Academic journal article Spatial Practices

The Total Mobility of the Dime Novel Detective

Academic journal article Spatial Practices

The Total Mobility of the Dime Novel Detective

Article excerpt

1. Britain and the Novel

After travelling through Britain in the 1770s, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg thought he had found the reason why England had given birth to the new literary genre of the novel - and why Germany failed in producing anything alike:

Unsere Lebensart ist nun so simpel geworden, und all unsere Gebräuche so wenig mystisch; unsere Städte sind meistens so klein, das Land so offen, alles ist sich so einfältig treu, daß ein Mann, der einen deutschen Roman schreiben will, fast nicht weiß, wie er Leute zusammen bringen, oder Knoten schürzen soll.

Our way of life has become so simple now, and all our customs so free of mystery; most of the time, our cities are so small, the country so wide, everything stays so much the same, that a man who wants to write a German novel hardly knows how to bring people together, or tie knots. (1817: 56)

In Germany, Lichtenberg reasons, the lack of urbanity and the sparsely populated provinces do not allow for those heterogeneous encounters between strangers that set in motion the contingent plot of a novel. The novel, here, is less a medium for individual self-reflection within the close confínes of the mind, but a public space where the double contingency of modem life can be observed. In a modem, mobile society people have to find ways of dealing with others whose origins, thoughts and habits they do not know - and the novel helps the reader to come to terms with this modem condition.

For Lichtenberg, the lack of experienceable contingency in Germany, and consequently the lack of possible plotlines, is determined, first of all, by a lack of spatial mobility:

Für's erste, wenn ein Mädchen mit ihrem Liebhaber aus London des Abends durchgeht, so kann sie in Frankreich sein, ehe der Vater aufwacht, oder in Schottland, ehe er mit seinen Verwandten zum Schluß kommt; daher ein Schriftsteller weder Feen, noch Zauberer, noch Talismane nöthig hat, um die Verliebten in Sicherheit zu bringen; denn wenn er sie nur bis nach Charingcroß oder Hydepark-Comer bringen kann, so sind sie [...] sicher [...]. Hingegen in Deutschland, wenn auch der Vater den Verlust seiner Tochter erst den dritten Tag gewahr würde, wenn er nur weiß, daß sie mit der Post gegangen ist, so kann er sie zu Pferde immer noch auf der dritten Station wieder kriegen.

Firstly, when a maid and her lover run away from London in the evening, they could be in France before the father awakes, or in Scotland before their relatives understand what happened; therefore, a writer needs neither fairies, nor magicians nor any lucky charms to bring the lovers to safety; because if he can only get them to Charing Cross or Hydepark Comer they are [...] safe [...]. In Germany, however, even if the father would only realize the loss of his daughter on the third day, it would be enough to know that they took the stagecoach in order to catch them by horse at the third station. (59)

While in Germany, apparently, everyone stayed close to home and everything the same, it is the superior English system of stagecoaches and other forms of transportation that, according to Lichtenberg, opened the space of and for the novel and that made possible those unforeseen disappearances and encounters which are necessary for a plot to evolve. Where German writers still had to resort to otherworldly fairies and magic to bring about change, British writers could rely on new technologies and networks of transport to represent contingency.

On the basis of this account by Lichtenberg, Deidre Shauna Lynch (2005), in her recent revision of the emergence of the novel in eighteenth-century Britain, has emphasised that not only the protagonists of the novels were constantly on the road (Tom Jones, Roderick Random, Moll Flanders etc.), but that the books themselves became mobile entities, distributed through the postal system and carried around in pockets and bags. The emergence of the novel, she claims, is connected to the emergence of a mobile society: people travel and meet yet-unknown people and situations - and if people do not travel, books bring yet-unknown characters and situations to wherever people are. …

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