In my dissertation, I attempt to trace the impact of the British Empire upon narrative production in Victorian England. In particular, I am interested in how two or more disparate scenes in a particular story could be woven together using storytelling techniques that attempt to approximate simultaneity.
Sometimes the individual moments are intimate, separated by a single room or even a small crowd, and, other times, these scenes are divorced by great seas and landmasses. In either case, novelists, journalists, and travelers in the nineteenth century clearly felt an impulse to bring their world into some kind of temporal alignment. Because of my focus on narrative technique, this is a formalist project, but it is one that is sensitive to the political consequences of spatial and temporal compression. For, if narrative practices can make a world seem smaller and more knowable they can also erase the vast peoples and histories that lay between.
I begin my project with the stakes of such erasure. In my first chapter I consider the travel writings of Joseph Wolff, whose ill-fated attempt to rescue two British officers imprisoned in central Asia was informed, in part, by a sense of the world cultivated through this kind of narrative production. While his own attempt ended in failure, the narrative of that attempt relies on the same storytelling gymnastics that helped justify it. I suggest that these narrative techniques can be traced, primarily, Walter Scott’s “crusader” novels which are the subject of my second chapter. In my analysis, Scott emerges as a crucial thinker whose novels attempt conjure up a nation unified both socially and temporally. Wolff’s application and replication of those narrative techniques helps us understand how literary production can directly shape how we understand the world around us. After Scott, I look at William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Newcomes and consider the way it attempts to undermine Scott’s temporal politics and offers a view of the world that is significantly bigger and more anarchic than Scott’s marauding knights might prefer. Critically, it is the novelist(Thackeray), rather than the journalist-adventurer(Wolff), that ultimately recognizes the limits of narrative production. Nevertheless, it was Thackeray’s own era that saw the realization of these simultaneous dreams with the expansion of the telegraph network and the growth of steam packets that offered global service. For this reason, I conclude with a discussion of Kipling’s science fiction novel, With the Night Mail and his poems on submarine telegraphy. For Kipling, the simultaneous fantasies offered by fiction had now been realized. But, rather than take these innovations for granted or use them as the foundation for an even more aggressive temporal utopianism, Kipling emphasizes their fragility and suggests that, perhaps, they offer just another fiction.