Of Narrative and Time

Many would say I was pushing my luck by jumping in at the end of the DJO serialized reading of A Tale of Two Cities – and they would probably be right. It is cheeky to enter the fray at episode 28 of the 31 weekly numbers of Dickens’s wonderful work – but it is also fascinating. It opens up insights into temporality and narrative – into the fragmentary and highly mediated process of reading online what is, and was always designed to be, a fragmented narrative.

Conventionally understood, the reading process involves a momentum, an ineluctable and inevitable forward movement that rolls on towards an end-determined goal. One turns the pages of a book and the story “unfolds”, and, if we’re reading something for the first time, we begin with a blank slate. The reading process – which takes place in time – echoes one’s conception of time, as a linear process or road along which one travels toward a future point of greater clarity or knowledge. Retrospectively one hopes to know as much about the journey travelled as the omniscient narrator.

Serial publication, of course, puts paid to any notion that reading was ever a smooth, undisrupted mode of travel. Its formal granting and withholding rhythm dramatises time’s crucial interpolative role in the reading experience – by cutting you off at a cliff hanger and making you wait another week to continue. But it was ever thus. Even without serialization, reading always involves interruption: while reading, one considers a memory or image evoked; reflects upon one’s own experience of a topic discussed; pauses upon a beautiful phrase honed; perhaps rereads and recapitulates as well as reads on. The serialized format just controls some of the interruption, reflection and re-capitulation for you. And if, like Dickens, the author writes in serialized form too, this means the content is traced through with the kind of topicality, immediacy, changes of mood, rising crescendos, and falling diminuendos that keep us hanging on.[i]  Such contours, sometimes missed during a single volume reading, become more nuanced in the serialized experience of the text. As if we read more closely in our addiction to, our desire for more, fragmented narrative.

If serialization formalises the discontinuous experience of time and narrative that reading amounts to, approaching a serialized text from the end, as I am now doing, further complicates the chronology of time and narrative. Having read A Tale of Two Cities before, there is a notional whole text, a kind of ‘transcendental text’, if I may so dub it, the memory of which I must now draw upon to make sense of number 28. In other words, the way I read this episode (Book 3, Chapter XI, ‘The Track of the Storm’) is to decipher it retrospectively – by attempting to relate it to a loosely-strung set of narrative fragments which formed a template some years back.  The process of reading, under these circumstances, goes something like this:

“The Wretched wife of the innocent man thus doomed to die” – ah, yes, I think, the referent is Lucie Manette.

“fell under the sentence” – this refers to the sentence of death against Darnay – of course.

“The Vengeance helped in the conversation” – who is The Vengeance again? Ah yes, Madame Defarge’s lieutenant…etc.etc.

This process of detection, the piecing together of textual clues through reference to the past is as it should be. My colleagues who have been reading A Tale of Two Cities episodically since April 30, have participated in a similar experience – relying upon the ‘transcendental text’ that hangs in the air between weekly numbers. Their engagement with this ‘notional version’ of the story will have been coloured by all manner of anticipations, events, blog discussions and Bicentenary activities. They will have swung constantly between past episodes and notional future ones, like a pendulum. Like me, they are contending with an absence. In my case, it is an absence of the past, of a fresh narrative, that I try to recall into the future in relation to my present reading. For my colleagues, an absence of what’s to come is at issue, a lack of wholeness that they constantly anticipate. We are not in full possession, ‘the novel’ is not fully disclosed to us – our experience of it is somehow only fragmentary.

A Tale of Two Cities is itself deeply pre-occupied, of course, with the processes of history and the unfolding of time: with how temporality is experienced by individuals and at a broader level too. At the start of the novel, set in 1775, Dickens immediately problematises the idea of history as an unfolding, linear process, even as he delineates it:

“It is likely enough that, rooted in the woods of France and Norway, there were growing trees, when that sufferer was put to death, already marked by the woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards, to make a certain movable framework with a sack and a knife in it, terrible in history,” (Book 1, Ch 1). Or again:

“For, the time was to come, when the gaunt scarecrows of the region should have watched the lamplighter, in their idleness and hunger, so long, as to conceive the idea of improving on his method, and hauling up men by those ropes and pulleys, to flare upon the darkness of their condition. But the time was not come yet…” (Book I, Ch 5).

Here the narrative, locating in and narrating the past, suggests a futurity in the past, that might almost break through, “but the time was not come yet…” it claims apocalyptically.

Similarly, the Manettes experience historical time, just before the catastrophe of the Revolution engulfs them, as pregnant with dynamism and potential:

“ ‘I have sometimes sat alone here of an evening, listening, until I have made the echoes out to be the echoes of all the footsteps that are coming by-and-by into our lives.’

‘There is a great crowd coming into our lives, if that be so,’ Sydney Carton struck in, ” (Book II, Ch 6).

As John Rignall puts it, Dickens’s fictional time in this novel has a messianic quality to it.[ii]  And so does reading serially. Fuelled by the past’s narratives, we long for an anticipated future wholeness to be available to us now.

