Watches and Watching Time in British Romantic Comedy

By Purinton, Marjean D. | Wordsworth Circle, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Watches and Watching Time in British Romantic Comedy


Purinton, Marjean D., Wordsworth Circle


One of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain was the re-imagining of time while horology and chronometry as arts and as industry changed people's relationship to temporal activities. For the first time, labor and laborers were "on the clock," and the pace at which social and commercial activities moved significantly increased. Time became secularized, as the hours of Church-defined collective activities (tolled by cathedral bells, for example) were replaced with mechanisms held by individuals (watches) and featured in domestic parlors (mantel clocks), and thus private and public forms of time intersected in ways that destabilized social structures and patterns of behaviors. Schedules of public activities, such as train arrivals and departures, were expected to operate with precision and predictability, as individual watches and public clocks ticked in unison. According to Stuart Sherman, clocks articulate time's meanings in and for the culture that produces them (ix), and the Romantic period registered new meanings of time with particular acuity (Miller 3).

Writers of the period reflected and responded to the new kind of time as recent scholars have noted. Studying the temporal form of Wordsworth's evening poems, Christopher Miller shows how evening poetry registers increments and lapses of time (6-7). Stuart Sherman examined diurnal texts, such as Frances Burney's journal, and how they draw their power and their appeal from their engagement with new structures of time (276). John Barnard probed the temporal negotiations John Keats made between his medical training and his poetry between September, 1816, and March, 1817, noting that new patients were diagnosed in less than two minutes each at Guy's Hospital. It is in the context of this scholarship that I found it timely for this year's ICR meeting's theme of "Romantic Objects" to discuss the objects of time measurement and how these objects signaled the revaluation and organization of time in Romantic comedy, a genre in which timing is important for its verbal and visual effects.

Eric Bruton and Alfred and Eugene Jaquet Cahpuis offer relevant watch-making information for my analysis. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries. London was the center of clock making and the watch trade, and watch-making centers included Geneva, Paris, as well as London. From 1780-1835, pedometer watches were popular as rare charming conceits. Famous for his montre perpetulle. Abraham-Louis Breguet invented in the 1780s a self-winding watch wound by a bouncing weight. While the most famous of the perpetuelle watches were the 1783 "Marie Antoinette" watch and a Breguet watch Napoleon took on his Egyptian campaign in the late 1790s, by the beginning of the 19th century, there were about 50,000 watches a year coming from Geneva workshops. Basil Charles le Roy, a master watchmaker in Paris from 1788 until 1825, supplied watches to Napoleon and other members of the Emperor's family. Watchmaker to Kings Louis XV and Louis XVI, Robert Robin invented a "free" escapement mechanism for watches in 1791. In 1794, 2,700 luxurious and decorated watches confiscated and deposited in the Record Offices of the French Revolutionary Tribunal were auctioned. Another Geneva horologist, Pierre Jaquet-Droz, the first to make exquisite singing-bird boxes and famous for his ingenious and remarkable mechanical puppets, opened a branch office in London in 1783.

But British watchmakers were innovative with timekeepers as well. In 1780, George III granted a Letters Patent to Louis Recordon for the mechanism of a self-winding watch, the first patent ever to cover an automatic remtmtoire. Recordon served as a liaison officer among Geneva, Paris, and London where firms were exporting watches and timekeepers to the Near and Far East. Another English watch-maker Thomas Mudge invented the letter escapement for the watch. He set up shop in Fleet Street, where he made the first lever watch, which was bought by George III and presented to Queen Charlotte. …

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