- Time and the Moment in Victorian Literature and Society by Sue Zemka
At the heart of Sue Zemka’s fascinating account of the Victorian perception of time (or “temporal ontology”) is her restrained but persistent advocacy of the novel’s ability to find meaning in a kind of “elongated present,” a durational experience that she views as threatened by the forces—cultural, economic, and scientific—of modernity. Creating a contrast to what she calls “long time,” Zemka charts the increasing importance of the kinds of moments in novels that represent “internalized epiphanies of abstract time” (121). Instead of offering sympathetic connections between humans (as they do in the works of earlier novelists such as Charles Dickens) or reaching back in time (as they do for some of George Eliot’s characters), such moments alienate characters from lived social experience, substituting what Zemka calls “an aesthetic of interpretive provocation” for the true “novelistic aesthetic of embodied time” (217).
Zemka begins by offering in her first two chapters, “A Brief History of the Moment” and “The Economic Mediation of Time,” a staggeringly wide-ranging survey of changes in nineteenth-century conceptions of temporality. She surveys several shifts to which critics of Victorian literature have recently been attuned, such as the neurological discoveries that made people newly aware of the time between event and feeling; the technology of “instant” photography; the advent of “factory time,” which forced workers into an ever more abstract, clock-bound experience of temporality; and the belief in economic theory that “time is money” because of concepts like interest (that create profit out of delayed gratification) and the labour theory of value. But she also looks at associationist philosophy, at the aesthetics of the moment in the sister arts (via Lessing’s Laocoön (1766; 1850) and others), at melodrama’s use of the “situation,” at Wordsworthian “spots of time,” and at the “religious moment” as conceptualized by both Methodist theology and Kierkegaard. This material is very dense, but Zemka helps to clarify her argument by offering her own moments of summary throughout, and these chapters will prove an immensely rich resource for anyone interested in the Victorian understanding of time.
Zemka then proceeds to chart the use of moments in a selection of key texts. She starts with a pair of non-canonical works of urban working-class fiction, Thomas Peckett Prests’s penny dreadful The String of Pearls (1846; the original tale of Sweeney Todd) and Ernest Jones’s “The Tradesman’s Daughter” (1851–52), which she views as differently concerned with the status of “the intersubjective moment of humanism” in industrial, clock-driven society (92). These readings set the stage for her foray into the major authors of her study: Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Joseph Conrad. Dickens figures here as the most successful at staving off the anti-humanist implications of [End Page 213] abstract time, largely because his “peripatetic” (the description comes from the title to chapter 4) narrative structures reinforce (the implication is) a natural human pacing that is also proper to novelistic form. Zemka views the paradigmatic Dickensian moment not as a point of symbolic (vertical) release but rather as a meeting between two individuals walking through the urban (horizontal) landscape. This reading, while true to the plot-driven nature of Dickens’s novels, fails to account for the novelist’s more lyrical passages, such as his famous death scenes, Louisa Gradgrind’s visions in the fire, or Jenny Wren’s musings on Riah’s rooftop. Such moments yield precisely the kind of transcendence that Zemka sees as contradictory to the humanist thrust of the novel. Indeed, the latter observation also points to the fact that the moments Zemka considers tend to come in the middles of her chosen narratives; she does not really consider how endings and beginnings offer their own particular punctuated temporalities. And here, and more generally, I wondered about genre: how might we compare Dickensian peripatetic meetings to Wordsworthian ones, given that the latter so often initiate moments of symbolic illumination...