Printer Friendly

Victorian(ist) "Whiles" and the Tenses of Historicism.

This essay is a response to three events in my professional life that unfolded together in 2003 and 2004: finishing my first archivally based book; planning and facilitating a conference called "Disciplinary Flashpoints" that was built around conversations between literary scholars and historians about the emotionally charged boundaries of their disciplines; and teaching an English department writing workshop for third-year graduate students who were all, in their various ways, absorbing the pressure--perhaps even the imperative--to "historicize" their work. All three of these activities involved becoming familiar with what might be called interdisciplinary-but what might more simply be called disciplinary-debates about the imaginary but institutionally powerful line that divides "'literature" from "history." Some of the flashpoints along that line have been addressed for at least twenty years by scholars working in both disciplines: the nature and sufficiency of evidence, the role of language and metaphor, the power of narrative, the relation between truth and fiction, the validity of casual explanations, and the possibilities and limitations of the archive.

My project in this essay remains in touch with all of these flashpoints, and with the rich tradition of rhetorical analysis within the theory and philosophy of history, but with its own particular emphases. I am interested, first, in how people who study literature write about history and, second, in the rhetorical gestures that accommodate, submit to, resist, and self-authorize in relation to something called the historical. More specifically, I am interested in how relations to and expectations about history get registered in the shape and structure of sentences: in choices of tense and voice, in the construction of parallel clauses, and in the many small but persistent ways in which grammar expresses and creates notions of time.

I have noticed through reading and listening to historically inflected work in Victorian studies the ubiquity of a particular type of sentence, of which the sentence that opens this essay is--in its shape, length, position, and awkwardness--an example. Like many instances of what I will be calling "historicizing sentences," mine struggles to express, in this case in the idiom of simultaneity, the relations among various moments in the form of a list brought together, authorized, and kept at a distance by a colon and a date. While different from sentences that explicitly invoke public history, it shares with other historicizing sentences its prominent position at the beginning of a work or section, its attempt to express in syntactical sequence two or more simultaneous events, and its outward movement from individual to context. Its somewhat clumsy use of dates and tenses might or might not have been visible at first reading: this is in part because we are used to such sentences and the professional, emotional, and temporal work they do, often as introductions or transitions into the real matter of a piece of writing.

While this essay by necessity focuses on the versions of these sentences that have already been written, my investment in professional writing dictates an attention to process and to thinking of sentences, even after they are written (and published), as being in an ongoing conversation with other syntactical choices. We might always have written--might always in the future, write--differently. Historicizing sentences are not bad (or good), although their ambition puts pressure on syntax, particularly on tense and on parallelism. Their predictable awkwardnesses call attention, perhaps in useful ways, to the challenges of suturing literature and history through words and to describing and embodying in linear form the idea of simultaneity on which many of these sentences are based.

So far I have spoken as if historicizing sentences are exclusively the province of literary critics working in a discipline currently marked by the turn to history. But these sentences have, I would like to argue, their own history, at least in Victorian studies, whose relatively recent historicizing mission provides the impetus and the background for this project. I find it useful to juxtapose with sentences from literary criticism sentences from (pick the generic name) realist, social-problem, industrial, or "Condition of England" novels that share with literary criticism the problems and possibilities of embodying history in syntactically complex sentences,

This essay, then, sets up a conversation between two types of historicizing sentences: those from Victorian realist novels and those from Victorianist criticism of the last fifteen years. I stage this conversation by looking generally at the issue of simultaneity, which both the novels and the scholarship confront and embody in their generically inflected syntaxes, and then by turning to specific examples of sentences from nineteenth-century novels with thematic and generic relations to history. Finally, I turn to two sentences from contemporary scholarship--one by a literary critic and one by a historian in an indicatively interdisciplinary journal. While juxtaposing Victorian and Victorianist sentences, I try to remain alert to the differences between them and especially to the added temporal and, thus, syntactical pressures of writing about "the Victorians" from the vantage point of a historicizing present.


While many theorists of history have followed the "linguistic turn" in the discipline of history to produce an analysis of historical language, the scholar most attuned to the unit of the sentence in historical writing is the philosopher Arthur Danto. Danto's Analytical Philosophy of History (1968, reprinted and expanded in 1985) was one of the earliest attempts to identify what might be called the syntax of history. The first few chapters of the book proceed through the examination of individual sentences to examine their relation to and possible embodiment of historical method. Among Danto's many hypothetical sentences is this one which, according to Danto, would "not be admitted to be a piece of written history," despite being a "report of events that actually happened" and despite telling us "in what order the events did occur:" "Naram-Sin built the Sun Temple at Sippar; then Phillip III exiled the Moriscos; the Urguiza defeated the forces of Buenos Aires at Cepada; then Arthur Danto woke on the stroke of seven, 20 October 1961" (117, emphasis original).

Danto's hypothetical sentence follows a linear path of chronology; its repeated "then's" position temporal actions with respect to one another, a relation that culminates in the climactic precision of the closing date. This list of events takes the form of that simple, prenarrative unit of historical writing, the chronicle, in which events are listed in order of their occurrence. Ranging across the diachronic axis of history, this hypothetical example illustrates, interrogates, and gently parodies the importance of the sequence as a unit of historical understanding.

