The Clockwork Muse: Rituals of Writing in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Vasington, Grace, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Tucker, Herbert, English, University of Virginia
Stauffer, Andrew, English, University of Virginia
Arata, Stephen, English, University of Virginia

This dissertation upends the labor-oriented paradigm by which literary critics have long read the timepieces of Victorian literature. I propose instead an anti-mechanistic interpretive framework for Victorian clockwork, one that attends to writers’ incorporation of the clock into domestic, religious, and creative practices. Deprivileging the tyranny of the factory clock, my research disinters literary efforts to envision sympathetic exchanges between mechanisms and human individuals; and it considers the imaginative possibilities for a life intimately structured by technology. Attending to ideas about clock technology inherited from Christian worship and early modern philosophy, my project clarifies a Victorian interest in the range of relationships an individual might share with the clock and, by extension, with technology writ large. My first chapter explores the literary revival of the medieval clock tower as a centripetal communal and spiritual object—one that might develop practices of prolonged concentration and social obligation even (or especially) in a culture of mass distraction. My second chapter unearths the proliferation of untimely timepieces in realist novels such as Northanger Abbey and Wives and Daughters amid the gradual onset of British standard time. It positions these untimely watches as metonyms not of disembodied abstract time, but of the particular opinions, prejudices, and untidy bodies of their owners; and argues that realist character instills an early notion of relative time in the popular imaginary. My final chapter presents the timed writing habits recorded in post-1840s memoirs, letters, essays, and the poetry of Hopkins and Barrett Browning as industrialized reworkings of Romantic myths of “spontaneous” creation. By paying heed to the full array of temporally sensitive lived experiences, “The Clockwork Muse” contributes to critical interest in literature’s responsiveness to new regimes of technology.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Victorian literature, technology studies, formalism, clockwork, sympathy
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