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  • Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries, and English Diurnal Form 1660–1785
  • Cynthia Wall
Stuart Sherman. Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries, and English Diurnal Form 1660–1785. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Pp. xviii + 323. $60.00 cloth, 19.95 paper.

In this elegant study of time and narrative in the eighteenth century, Stuart Sherman writes that Crusoe’s “textual labor results in a kind of temporal microscopy . . . that makes the small large and the familiar strange” (237). Such a claim applies to Telling Time itself: the book moves closely over the history of watches, the habits of diarists, and the shifting patterns of genres, with an attention to detail that richly inflects and even reinvents ways of reading Pepys, Addison, Defoe, Johnson, Boswell, and Burney. Telling Time is an important original contribution to literary and cultural studies—beautifully written, powerfully argued, historically and theoretically contextualized.

The first chapter sets out the historical drama of clocks: the cultural and technological shift from hearing time marked by church bells on the quarter hour to telling time in increasingly small, private, accurate units—pocket watches with minute hands. Narrative entwines from the start: “tick, tick, tick,” described by a startled maidservant early in the seventeenth century, historically and culturally comes to be perceived as “tick, tock”—Kermode’s simplest paradigm for narratological beginnings and endings (1–7). Sherman fills in the technological, social, and narrative histories to argue that “this new, pervasive textual timing served . . . [as] a continuous self-construction, a running report on identities both shifting and fixed, private and public” (8). The succeeding chapters articulate a contemporary dialectic that for some meant a shift from “Messianic time” to “homogeneous, empty time,” and to others offered a new possibility of “new forms of fullness” (10). Textually, this dialectic worked itself out on the one hand in a resistance to diurnal forms that seemed generically unselective, egotistical, boring; and on the [End Page 547] other, in narratives that ordered, categorized, mastered the flotsam of everyday life with temporal structures.

Chapters 2 and 3 look closely at the literary contexts of spiritual autobiographies, account books, and astrological almanacs to reassess Pepys’s diaristic discoveries of the power of “serial measure” over “signal occasions” (35). The fourth chapter studies reading habits, typographical and technological changes in newsprinting and marketing, the world of the coffeehouse, and the popularity of private time, arguing that the Spectator has “the salient features of a diary, but of a diary turned inside-out: the work not of a public or social figure composing a more secret version of the self in a single, sequestered manuscript, but of a wholly secretive sensibility imparting itself in print, to be read by a wide and varied public in the diurnal rhythm, and at the running moment, of its making” (113–14). The “symbiosis of silence and spectatorship” (156) leads directly into the perplexities of travel writing exemplified in Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. These texts poise the virtues of the “exact Journal” against the “earlier ‘critical’ modes that established the ‘significance’ of ‘Things’ (to borrow Defoe’s key criterion) by structures other than a steady succession of days and dates” (160). These chapters also bring the concept of “telling time” into the sphere of nationalism as the discovery of longitude situates Greenwich at the navigational center of world time and space. The last chapter examines diurnal patterns and diaristic resistance in the novels of Defoe and Burney. “Novel time is different,” says Sherman (223). It has a larger coherency, an overall design; its smaller moments necessarily fit into preformed patterns. The issues of silence, of the value of “printing oneself out” in time and for public consumption, of taking control of self and world by temporal categorization, shape a reading of Robinson Crusoe that contributes a new sense of formal as well as cultural power to a novel that has to many critics seemed structurally inchoate. In his analysis of Burney, Sherman argues against the “male critics” of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in discovering a formal coherence based on diurnal strategies: Burney’s choice to remain in...

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