But this hypothetical sentence is not merely a sequence. Although Danto does not address this feature of the sentence in his search for the "something more" that would produce "significant" historical narrative, this sentence happens to juxtapose what we might think of as genuinely historical public events with an event that can only be described as personal: Danto's own presumably accurately recorded waking on a specific (and specified) morning in 1961. The sentence, in other words, enacts a particular kind of history: that history which is most invested in the connections between ordinary people and public events. That this sentence can offer no real or substantive connection is both crucial and beside the point; the ambition behind the sentence, ironized in the inclusion of specific dates only for the most personal and insignificant events, remains operative. This is a sentence that aims (and presumably falls) to do two distinct kinds of historical work: to produce a significant narrative of cause and effect and to connect the world of the individual with the world of public events. The mere fact of sequence fails to realize either ambition. Danto's inclusion of himself at the end of this historical sequence brings the inadequacy of the sequence and the diachronic as constituents of the historical into focus; opening his eyes at a specific moment on a specific day in a specific year, Danto opens our eyes to the process of selection that structures our idea of the sequential.

In his parody Danto ensconces what we might call the "and then" sentence at the heart of historical writing. The sentences I will be looking at from now on index a different relation to history whose idiom is not so much sequence as simultaneity, less about "then" than about "while" The example I will turn to here, which I read with and against Danto's, is also about the relation of the sleeping and waking of one individual to places beyond the range of personal vision. It comes, not from the work of a professional historian, but from a text with a more intermittent but also powerful relation to a notion of history, Charles Dickens's Bleak House. This short sentence from chapter 7 of the novel serves as a transition between the two narratives that comprise Bleak House, the third-person, omniscient, present-tense narrative and the first-person, past-tense narrative of the heroine, Esther Summerson: "While Esther sleeps, and while Esther wakes, it is still wet weather down at the place in Lincolnshire" (Dickens 95).

The project of this sentence may be said to be the opposite of Danto's. Both sentences have in common the juxtaposition of an event outside or beyond individual consciousness with the diurnal rhythms of an individual human life. Esther's sleeping and waking occur within the structural idiom of simultaneity, Arthur Danto's, of sequence: the "while" that begins Dickens's sentence and the "then" that structures Danto's through repetition signal different, perhaps opposite, temporalities and relations to history. In historiographic terms, the sentences unfold along different axes: Esther sleeps and wakes in a synchronic relationship to the historical, Danto, to a diachronic one.

The "while" that opens this sentence is recognizable as the "while" that is always implied by the genre of the social-problem novel, which must manage through sentences such as these the tension between the individual lives that make for psychological realism and the social world they invoke as context and prime mover. As a subordinating conjunction, "while" belongs in the less important, dependent clause of a sentence; the repetition of "while" ("While Esther sleeps, and while Esther wakes" [my emphasis]), however, emphasizes the word and its power to bring two worlds and two classes---Bleak House and Lincolnshire, the urban middle class and the aristocracy--together. The doubled "while" suggests the power of doubling at the heart of the genre in the context of which the sentence unfolds.

If that doubled "while" invokes power of and over place, it also boasts power over time. The first "while" in this sentence does not, as it usually would, pinpoint a specific moment in time: all of time is, in fact, encompassed by the two alternatives it offers--Esther is presumably always either sleeping or waking. The two "while's," separated in time by Esther's bodily and social rhythms and in place by the distance between London and Lincolnshire, are brought suddenly together by the word that aptly makes the sentence pause: the "still" of "it is still wet weather." The "still" of the second clause might be said to echo, ghostlike, a silent but operative "always" in the first.

Unlike other historicizing sentences that I will be looking at later, the sentence from Bleak House does not seem on the surface to index something as grand as "the historical?' The placement of the sentence suggests otherwise. "Down at the place in Lincolnshire" speaks, in this novel, of history in linked ways: it is, of course, the home of Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock, the novel's figures for a decaying aristocracy and for the failure of public figures to reform public life. The fact that Lady Dedlock turns out to be Esther's mother brings us also to a complex notion of personal history that must be sacrificed by Esther for the public good. At the end of the chapter that precedes this one, Esther resolves, in the characteristically cheerful first-person by which her narrative is made to proceed, that she will ask no further questions about her parentage. She has until that moment hoped that the novel's avuncular Mr. Jarndyce, who has taken her into his home, might be her father. The hope that she has found her father is confessed only retrospectively: "My fancy... wandered back to my godmother's house ... raising up shadowy speculations which had sometimes trembled there in the dark, as to what knowledge Mr. Jarndyce had of my earliest history--even as to the possibility of his being my father--though that idle dream was gone now.... It was not for me to muse over bygones, but to act with a cheerful spirit and a grateful heart. So I said to myself, 'Esther, Esther, Esther! Duty, my dear!' and gave my little basket of housekeeping keys such a shake, that they sounded like little bells, and rang me hopefully to bed" (95). By putting Esther (cheerfully) to bed at the end of chapter 6, Dickens signals a conscious retreat on her part from her own "earliest history" and from the inquiries that would connect (Dickens's own resonant verb) her life to those of others who are seemingly more important than she. Incarcerated (however benignly) in the domestic world of Bleak House, rattling (however cheerfully) the many keys to that house, Esther ends this part of her narrative with a refusal of history that is placed in suspension by the syntax of the historicist sentence that opens her eyes in the next chapter and in another narrative.

The sentence from Dickens makes claims on the historical different from those made by the one from Danto. I find that most scholars who have written about the rhetoric of history have tended to focus on the diachronic axis, perhaps because of their interest in history as narrative and their concomitant sense of the importance of sequence to the intelligibility of historical writing. (1) This paper looks at and lingers on the synchronic axis to identify the issues, the rhetorical and logical choices, posed by the effort to express simultaneity. Although there are, of course, many ways to embody both synchrony and diachrony in language, each has its characteristic syntax. If the canonical syntax of the diachronic involves a series of sentences (or linked independent clauses, as is the case for Danto), expressing narrative movement, the syntax of synchronicity is, typically, the single sentence made up of multiple dependent clauses.

