- Novel Machines: Technology and Narrative Form in Enlightenment Britain by Joseph Drury
Oxford University Press, 2017. 286pp. US$80. ISBN 978-0-19-879238-3.
Novel Machines opens with a tale of “Two Panopticons” in eighteenth-century studies. The first, of course, is Jeremy Bentham’s system of control as interpreted by Michel Foucault and New Historicist critics. The second panopticon is Christopher Pinchbeck’s less well-known triangular musical automaton, which delighted audiences with imitation bird-song and six moving pictures when it was exhibited in London in 1750. Joseph Drury argues that in recent years, eighteenth-century studies has benefited from what he calls a “Pinchbeckian approach,” which views the period’s narrative machinery not with a “pessimistic” and “deterministic attitude,” but rather with an eye to the playful utility of popular mechanical attractions (9). And yet, Drury rightly points out, scholars still tend to subordinate the novel’s response to eighteenth-century machines to the “influence of other forces, such as empiricism, a new media culture, or an emerging consumer society” (9). This is not to say Drury’s approach turns its back on the contexts that often receive the lion’s share of literary-historical attention. On the contrary, [End Page 363] Novel Machines addresses the scientific revolution’s mechanization of nature and knowledge as well as the mechanization of economic production, while indicating that we should also take into account the novel’s response to “more ephemeral expressions of the era’s mechanical ingenuity: clocks and watches, automata, electrical machines, coaches, theatrical machinery, and novel musical instruments” (180). Eighteenth-century machines, Drury insists, are not governed by the simple abstraction “the machine” that would come to dominate nineteenth-century discourse (181). “There are plenty of machines in eighteenth-century fiction,” he explains, “but nowhere does one find the machine” (182). Drury’s emphasis on “plenty” and variety is precisely what makes Novel Machines such a delightful and important book.
Drury views the relationship between narratives and machines in the context of Bruno Latour’s observations about similarities between technical mediation and narrative fiction. Latour suggests that the “inscriptions” on concrete objects that “prescribe certain forms of behavior” (as when a heavy hotel key “inscribes both the proprietor’s desire that guests return their keys to the front desk and the guest’s tendency to forget to do so”) are equivalent to the techniques that narrators use to “anticipate and manage the possible responses of readers” (18). Drury examines a wide range of eighteenth-century narrative “programs of action,” and he organizes his analyses around the technical innovations of four authors: Eliza Haywood’s incorporation of extended representations of deliberation into her narrative machinery in Love in Excess (1719), Henry Fielding’s narrator’s embrace of the public appetite for mechanized spectacles and pantomime in Tom Jones (1749), Laurence Sterne’s disruptions of the novel’s linear narrative machinery in Tristram Shandy (1759–67), and the gothic soundscapes of Ann Radcliffe’s narrative “exercise machines for the nerves” in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) (166).
Novel Machines will appeal to scholars who seek to challenge the primacy of the visual in studies of eighteenth-century culture. A number of recent works in our field have asked what happens when we stop privileging visual imagery in favour of other kinds of images. From a neuroscientific perspective, G. Gabrielle Starr demonstrates that a reader’s capacity for simulation and aesthetic experience is dependent on mental imagery that is not only visual but also auditory, haptic, kinetic, and proprioceptive (Feeling Beauty [Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013], 78–81). Jonathan Kramnick urges us to consider how an eighteenth-century “aesthetics of the handsome” emphasized “the moving body and a graspable world,” and also complicated theories of the beautiful that privileged the visual contemplation of the detached and disinterested observer (Paper Minds [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018], 79). Two chapters in Drury’s book stand out in their focus on senses other than sight. Chapter 4 provides richly detailed background on [End Page 364] transportation technologies and the proprioceptive experiences of travellers who...