Steele, Robert

Project title: Changing Times: Timepieces as Metonyms of Industrialization in Victorian Fiction

Department: English

Faculty supervisor: Dr. Mary Elizabeth Leighton

"In his 1934 history of technology, Lewis Mumford famously proclaimed that “the clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age” (14). Expanding on Mumford’s claim, historians such as E. P. Thompson have explained how the industrial revolution engendered the mass production of timepieces, the standardization of timekeeping, and the internalization of time discipline (whereby workdays are structured around clock time rather than natural time), producing by the mid-nineteenth century a Victorian populous that was obsessed with time. Indeed, Victorian literature is obsessively time conscious. As literary scholars have noted, Victorian fiction was thematically preoccupied with time, fixating on the fleeting moment and yearning for a pre-industrial time consciousness. However, few of these scholars have considered Victorian novelists’ material engagement with time through the representation of timepieces.

Building on these studies, I propose to undertake a historical and formal analysis of timepieces in Victorian fiction, examining the intersection between the material and industrial histories of timepieces and their representations in a range of Victorian fiction. From Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1864–66), which parallels generational conflict and the disjunction between London time and rural time, to Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), which persistently reminds readers of the ubiquity of industrial time discipline despite the novel’s idyllic pastoral setting, Victorian novels continually position timepieces as metonyms of industrialization. Attending to both the history of Victorian timepieces and their fictional representations, this study will provide insight into how the Victorians experienced their own changing times."