Because synchronic syntax is so often embodied in specific sentences, I would argue, those sentences actually do more (and more difficult) work than the individual sentences of a narrative sequence, even if those sentences are also combined as they are in Danto. Grammatical subordination makes the relation between multiple causes a tricky one, and that trickiness is often expressed on the page in terms of grammatical slippage and registered as a problem of tense or of parallelism. This is made clear even in the relatively brief example from Bleak House, where we find embodied and drawn into an uneasy parallel marked by competing temporalities. The first clause of the sentence suggests cyclical movement, and the second, stasis. Together, the clauses suggest a disjuncture in time. It is no accident, then, that this disjuncture should be registered in the sentence at the level of tense: the difficult continuous present of the omniscient narrative ("it is still wet weather") is challenged, as it were, by the syntax of subordination, but it triumphantly maintains its place in time. The sentence, with its problematic use of time and tense, suggests in miniature the narrative problem of the novel and its famous commitment to the use of two tenses--the past in Esther's narrative and the present in the omniscient narrative. The present tense of that narrative has been much remarked upon, not least as a kind of heroic grammatical feat. If Dickens, in the main, pulls off the improbable continuous present, it is in the moments of transition from one narrative to the other (not by coincidence, the places where historicist sentences do their work) that we are alerted to the problem of tense and the strain--grammatical, syntactical, and ethical--posed by the novel's double and often competing temporalities.


Historicist sentences in realist novels are often, although not exclusively, found at moments of transition or at the beginning of chapters. These sentences do important generic work, identifying the novel in question as being concerned not only with individual lives but also with an often elaborate social context. They are also markers of the multiplot novel, allowing the author to shift both focus and point of view by reminding the reader that, while he or she has been focusing on one character or one set of events, other characters have been developing and other plots unfolding just beyond the horizon of the reader's attention. To be reminded, in this context, can call for an adjustment of ethics as well as of attention on the part of a reader too easily absorbed, say, in a particular heroine or a marriage plot at the expense of less privileged characters or trajectories.

The work of the novelistic sentences I will be examining depends on what Benedict Anderson has identified as a relatively modern idea of simultaneity, which he opposes to what he calls the "Messianic time" of the medieval period. Messianic time is characterized by historical and historiographic concepts like prefiguration, which made it possible to imagine "a simultaneity of past and future in an instantaneous present" (Anderson 24). Anderson goes on to describe our modern notion of simultaneity as a paradigm shift:
   In [the older] view of things the word "meanwhile" cannot be of
   real significance. Our own conception of simultaneity has been a
   long time in the making and its emergence is certainly connected,
   in ways that have yet to be well studied, with the development of
   the secular sciences.... What has come to take the place of the
   medieval conception of simultaneity-along-time is, to borrow again
   from Benjamin, the idea of "homogeneous, empty time," in which
   simultaneity is, as it were, transverse, cross-time, marked not by
   prefiguring and fulfillment, but by temporal coincidence, and
   measured by clock and calendar. (ibid.)

Anderson has identified the act of novel reading itself as an exercise in simultaneity that provides the identity for a nation; in imagining discrete acts of reading (of novels or newspapers) all taking place at the same time, he argues that the idea of nation is made imaginatively possible. I want to argue that historicist sentences embody in their syntax the idea of nation and community that Anderson sees as inherent in the process of reading mass-produced texts: it is the existence and the grammatical intelligibility of these sentences that offer up community in its most condensed form.


We have seen in the example from Bleak House how simultaneity is expressed as asymmetry; time in the first part of Dickens's sentence is calibrated to quotidian rhythms and in the second part to stasis. Critics of Bleak House have often commented on how Chesney Wold, the place "down ... in Lincolnshire" indexed by the second part of the sentence, is revealed through images of stasis as a prison for the aptly named Lady Dedlock. Let us look for a moment at two historicist sentences that enter the idiom of simultaneity, as it were, through the gates of literal prisons, and at how the representation of serving time opens up possibilities for the historicist sentence as it closes down access to the world outside on the part of the imprisoned character.

In the first half of Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, Mary's aunt, Esther, the "outcast prostitute," is imprisoned for vagrancy. For Esther, the most painful part of her incarceration is her sense of what might be going on outside the prison walls: Esther fears that Mary might be repeating her own terrible fate by encouraging the advances of an upper-class lover. Esther's jail time is frustratingly coterminous with what might in a more benign novel be called the courtship plot. If the novel raises and endorses through Esther's point of view the parallels between the behavior of the aunt and that of her niece, the structure of the novel forces the two women into different temporalities. Esther, taken from the streets to prison, is confined to one place, while Mary, for the month of Esther's incarceration, wanders for the first time into the streets and into moral danger. If we forget as we read Mary's story the presence offstage of Esther in prison, the chapter describing Esther's release reminds us from its first words--"The month was over"--of the invisible but ineluctable presence of a competing narrative and a competing temporality.

