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  • Novel Machines: Technology and Narrative Form in Enlightenment Britain by Joseph Drury
  • Travis Chi Wing Lau (bio)
Joseph Drury, Novel Machines: Technology and Narrative Form in Enlightenment Britain Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, xiii + 269 pp. £60.00 cloth.

What is machinic about the novel? Drury's Novel Machines intervenes in a long tradition of eighteenth-century scholarship on the history and theory of the novel by exploring this seemingly counterintuitive question. Rather than reducing the novel to a simple literary machine that mechanically reproduces tropes, characters, or plots, Drury locates it as a developing technology among many in this period that bore the possibility of being harnessed toward greater social good and moral improvement. Just as Enlightenment philosophers and engineers sought to understand the world in purely mechanical terms, the invention of the novel-as-machine at the beginning of the century enabled it to join other instruments and devices as technologies that make rational, empirical sense of the world. Eighteenth-century writers needed to [End Page 415] creatively imagine how their narrative machines might influence readers toward rational thinking without reducing human life to purely instrumentalist terms or causing unintended effects on readers' minds and bodies. Novelists continuously adapted (or, to use Drury's word for this, "re-engineered") the novel form against criticisms of its immorality and irrationality for how it embraced potentially risky forms of readerly pleasure and curiosity. For Drury, the self-reflexivity and hybridity that characterize many eighteenth-century novels underscores how novelists were actively negotiating the ongoing cultural ambivalence toward technological change and mediating how such innovations were understood.

Drury's project excitingly joins other recent interdisciplinary studies invested in the historical coconstitution of literature and science. The eighteenth century marked the culmination of a series of changes since the early modern period in the relationship between the domains of the arts and sciences. Both natural philosophers and novelists tied progress to experimental knowledge-making, and as the former developed instruments and methods to produce that knowledge, the latter began to ground their own practices in scientific principles that rationalized the novel as a useful device for helping readers understand human nature through "detailed simulations of the physiological, psychological, and social machinery governing human behavior" (p. 21). By reading the novel explicitly as a technological form, Drury both de-emphasizes the novelty of the novel as a uniquely new kind of literary object and recontextualizes it in terms of a breadth of technologies invented and repurposed toward Enlightenment progress. This focus on technological effects and the historical circumstances surrounding the development of the novel as a technology positions Drury to consider different ways that eighteenth-century fiction engaged at the formal level with Enlightenment machines from the stagecoach to the glass harmonica. Through chronological case studies of novelistic innovations by Eliza Haywood (the deliberating mind), Henry Fielding (the enlightened, self-conscious narrator), Laurence Sterne (digressive, nonlinear narration), and Ann Radcliffe (atmospheric description of acousmatic sound), Drury traces how these novelists encode "the social and moral tensions of technological modernity" in their experiments with narrative form (p. 5). In the book's second chapter, for instance, Drury demonstrates how Haywood's libertine fictions like her Love in Excess (1719) experiment with a Hobbesian model of libertinism that accounts for free will and moral deliberation, which not only exposes the "pervasive double standard in attitudes towards male and female sexual behaviour" (p. 54) but also encourages female readers to recognize themselves as rational agents capable of nuanced decision-making. Haywood's narrative revises gender through her innovative representation of consciousness performing acts of reflection and deliberation.

From a methodological standpoint, Novel Machines departs from older models in eighteenth-century novel studies like John Bender's Imagining the Penitentiary (1987), which embody a dominant strain of New Historicist readings of the novel as a disciplinary tool, as well as from formalist and Marxist approaches that tend to reduce texts to ideology or discourse. Instead, Drury opts for the constructivist approach of contemporary science and technology studies scholars like Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, whose pluralist, contingent views of technology better reflect those of eighteenth-century Britain at the transitional moment of the "Industrial Enlightenment...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6520
Print ISSN
1063-1801
Pages
pp. 415-417
Launched on MUSE
2019-08-19
Open Access
No
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