As part of my dissertation research on representations of automata in Victorian literature, I’ve been reading a bit about the figurative history of clocks. I’ve been particularly fascinated by the changing fortunes of the clock in metaphors relating to the nature and construction of knowledge. As Otto Mayr details in Authority, Liberty & Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe, the clock was an extremely flexible concept that was conscripted for symbolic use in many different epistemological projects. At various times over the last handful of centuries, the clock has represented both the inscrutability and the intelligibility of nature, the human ability to cognitively penetrate and conceptualize system and the limitations that various systems place on subjective desire, the value of speculative, analogical inference and the importance of deriving positive knowledge from the detailed analysis of specific natural structures. So wide-ranging were these figurative uses of the clock, concludes Mayr, that by the end of the 18th century, the clock metaphor had become so overworked in Europe as to have been considered “tiresome” (77).
Mayr ends his investigation of the clock metaphor at the close of the 18th century, which leaves me fairly curious about what interesting (or perhaps even more “tiresome”) literary lives may have been lead by the clock throughout the increasingly rationalized, mechanized 19th century. Victorian novels are, of course, awash in clock- and time-related references, but I have my eye on a few particular trends. My first interest in is the only-partially-knowable inner workings of broken or misbehaving clocks, like that of the “stupid, bewildering” one-handed clock that adorns the tower at Audley Court in Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. My second interest lies in fictional representations of clockmakers or other characters who struggle to master the kind of esoteric knowledge generally implied by clockwork mechanisms. One example here might be poor Major Milroy in Collins’ Armadale, who tries to comprehend his elaborate clock because he can’t comprehend the world. And finally, I wonder if there are other depictions of a clock as ultimately and cosmically unknowable as the “superlative abnormality” of the eight-day clock in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Clockmaker.”
Buoyant readers, have you come across any clocky Victorian references that might fit any of these categories?