The opening of chapter 14 casts the problem of difference precisely as a problem of simultaneity. Although the opening paragraph does not mention Mary, it explores the meaning of the period of Esther's jail time for a series of differently positioned hypothetical women: "The month was over;--the honeymoon to the newly-married; the exquisite convalescence to the 'living mother of a living child'; 'the first dark days of nothingness' to the widow and the child-bereaved; the term of penance, of hard labour, and solitary confinement, to the shrinking, shivering, hopeless prisoner" (Gaskell 184). The overarching movement from honeymoon to prison can be read linearly as a narrative of devolution. This reading works with the increasing length of the clauses, from the relatively brief "honeymoon of the newly-married" through the awkward quotations of the middle examples to the slow, painful, and repetitive movement of the final line and its "shrinking, shivering, hopeless prisoner." The paragraph suggests not only devolution but descent; the weight of the final clause and the echo of "sinking" in "shrinking" replicate the fall that has taken Esther from honeymoon fantasies to jail.

If the passage describes a vertical movement and a slow and inevitable descent, it also has what we might think of as a horizontal dimension. The logic of the passage is the logic of juxtaposition; we are coerced by the syntax and the orthography to linger not only on specific examples but on the relations among them, as the women they evoke live through the same (long or short, blissful or endless) thirty days. If the clauses are shorter at the beginning of the passage, it is not simply because short sentences are easier to read, lighter on the eye and on the tongue: the one-month honeymoon (at least a happy one) is in an experiential way shorter than one month in prison. Simultaneity is ironized here to the point where temporal markers are radically insufficient.

Gaskell's paragraph, with its conjunction of love and prison time, might seem at first to define the project of the multiplot novel, which must focus on a series of characters in turn, even if it eventually brings them together in the same room, the same party, the same prison cell. But the paragraph slowly and deliberately gestures outside the novel proper: the quotation marks around the phrases that refer to the mothers of a living and of a dead child defamiliarize these experiences, forcing us to look beyond the novel's several plots. While many children die in the novel, and while several mothers are child-bereaved, the preface to Mary Barton hints that the primal scene of bereavement is the death of Gaskell's own son. Pointing toward the preface, but not actually quoting from its enigmatic account of the inspiration for Mary Barton, the lines with quotation marks suggest another kind of simultaneity: the unfolding of real-life experience in the process of writing or reading a novel. Anderson's conceit about nation and novel reading helps us to understand how the simultaneous unfolding of real and imagined worlds can make something of a community. The necessary disjunction in time, even at the very heart of the simultaneous, forces us to see the precariousness if not ultimately the impossibility of true communal feeling. This historicist sentence, occurring as it does at a crucial moment in a novel struggling to connect the individual with the social and the exceptional with the representative, casts into doubt the possibility of its own project. (2)

The Gaskell sentence, however, does not deal explicitly with connections to history or to public life. Although Esther's plight--and crime--are public in a number of senses, this sentence seems more interested in private feeling than in the public debates that engage other parts of the novel. In Trollope's Phineas Redux--a novel that, for reasons that escape me, has not usually been read as a social-problem novel, despite its engagement with Irish tenant fights, divorce, and conjugal fights and its extended meditations on the nature of liberalism the syntax that joins jail time with the world outside the jail is more explicitly marked by political power and social inequality. Fairly late in the novel, Phineas Finn is unjustly accused of the murder of his political enemy, Mr. Bonteen. The Trollope narrator, after having focused for several chapters on Phineas's plight, moves temporarily beyond the prison and the plot of imprisonment. Again, we have a pivotal sentence that opens a new chapter: "Though Mr. Robert Kennedy was lying dead at Loughlinter, and though Phineas Finn, a Member of Parliament, was in prison, accused of murdering another Member of Parliament, still the world went on with its old ways, down in the neighbourhood of Harrington Hall and Spoon Hall as at other places. The hunting with the Brake hounds was now over for the season--had indeed been brought to an auspicious end three weeks since--and such gentlemen as Thomas Spooner had time on their hands to look about their other concerns" (Trollope 111). This passage opens with a series of dramatic events: a murder and a death of a member of Parliament are juxtaposed to other deaths so minor in their specific instantiations that they are only mentioned as making up the "world" of country life. Those deaths, like the more important human endings, are relegated to the immediate past: the "auspicious end" of the hunting season suggests not only the end of vulpine lives too numerous and unimportant to detail but also the fact that the season itself has died and a new period of country life has begun. The passage is thus about endings of all sorts--and also about the possibility of the life that is lived beyond them.

The double sense of time that comprises both endings and continuities is captured in the paradox of "still." Like the passage from Bleak House, this one depends on a temporal disjunction between continuity and finality embodied in the opposition between "still" and words denoting activity and movement--not simply the "murdering" attributed (wrongly) to Phineas Finn, but "hunting," attributed to a world to which Phineas actively if incompletely belonged before his incarceration. Once again "still" itself embodies competing temporalities: this passage gives us both the stillness of death and waiting and the sense that life still goes on.

Despite the implied connection between dead foxes and dead men, Trollope is not--we can be sure of this if of nothing else--positing a moral equivalence here between human and vulpine life; the fox hunt represents a way into yet another more extended temporality the world of "old ways" that link the historical present of the English landed classes to traditions of the aristocracy. Mr. Spooner, who, despite his coarseness, represents the seventh generation of Spooners at Spoon Hall, is, after all, participating in the activity that, along with participation in Parliament, is the oldest social practice represented in the novel. Although the world of fox hunting is being challenged by the indifference of some members of the aristocracy--the elder Duke of Omnium is irresponsible about preserving foxes, while his heir, Plantagenet Palliser eschews hunting, riding, and shooting in favor of Parliament and decimal coinage--the traditions of the fox-hunting world offer a sense of history that is sometimes coterminous with and sometimes opposed to the work of governance. Fox hunting and Parliament--both part of the texture of this passage--together make up what we might think of as an English national temporality.

