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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Clockwork plots : timekeeping narratives in Wilkie Collins's sensation fiction Steele, Robert


Often considered founding texts of the sensation genre, Wilkie Collins’s novels of the 1860s have been identified with the perceived accelerated pace of modern life in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, Collins’s sensation fiction, which dominated the “sensational sixties,” emerged onto the literary scene in a time of temporal transition in Britain. The rapid industrialization of British labour combined with technological innovations in transportation and communication, such as rail travel and telegraphy, in the early nineteenth century necessitated the standardization of timekeeping in Britain, a process that began with the 1840 adoption of Greenwich Mean Time along rail lines, culminated in the 1880 adoption of Greenwich time as the legal standard across the United Kingdom, and structured daily life around clock time. Critics have read Collins’s novels as instilling the time discipline of standardized clock time in their plots, with their emphasis on timing, chronology, and suspense. Using Collins’s The Woman in White (1859–60) and Armadale (1864–66) as case studies of sensational temporality, my thesis complicates that reading, arguing that these novels resist time discipline by encoding contemporary concerns around standardized timekeeping and its dissonance with the heterogenous experience of personal time in both their representations of timekeeping and their narrative structures. Although the protagonists of these two novels adopt time discipline to unravel the villains’ carefully timed plots, the exigencies of clock time induce psychological breaks from temporal regularity, not only suggesting Collins’s critique of time discipline as mentally taxing but also positioning standardized time as a cultural construct that obscures more durational and personal temporal rhythms. Moreover, Collins’s sensational narrative strategies, such as timestamping, dilation, contraction, and suspense, as well as his metonymic representations of timepieces work together to critique an increasingly industrialized world, typified both by the contemporary attention to timekeeping and by the very serialized forms in which these novels were originally published. In doing so, Collins’s clockwork plots not only establish many of the time-sensitive conventions of the sensation genre but also point to a mid-nineteenth century preoccupation with the heterogeneity of time perception that prefigures late-nineteenth century psychological, philosophical, and literary discourses.

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