim to explore the complex ways in which Victorians imagined their present moment, on an individual, social, national, imperial, and global scale. I’ll take the pairing of Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present as a particularly relevant heuristic into Victorian temporality:

  • First, it references the “Condition of England” debates which might be considered as inaugural of the Victorian period. Obviously, these debates are about sweeping socio-economic changes in the present moment, but I’d say that that present moment was more imagined as the result of past social change than ongoing social change (i.e. more like the present perfect tense than the present progressive tense). Industrial novels on my list are often set in the past: Shirley is set in 1812-1815 during the Napoleonic wars; Michael Armstrong is set in the 1820s and 1830s; Mary Barton is set in the 1830s and 1840s;  Hard Times seems to be set in a more recent past, but its full title is Hard Times for These Times, recalling Past and Present (Carlyle is the dedicatee).
  • It’s because of this nearer industrializing past that the more remote past becomes a source of alterity. There’s no shortage of Victorian novels set before the birth of their authors, yet which aren’t considered historical novels : Wuthering Heights, Shirley, Adam Bede (not on list), Vanity Fair (not on list)–Little Dorrit and The Mill on the Floss are also set several decades in the past. This is a past that’s recoverable, which can be rendered in a nostalgic light, which can be posited as an origin, rendered on a continuum with the present. Beyond this is a break. The Young England movement and Victorian medievalism posited the middle ages as completely alien to Victorian modernity, and it was this rupture that provided the force of Carlyle’s critique. On the other hand, the incongruity of this more distant past is exploited for comic purposes in Barchester Towers, with Miss Thorne’s quintains and other exagerrated Toryisms.
  • Perhaps this favoring of past settings is characteristic of Victorian realism. It’s only the recent-ish past that can be posited as fully known, fully knowable, capable of being made the object of an omniscient gaze. Those genres which challenge the norms of realist fiction, Sensation novels and New Woman novels, tend to be set in the present moment, after all.
  • Space plays a big role in conceptualizing the past and the present, of course–the country and the city, predominantly. Raymond Williams’ point, though, is that it’s not so much that the city represents the tumultuous present and the country some untouched idealized past, and that that’s a wishful projection (duh), but that this trope that occurs throughout pretty much the entire history of English literature responds to actual historical changes at the time of writing that critics need to recover. Pastoral scenes figure prominently in industrial novels, most notoriously in the opening to Mary Barton. Michael Armstrong’s formative years after running away from Deep Valley Mill are spent in a literally pastoral environment straight out of Wordsworth. There’s less of a yearning for the country in Hard Times and Shirley–but then, there’s scarcely any “industry” in those novels either. Absent from all of those is any acknowledgment of mass migrations from the country to the city, or to the industrialization of the countryside (well, there’s some in Shirley, but it’s all to make us sympathetic to the provincial capitalist). In Oliver Twist, it’s particularly ironic when Oliver’s recovering in the countryside with the Brownlow–the orphanage was in the countryside, after all.
  • It’s interesting to think about the country/city divide with reference to Fabian’s Time and the Other. On the one hand, there’s a definite sense of allochrony–the time of the city (artificial, quantified) isn’t the time of the country (natural, organic). But could you say that there’s a “denial of coevalness”? Yes, if you’re talking about the rural labourer–and when you get to Hardy, Williams points out, that temporal split is carried within the educated “rustic.” However, does not the dance between country and city make it possible to deny even the denial of coevalness between England and non-Western peoples? (I’d say “non-Western peoples” as opposed to Empire since it’s theimplication that the people from “Borrioboula-Gha” have absolutely no connection to Britain that motivates the Mrs Jellyby caricature.) In industrial novels, a common trope is saying something along the lines of how compassionate the English are for the sufferings of others (especially slaves in America) while white people in their own country are living in even worse conditions. There’s a heterogeneity of time within Britain which produces a homogeneity of time in the rest of the world.

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