And of course fox hunting has its seasonal temporalities, its annual cycles, as well; these, too, are present in the sentence in question. Violet Chiltern, whose husband, Lord Chiltern, has become Master of the Brake Hounds, complains that between fox hunting, cub hunting, and the birthing of pups they are unable to leave Harrington Hall for any extended visits. For other devotees of the hunt, like Mr. Spooner, the off-season is a time for "other concerns," in this case the courtship of Adelaide Palliser. While we are once again this time through Mr. Spooner's use of the language of the field to talk about his love--invited to make an analogy between the fox hunt and other aspects of life, we are also clearly meant to understand that Spooner does not have time for marital pursuits during the season. In announcing that the hunting season is "now" over, that it has "indeed" ended "three weeks since," Trollope signals the workings of a calendar as important to the structure of the novel as the repetitive (if more unpredictable) cycles of the parliamentary season.

If the passage imagines multiple temporalities, they are not without hierarchy. While only two of the three men with whom the passage opens are identified as members of Parliament, all three are--or were--MPs. The capitalized phrase "Member of Parliament" invokes the power of these men, living and dead, to engage the interest of the "world" as it is narrowly defined by the passage and by the novel as a whole, The passage, then, is somewhat disingenuous in its sense that the world still goes on: certainly these men, by their deaths and their actions, have almost enough power to still the world.

Of course, Phineas Finn's power of arresting attention derives in part from another rifle, and thus from his role of titular hero of the novel. In a passage that echoes the more famous moment in Middlemarch where the narrator attempts to shift the point of view by asking, "Why always Dorothea?" the narrator of Phineas Redux begins chapter 69 with another attempt to move beyond the experience of the hero: "Our pages have lately been taken up almost exclusively with the troubles of Phineas Finn, and indeed have so far not unfairly represented the feelings and interests of people generally at the time. Not to have talked of Phineas Finn from the middle of May to the middle of July that year would have exhibited great ignorance or a cynical disposition. But other things went on also. Moons waxed and waned; children were born; marriages were contracted; and the hopes and fears of the little world around him did not come to an end because Phineas Finn was not to be hung" (Trollope 547). The world, narrowed through the gentle mockery of the narrator to the "little world" around Phineas Finn, is, nonetheless, the world of "people generally." Trollope is capable of much irony about the use of the word "people" and about projects undertaken in their name, as we see in his depictions of the populist MP Mr. Turnball and of the villainous Quintus Slide, editor of the People's Banner. In oscillating between "people generally" and "little world" to describe those who talk about Phineas, Trollope is also oscillating between the calendars that define themselves around Phineas and those lunar and conjugal calendars that do not. And yet, the narrow world of the novel, which Trollope defines as dealing with the upper four thousand or so, does, it seems, move to the temporality of jail time. Once out of jail, once he is not to be hung, Phineas loses some of his power to still the world around him.


While most novels do not deal in lunar time, or calibrate their rhythms to those of gestation and childbirth, the third temporality alluded to in the passage from Phineas Redux is, of course, more familiar to readers of Victorian fiction. The mention of "marriages" that are "contracted" during the time of Phineas's recovery suggests the competing and perhaps ultimately dominant temporality of conjugal time. Phineas's own relation to the rhythms of courtship and marriage are perhaps unique: his first marriage to the Irish Mary Flood Jones occurs between Phineas Finn and its sequel, and his second courtship is, by contrast, spread over the not inconsiderable length of both novels. The novel is also unusual in representing in detail the marriages of Phineas's ex-lovers; thus the marriage plot itself involves a simultaneity commented on bitterly in the case of Lady Laura and with slightly ironic good cheer in the case of his more fortunate flame, Lady Violet. (3)

My final novelistic examples of historicist sentences from novels--both from works by George Eliot--reveal, not how marriages might or might not be simultaneous with each other, but how the temporalities of marriage are absorbed into and/or resist absorption into a public life that for Eliot is explicitly historical. The opening of chapter 19 of Middlemarch is perhaps the most efficient example: "When George the Fourth was still reigning over the privacies of Windsor, when the Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister, and Mr Vincy was mayor of the old corporation in Middlemarch, Mrs Casaubon, born Dorothea Brooke, had taken her wedding journey to Rome" (154). The passage announces simultaneity with the familiar subordinating conjunction "while." It also announces and works with hierarchy as it moves down the scale of publicity and power from king to prime minister to mayor to wife. If we look more closely at the first sentence, however, we begin to see that the temporal and spatial imperatives upon which the passage seems to insist are subject to interruption. The temporal parallel is complicated by use of a variety of tenses: "still reigning," "was," and the final "had taken." We might note also that the movement between subjects is itself not completely smooth; the male figures are carefully aligned according to a process of status devolution, as king gives way to duke and then to mayor. However, the woman in the sentence, "Mrs Casaubon, born Dorothea Brooke"--is split into two; her insertion into this litany of subjects seems to provoke a small but insistent chronological countermovement: she is Mrs. Casaubon; she was born Dorothea Brooke. The two names follow the devolutionary arc of the passage, but only as a result of breaking with chronology. Titles then, are subject themselves to change and to history, even if they are titles of what in the idiom of the last paragraph of Middlemarch we might call unhistoric people.

The passage also announces Dorothea's difference her sexual difference both from her former self and from the parade of men that precedes her mention--with a strange choice of verb form: "had taken" as opposed, say, to "was taking." (The novel, of course, goes on to recount part of the wedding journey.) The final clause of the sentence introduces finality: the wedding journey--about which we have yet to hear in the novel, and which will be the subject in the simple past tense of this crucial chapter--is introduced in the past perfect. The honeymoon is over before it has begun.