In replicating the experience of serialization – the format in which Victorian readers first encountered A Tale of Two Cities – the DJO digital medium is perfect. On opening the page, one is presented with a montage, heightening the fragmentariness of the serialized format. One is given a part (one and a half columns) of the facsimile page of All the Year Round, cut off at the waist, montaged with part of the corrected modern text (a simple, clean font for greater reader clarity). This rather uncanny doubling of fragments can soon be resolved, with further mediation, through the use of scrolling tools. They enable you to expand the facsimile at will. With its old (Times New Roman?) font and reproduced shadows and creases, the original facsimile is far more alluring to read than its modern double. Closer to the visual experience of the text the Victorians might have had, it is also, however, lying prostrate under the strange power of digitalization. Corpse-like, the page’s shadows never vary and its creases do not move, which has an uncanny effect. Our experience of this historical text is very much determined by the present.

The reading process – and indeed our experience of time – can never adequately be understood as akin to “flowing water”.[iii]  The digitalization of Dickens’s novels in their serialized format honours that insight: our experience of time and reading is always a fragmentary one. Is there a moment in the future in which the text will be fully present to us? As Dickens puts it: “the time [has] not come yet…”


[i] Obviously, topicality and immediacy in A Tale of Two Cities is not a case of what is topical for us in the present – but it provides research material as to what was topical and swept into the serialized text, back in 1859. We come into a comprehension of what was immediate and present, in the past.

[ii] ‘Dickens and the Catastrophic Continuum of History in A Tale of Two Cities,’ ELH, 51 (Autumn 1984), 575-587.

[iii] David Copperfield, Chapter 18, ‘A Retrospect’. In looking back on his life so far, the narrator, David Copperfield says: “As I look back on that flowing water…”

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About Gillian Piggott

Dr Gillian Piggott is Associate Lecturer in the department of Interdisciplinary Studies at MMU; and is visiting lecturer at Middlesex University. Her book, "Dickens and Benjamin: Moments of Revelation, Fragments of Modernity" is available now with Ashgate Press.

3 thoughts on “Of Narrative and Time

  1. Thank you for this fascinating post Gillian, and welcome, to the group at this late hour (if this were a night out you might just have time to rush to the bar before last orders – mine’s a bitter). It’s great to have new voice and insights to extend discussion, and thanks also for the reference to the ELH article which I shall certainly be looking up on the back of this experience.

    Having someone new enter the fray at this point reminds me how far we’ve come as a group since April, how bloggers once anonymous to one another have become more familiar and how it is has become possible to start anticipating how other bloggers might react to plot events. In that sense the reading of ATOTC episodically has not only been an experience of re-ealuating Dickens’s work in its serial format, but moreover, and perhaps more significantly, the experience of reading it together, of discussing it, passing ideas and back forth while the plot is still unfolding, rather than retrospectively discussing it after completing the book. In an age where, unlike Dickens’s own time perhaps, reading is predominately a solitary exercise, it is interesting to consider to what extent communal, as opposed to individual reading, lends itself to Dickens’s texts, how the sharing of it gives further life and strength to the characters as their actions are discussed, expanded upon and relived in subsequent conversation.

  2. Pete, yes! I intend if possible to get some in before we’re called time!
    Thanks for your equally fascinating comment. You’re right, of course, the group dynamic of this project is what’s so endlessly rich. In my blog I tried to talk about the existence of a ‘notional text’ (or the slightly pompous phrase ‘the transcendental text’) – and here, you’re pointing out that this ‘text’ is not just confined to the individual’s experience of reading but is far greater than that, in being, on this project, communal. Professor Shattock indicated in her last piece that Dickens demands a lot of his readers. Dickens’s habit of laying down intricate plots, creating cryptic and elliptical atmospheres, planting clues and expecting readers to make connections across time (sometimes lengthy periods of time) between episodes – is perhaps one aspect of why Dickens’s novels lend themselves so much to being read as a group. It’s like a group puzzle or game. With more minds working on it, these clues are bound to be picked up, and the episodic fragments of text are briefly connected in the generated discussions that follow. During the discussion aimed at finding such clues, all manner of ideas and thoughts are brought to bear, bringing further infinitely intricate texture to the experience. Fascinating. I love the way this works. Connections are made between the present episode and those of the past – and speculative threads of connection will be mooted between the present number and episodes to come. The idea of the whole text, of completeness, is constantly and dialectically appearing and disappearing all the time. Like a ghost!

    • Belated welcome Gillian!- Sorry I’m not sure where the last week or so has run away to. It’s great to have new voices coming in right up to the last week, and I hope others with take your lead and add their thoughts . . . I love what you say about the ‘colouring’ of our reading experience by other events/texts/conversations. One of the discussions we had at the round table at Leicester recently was about how the quantity and quality of this colouring differed for the Victorian reader, and the different kinds of intertextual significances formed by different readers. I’m fascinated by the ways that this blog experience can teach us as much about practices/experiences of reading as about Dickens, or 1859, or AYR.

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