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?

Photo courtesy of  Jametiks under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

3 thoughts on “What’s the time, Mister Wolf?

  1. There’s the clock in the great hall in Dombey and Son that repeats “how-is-my-litt-le-friend.” At least, I think that’s how young Paul Dombey, the melancholic, hears it. Actually, there are numerous clock references throughout the novel, and references to nautical equipment too.

  2. Thanks for this, Mister Daniel! Dickens is a good source for all kinds of mechanical contrivances, and for representations of various systems of knowing. Sometimes those two categories overlap in interesting ways – I’m thinking of Master Humphrey’s clock, which Humphrey uses as a depository for a collection of old manuscripts.

    And your mention of nautical equipment has reminded me that I’ve been dying to read Dava Sobel’s Longitude – the story of how John Harrison, an 18th-century clockmaker, figured out how to use a chronometer to solve the problem of establishing east-west location while at sea. Here’s to the holiday reading pile!

  3. Sounds like some very interesting holiday reading, indeed. I’ll have a look at that one too! My other favorite clock reference in Dickens is the one in Miss Havisham’s room in Great Expectations. All the clocks stopped at the same time… so fascinating!!! There is something incredibly melancholic about Dickens’s representations of clocks and clock-time.


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