The awkwardness of tense in this passage is echoed in a nominal awkwardness: the oddly pluralized word "privacies" of the first clause. The terminal s might alert us to the fact that the scandals of George's reign--however closely linked to activities indicatively private--were, in fact, a matter of public record and public conversation. "Privacies," then, proposes precisely through its conspicuous awkwardness the uneasy link between private and public, managed through the perhaps equally conspicuous awkwardness of the sentence's use of parallel structures.

The final example in this section is in some ways an ironic version of all that has gone before. Slipped from its moorings and its privileged status, it occurs not at the beginning of a chapter but at the end. It is, ultimately, a sentence about the refusal of history and about the impossibility of that refusal. Late in Eliot's Daniel Deronda, as Gwendolyn Harleth ponders a possible future with Daniel, she falls to take into account the larger worlds in which he has been moving. Not only unable to imagine the possibility that Daniel will be marrying the Jewish Mirah Lapidoth, but she has no sense that Daniel's relationship to Mirah and her brother is entangled with Daniel's identity as a Jew and with the long history of Jews as a diasporic people: "Her mind was fixed on his [Daniel's] coming to Diplow before the autumn was over; and she no more thought of the Lapidoths--the little Jewess and her brother-as likely to make a difference in her destiny, than of the fermenting political and social leaven which was making a difference in the history of the word" (Deronda 772). For Gwendolyn, ensconced within the marriage plot and within the ritual visits that comprise its opportunities, the Lapidoths do not count. The movement of the passage from its ironized dismissal of the "little Jewess and her brother," in what we assume is Gwendolyn's voice, to its trumpet-tongued declaration that, currently, a "political and social leaven" was "making a difference in the history of the world," finally assigns littleness to Gwendolyn and not to Mirah. The history of the world easily trumps Diplow and the narrow geography of Gwendolyn's ambitions and desires. As the sentence swells in scope and importance, the leaven of the syntax is as evident as the leaven of social forces. What begins with Gwendolyn's "mind" ends with the "world"; what begins with Gwendolyn's point of view ends not only with the omniscient narrator but with a prophetic form of omniscience that topples the temporal balance of the sentence by taking upon itself both present and future in the euphoric progressive tense ("was making a difference" [my emphasis]).

That omniscience is ratified by the beginning of the next chapter and by a more conventionally placed and calibrated historicist sentence: "Meanwhile Ezra and Mirah, whom Gwendolyn did not include in her thinking about Deronda, were having their relation to him drawn closer and brought into fuller light" (773). If this sentence is lexically more unassuming than the first, its sense of repetition and closure registers perhaps even more clearly the triumph of the history of the world. The "meanwhile" sets in motion Mirah and Ezra not only as individuals but as historical forces: this "meanwhile" more clearly than the "whiles" of earlier sentences, asserts the ability of the "political and social forces" to leaven the novel. Again we have a small problem of tense; this time it is an ethical problem. The "did" of "Gwendolyn did not include" suggests a persistence of her belief that she is somehow at the center of the world. The two historicist sentences of chapters 65 and 66 do not educate Gwendolyn; they unfold in the world of the omniscient narrator of whose judgment--and in some sense of whose existence--she is painfully, pitifully, and perhaps culpably unaware. Gwendolyn, it seems, can only learn from Daniel: her final realization and humiliation are left to a still later chapter and to the dialogue of her final meeting with her mentor-not-lover.


In the sentences from novels I have discussed above, simultaneity is authorized by genre, which is in turn authorized by an ethical appeal to real life or to multiple points of view. Simultaneity is also a matter of reading: readers create simultaneity in part by remembering--or by being reminded--that there are other worlds beyond the one with which they are temporarily engaged. Like Anderson's nationally identified readers, readers of these sentences are reminded also of the presence of other acts of reading and of a community outside the novel that is nonetheless a final referent for it. While some explicitly historical novels rely on dates as shorthand for simultaneity, most novels shy away from identifying their action with or in a particular year. References to chronology are often famously circuitous; sometimes dates, like the names of English counties, are given in part, their specificity undermined by dashes (186-).

For contemporary historicists, however, a date often authorizes and anchors simultaneity; it is, finally, what allows us to say that two things happened at the same time. "Date" is of course a slippery term; often, both literary and historical scholars are satisfied by units of years, as when we advise our students to look for legislation that influenced a text and are satisfied if the years match up. The minutiae of month and day tend not to be a part of most projects in our discipline; the year is the sanctioned unit that makes certain historical claims professionally viable--and certain professional sentences professionally legible.

While it might seem intuitive to link the grammar of dates with simultaneity, there is very little actually written about the historical practice of using dates and the assumptions behind that use. Much of the discussion of dates that does exist centers around the difference between annals, chronicles, and "true" history. In Hayden White's famous deconstruction of that difference, the annal and the chronicle are given a kind of complexity that is missing in earlier dismissals of them as lists of dates. For White, as for Anderson, modern notions of temporality are contrasted with medieval ones, embodied in this case in the annal. For White, dates in the annal, typically listed down the left-hand column, are markers not of simultaneity but of difference, not of the synchronic but of the diachronic axis of narrative (Metahistory 15). Although White does not address the question directly, his argument seems to suggest that for the "full" history, with its commitment to narrative and to realism, dates might have a different significance: they might, in fact, become markers of the simultaneous. I would argue not only that for contemporary historicist scholars reliance on dates suggests a confidence in the simultaneous but that forms of history developed in the last century--especially social and intellectual history, with their turning away from great men and public events--rely for their ethics and their epistemologies on something like the notion of simultaneity endorsed by the historical novel: every period of time in these accounts is made up of multiple events, multiple experiences, and multiple voices, all complicating and enriching a story of history that moves from one temporal landmark to another. Like their counterparts in historical novels, historicist sentences in contemporary scholarship are especially authoritative and especially vulnerable. The two examples that follow are evocative, compelling openings to works of cultural criticism that meditate in sophisticated ways on the relation between history and other forms of knowledge.


