- Reading Constellations: Urban Modernity in Victorian Fiction by Patricia McKee
A book that takes on capitalism, history, modernity, Walter Benjamin and three major nineteenth-century novelists ought to make for a provocative study. Patricia McKee’s Reading Constellations mostly meets this expectation, tracing its argument about the spatial and temporal disjunctions of the Victorian city from Charles Dickens’s London to Thomas Hardy’s Christminster and back to London again in Henry James’s “In the Cage.” As McKee writes in her first chapter, “My study of Dickens, Hardy, and James uses the work of Benjamin to clarify their undermining of presumptions of improvement and to elaborate the disputed and distracted urban modernities of their fictions: the progress characters dream of and the history that gets in its way” (2). She begins by discussing Benjamin’s concept of the “constellation” – developed in his posthumously published The Arcades Project – which, she argues, “refigure[s] history” by rejecting [End Page 159] the possibility of linear development and instead seeing ideas and events as “heterogeneous, discontinuous, in tension” (2). Key to her argument is her assertion that any moment is always both past and present, every spatial and temporal location interpenetrated by other spaces and other times. Thus, she explains, Dickens’s Charing Cross is never merely the Charing Cross of the present moment; rather, it is interlaced with other significations and tensions, whether from his miserable childhood memories of London or his awareness of a historical sweep that includes the Wyatt Rebellion at Charing Cross in 1554 and the execution of the regicides there a century later. For McKee – and, she argues, for Dickens, Hardy, and James – the Victorian city appears through the effects of constellations and their close corollary “colportage,” which together render “the single moment and the contained space dialectical,” defeating and defying the possibility of progress or succession (23).
Certainly such effects are present in Dickens from the time of The Pickwick Papers’ interpolated tales, replete as they are with reminders of past violence, misery and madness that disrupt the lighthearted present-tense in which the Pickwickians move. But McKee is interested here in Dickens’s last two completed novels, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, with their aggressive but nuanced critiques of capitalism and the modernizing city. The two chapters that discuss these novels will be of greatest interest to Dickens scholars. Chapter 2, “Great Expectations: The Narrative Winks,” argues that the Victorian city is characterized by what McKee calls an “urban unconscious,” a “phantasmagoria” in which “simulations of capitalism are haunted by what has been left behind” (37). One effect of this condition is the novel’s repeated interruption of Pip’s forward progress, by which McKee means both his narrative and his attempts to become a gentleman. Drawing from scenes early in the novel – the Christmas dinner, for instance, and Mr. Jaggers’s dismantling of Mr. Wopsle’s “performance” of the trial for murder described in the newspaper – McKee shows how interruptions play significant roles in developing alternative narratives that allow competing visions of Pip, or crime, or guilt to enter the novel. More to the point, she argues, the ways in which such interruptions create dialectical images underscore the novel’s investment in fragmented selves and elide the “missing scenes of violence” that haunt the novel’s periphery (60). She writes, “what really happened with Orlick at the forge, what happened when Pip, as a baby, was left with his sister, what happened on the prison ship, what happened to Miss Havisham at Compeyson’s hands?” (60). In her view, the narrative “winks” at this heap of wrongdoing, short-circuiting and misdirecting attempts at retribution even as it invokes explicitly the revenge plots of Hamlet and Frankenstein. The result is a novel that appears as constellation, as colportage, denied the linearity and completion that Pip pretends to achieve. [End Page 160]
Chapter 3, “London Looking Backward: Our Mutual Friend,” approaches the terrain of the Victorian city from another angle, focusing primarily on “the passages in Dickens’s London through which its...