Saturday 26 July 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: T is for Text, Time (and Trains)

A few days ago, I watched Richard Curtis’ About Time (2013) – a film which deals with time travel but through a romantic and domestic lens. The movie struck me in two ways – one, in its concentration on only one character who could travel through time (meaning we could still trace his development chronologically) and two, in its message that time must progress (people grow up, move on, die) even if somebody could magically have the power to warp it. In these two points, the film’s play with time seemed analogous to many Victorian novels and particularly to a novel I’ve been reading recently – Thomas Hardy’s 1871 Desperate Remedies.

“I’m not the text” Miss Aldclyffe tells Cytherea Graye curtly, when the young companion questions her employer in Hardy’s Desperate Remedies, as to why she never married. She is right. Important as Miss Aldclyffe (also named Cytherea) is to Hardy’s first published novel, and central as ‘reading’ her and her secrets is to the unravelling of the plot, the characters which give shape and structure to the story are the young lovers – Cytherea Graye and Edward Springrove. It is not only Miss Aldclyffe who tells us so. Hardy’s very first sentence lays out for his readers who we should be concentrating on:

‘In the long and intricately inwrought chain of circumstance which renders worthy of record some experiences of Cytherea Graye, Edward Springrove, and others, the first event directly influencing the issue was a Christmas visit.’

Immediately after this line we are confused by the introduction of another Graye (Ambrose, not Cytherea) and another Cytherea (Bradleigh, not Graye), while no Springrove appears at all. Yet, Hardy’s opener is a stake in the ground, alerting us to who this text will centre on and indicating that what will be related about these two characters – Ambrose Graye and Cytherea Bradleigh – is purely prefatory.

There is something else, of course, which alerts us to this. Hardy starts each section by indicating the timeframe it will take place within. This means we know this first section is to cover off ‘The Events of Thirty Years’. As the novel progresses, events become more concentrated in a period of time. In this first section, Hardy can cover off thirty years in one fell swoop, while the longest periods dealt with after this are ‘The Events of Ten Months’, the shortest ‘The Events of Three Hours’. The historical date (1835) and length of period covered, along with the knowledge that the characters named are not the main protagonists, helps readers label this section as introductory and signposts from the off our reading experience.

Why does this matter? A novelist has almost entirely free rein when it comes to time, with readers accepting the pace unquestioningly so Hardy’s headings could almost be seen as unnecessary. What they do do however is draw our attention to this strange power of the novelist (the time bending and omnipresent narrator) making us hyper-conscious of how the text can speed up or slow at important moments.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the passage describing the burning of the Three Tranters Inn. A burning heap of coach-grass sets fire to the nearby building, and Hardy traces the slow process which led to the catastrophe, repeatedly drawing our attention to shortening values of time.
The area behind the house has been a wasteland for ‘many years’, the uprooted coach-grass has been left, over a period of time, to ‘wither in the sun’, then ‘kindled three days previous’ to the events of tonight. Mr Springrove, the owner of the inn, checks on the fire ‘two or three times’ the first night, ‘the next morning’ and again at ‘bedtime’.  For the ‘whole of the third day’, the pile smoulders without change, then, after a cursory glance at it, Mr Springrove goes to bed at ‘half past ten o’clock’.  He is careless and misses the ‘quivering of the air around the heap’ which indicates the slowly rising temperature. ‘By eleven’ all are asleep. ‘At a quarter past eleven’ there is a crackle. Then ‘at twenty past eleven’ a piece of ignited fern is carried towards the building; ‘five minutes later’ the same happens to a second piece; ‘a minute later’ another piece lands on a heap of thatch.  When the building is finally set alight we are told:

‘The hurdles and straw roof of the frail erection became ignited in their turn , and, abutting as the shed did on the back of the inn, flamed up to the eaves of the main roof in less than thirty seconds’ [emphasis mine].

This whole passage is masterfully done, building suspense and making us acutely aware of the novelist’s ability to ration time, while the series of events leading to the fire are like something from a Final Destination death sequence. And it isn’t just natural developments (fire, breeze, the fluttering of a fern) – the human plot also relies on timings and often train timetables, which Hardy describes in minute detail on the night of Cytherea’s wedding. Catastrophe can, and often does, come down to missing a train, misreading a timetable, intercepting a letter carried on a mail-train.

Hardy and Hollywood may not seem natural bedfellows but the narratives of both the film and the novel which were on my mind this week are united by an obsession with time, what this means for character, and how it affects the crafting of a text.

What should be ‘U’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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