The first example comes from Jonathan Grossman's The Art of Alibi, whose central term is used as a gateway between literature and law, a way, as Grossman puts it, to acknowledge and allow for the "mounting of a realistic story narrated in a law court" (24). This, for Grossman, is the lay meaning of the term, which, as he notes, is "technically the legal plea of 'elsewhere'" (24). Both definitions, then, have to do with simultaneity; the alibi is both a point where legal and narrative discourses meet and the word that indicates that the accused criminal was doing something other than committing the crime in question at the same time as that crime was taking place. Grossman's first, historicist, sentence can help us to see how a date can be productively used as an alibi in the colloquial (the OED calls it a "weakened") sense: "Walking down the strand in 1871, one would come upon a massive, unprecedented construction project in the heart of London: the building of the Royal Courts of Justice" (1). Here the date appears at the end of the introductory clause, before the subject of walking has resolved itself into the capacious "one" Making use of the immediacy effect, this sentence invites the reader, as it were, on a walk. Despite, or perhaps because of, the temporal openness of walking, "1871" suggests a thing accomplished, something, in this case, having been built. The building of the courts of justice is not, however, a concrete noun, but a gerund (or what is now called a verbal noun), indicating a process of building whose end might or might not be coterminous with December 31, 1871. Thus "building," which, as a concrete noun, would denote accomplishment, here denotes a process without a textual end.

In this sentence, which I have grown to love through continuous rereading, the date brings together and stabilizes at least three different verb forms: the implied subjunctive of "walking"; the nominal form, "building"; and the past imperfect or past progressive of "were erecting." The date 1871, or rather the act of imagining oneself walking in 1871, turns a complex and imperfect past into a definitive marker. If the building is only in process, the date connotes a professional accomplishment on the part of the architect of both building and sentence. This marker, ironically, only becomes definitive if we imagine that the speaker is positioned in time after--probably long after--1871, which becomes in retrospect aligned with completion: of a sentence, of an experience, of a thought, if not of a building. The sentence calls in two different directions and into two temporalities: we are invited to experience the past as if it is the present, and, at the same time, to acknowledge it as past through the distance in time between it and 1871.

I use the passage from The Art of Alibi, not because I see in this example an unusual degree of slippage between temporalities, but because I see in much Victorianist work, including my own, how dates can be used to paper over the tension between various temporalities, some endemic to the Victorian period and others to our relation to it. In, my final example of a historicist sentence, I consider the latter issue more carefully.

In an issue of Victorian Studies comprised of papers from the second annual North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA) convention, in which many of the articles are devoted to challenging the ideas of periodicity and dating that have led to the persistence of the term "Victorian," James Elwick begins his essay "The Philosophy of Decapitation: Analysis, Biomedical Reform, and Devolution in London's Body Politic, 1830-1850" with the following two sentences: "On 28 March 1836 one Edward Rigby read an eccentric paper, later published in the London Medical Gazette, to the Royal College of Physicians. Entitled 'On the Pathology of Decapitation,' it sought to explain the seemingly obvious problem of why decapitation causes a person's death" (174). This "historicist sentence" is, of course, two sentences whose disconnection eschews parallelism in favor of a certain kind of suspense. We know from the beginning that Rigby's paper is "eccentric"; the second sentence tells us why. "Eccentric" in the first sentence and "seemingly obvious" in the second suggest a distance between the author and his subject, a distance readers are invited to share. The date at the beginning of the first sentence marks and indeed remarks that distance, its continental order (day month year) no doubt prescribed by the journal's editorial style, conveying Englishness and thus geographical as well as temporal remoteness.

The date also, of course, suggests specificity and singularity. The reading of the paper by the indicatively singular "one Edward Rigby" turns, as it were, singularity toward eccentricity and away from the center of Victorian culture [my emphasis]. Rigby becomes, through the process of historical specification, an oddity. The rest of the paragraph--and the article--take up the perhaps self-imposed task of turning Rigby back into a representative of Victorian scientific thought.

We might, however, like to pause to think about what makes Rigby odd in the first place, and to what universe of oddness he belongs. All of us have probably at some point written a paper or taught a class whose implied theme was "those weird Victorians." (4) That's what apocryphal stories about Victorian hobbies and activities-covering piano legs, painting with seaweed, or (my favorite) rearticulating the bones of birds killed for the purpose--are for. The anecdote about Rigby could, it seems, be part of that genre. Especially when viewed through the lens of progressivist scientific narratives (and what other kinds are there?), those Victorians look pretty weird. When we move to the end of the paragraph, however, we are told that Rigby's talk, or perhaps the article based on it, was parodied in a rival journal. The distance between the reader and the early Victorians--represented by the date--diminishes as we realize that not all Victorians thought as Rigby did. Those other scientists writing in March or April or May (the notes don't say) of 1836, thought Rigby as odd as would the average reader in 2005.

