Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction, 1810-1870

Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction, 1810-1870

Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction, 1810-1870

Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction, 1810-1870

Synopsis

With Joyce, Proust, and Faulkner in mind, we have come to understand the novel as a form with intimate ties to the impulses and processes of memory. This study contends that this common perception is an anachronism that distorts our view of the novel. Based on an investigation of representative novels, Amnesiac Selves shows that the Victorian novel bears no such secure relation to memory, and, in fact, it tries to hide, evade, and eliminate remembering. Dames argues that the notable scarcity and distinct unease of representations of remembrance in the nineteenth-century British novel signal an art form struggling to define and construct new concepts of memory. By placing nineteenth-century British fiction from Jane Austen to Wilkie Collins alongside a wide variety of Victorian psychologies and theories of mind, Nicholas Dames evokes a novelistic world, and a culture, before modern memory--one dedicated to a nostalgic evasion of detailed recollection which our time has largely forgotten.

Excerpt

The Novel is a Death; it transforms life into destiny, a memory into a
useful act, duration into an orientated and meaningful time.
—Roland Barthes, “Writing and the Novel”

Replacing Barthes’s hypostatized “Novel” with a historically defined set of “novels,” we might say that transforming memories into useful acts — enabling, in fact, the death of memory within it—is preeminently the work of the Victorian novel. a surprising claim, given that we have come to perceive the novel itself, of whatever era, as a form shaped by the impulses and processes of memory; with the modernist novel of Joyce, Woolf, or Proust uppermost in our minds, we have come to understand the novel as an act of remembrance, and as a form with intimate ties to various lived pasts. Thinking of the act of novel writing, we imagine heroic acts of preservation, and as we conceptualize the act of reading novels, we envi- sion a reader engaged in equally difficult acts of thematic and structural re- membering. But this template, dependent as it is on later developments in both narrative practice and psychological theory, misrecognizes the earlier Victorian and immediately pre-Victorian novel. Memory, from the social novels of Jane Austen to the sensation novels of Wilkie Collins, is less a val- orized theme than a dilemma or a threat, a threat most crucially to the very lessons a novel seeks to impart; the notable absence of explicit remem- brance within these texts, as well as the distinct unease surrounding those acts of memory that do occur within them, signals a narrative form strug- gling to transform the chaos of personal recollection into what is useful . . .

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