But then, it seems, Rigby was not so odd after all. We are told that "despite this ridicule, a discourse of decapitation did indeed exist in London biomedical researches of the 1830s and 1840s" (Elwick 174). And that discourse was "part of a deeper habit of scientific analysis, a belief that one could know an object or a system with certainty by separating it into its basic parts or elements" (ibid.). Rigby is now part of a discourse, part of a deep epistemological structure--odd, perhaps, on the surface but in a more structural way representative of an important subculture of "the 1830s and 1840s" Dates return to the text with an increased level of generality; the years that make up the two decades swamp the specificity of "28 March 1836," flooding the reader with multiple potential instances of the discourse in question.

The decades invoked by "the 1830s and 1840s" (the phrase crops up throughout the paper) are of course already present in the title. The decision to end the rifles of books and articles with temporal intervals expressed as the hyphenated difference between two dates has of course been common in historical writing for a long time, It has only more recently come to be a convention in writing by literary scholars. The dates here (1830 and 1850) are particularly tidy; their symmetry suggests that they are included not because they index a particular event--say, a medical discovery that took place in 1849--but because they reference, in a general way, the zeitgeist of a decade contained and made legible by parentheses. By the end of the article, or should I say from the beginning, nothing--not Rigby, not the Victorians, not the numbers that make up the dates--is really odd.

Rigby's rescue from eccentricity, of course, depends on simultaneity--on a variety of scientists coming up with similar ideas at the same time. Elwick's four case studies of the analytical approach in different scientific fields of inquiry unfold, like the different worlds in Mary Barton or Phineas Finn, at different physical and epistemological sites. For Gaskell and Trollope, as I have discussed, the imaginative linking of such other worlds is indicatively an ethical obligation. I would also argue that the turn to history in literary criticism also includes, if it does not always derive from, an ethical commitment--in this case to the understanding of "the Victorians," and to the interplay of sameness and difference so spectacularly embodied in their practices, their dress, their hobbies and their epistemologies. A historicism that depends on the presence of a date or set of dates is of course incomplete; it may also short circuit its own ethical project. The search for a different kind of simultaneity that is attentive to the experience of minor characters, the disenfranchised, and those writing at a historical distance from ourselves might make for different kinds of sentences: they might, in general, be simpler or more complex, longer or shorter, more or less knowing. They might or might not include dates, parentheses, and hyphens, They might ultimately embrace, eschew, or parody parallelism. They would probably be less elegant than the ones I have quoted here.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 1983.

Ankersmit, F. R. Narrative Logic: A Semantic Analysis of the Historian's Language. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1983.

Appleby, Joyce, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, eds. Telling the Truth about History. New York: Nor ton, 1994.

Danto, Arthur C. Analytical Philosophy of History. In Narration and Knowledge. New "fork: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985. 1-284.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1996.

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1995.

--. Middlemarch. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988.

Elwick, James. "The Philosophy of Decapitation: Analysis, Biomedical Reform, and Devolution in London's Body Politic, 1830-1850." Victorian Studies 47.2 (Winter 2005): 174-87.

Fulbrook, Mary. Historical Theory. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Gallagher, Catherine. The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form, 1832-1867. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987.

Grossman, Jonathan. The Art of Alibi. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2002.

Roth, Paul A. "Narrative Explanations: The Case of History." History and Theory 27.1: 1-13.

Trollope, Anthony. Phineas Redux. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 2003.

White, Hayden. MetaHistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1975.

--. "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality." In The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1990. 1-25.


(1.) For classical statements about the relation of history and narrative, see White, Roth, and Ankersmit, Narrative and metanarrative continue to be key terms in the debate about history's relation to the real and to general discussions of historical epistemology. See, for example, Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob (especially 231-37), and Fulbrook 53-74.

(2.) For the discussion that sets out the terms of this critique, see Gallagher, especially chapter 5.

(3.) The plot involving Lady Laura and her marriage to and separation from Mr. Kennedy does, in fact, link conjugal to prison time, as Lady Laura bemoans being shut up on Sundays and in the parliamentary off-season at her husband's bidding. Like many other Trollope novels, Phineas Redux also works with the conflict between gendered calendars, watching Lady Laura age as Phineas, her first lover, retains his vigorous sexuality despite his literal stint in jail.

(4.) In the longer version of this project, I try to walk the fine line between identifying what I see as general issues having to do with historicist criticism, and issues of historicist scholarship peculiar to Victorianists. I argue that Victorianists have a very specific relation to their historical objects of study, both be cause Victorians occupy a place in history so close to our own and because, for many Victorianists, there is a tension between identification with Victorians and what can only be termed embarrassment about them. Victorianists also, I think, have a special relation to historicist sentences since they are so prevalent in Victorian fiction. I do not mean to minimize the complicated relations that, say, Early Modernists or scholars of the eighteenth century have with the people about whom they write. Of course, scholars and teachers from other fields mobilize their own "weird" versions of their objects of study. I linger here and elsewhere, however, on the particular and I think hyperbolic forms of Victorian weirdness.

Helena Michie is Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor in Humanities and Professor of English at Rice University. She is the author of five books in Victorian and Gender Studies, including the recent Victorian Honeymoons: Journeys to the Conjugal. Her interests in historicism and the archive have led her to her two current projects-in-progress: Historical Effects: Writing History form Literature and, with Robyn Warhol-Down, a meta-archival biography entitled: The Most Boring Man in the World: George Scharf in His Archives.
COPYRIGHT 2009 Ohio State University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Michie, Helena
Date:Oct 1, 2009
Previous Article:Romance to novel: a secret history.
Next Article:Sympathy time: Adam Smith, George Eliot, and the realist novel.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |