Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 39 (2008) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Richard Menke's study draws illuminating connections between the development of literary realism and the revolutionary changes which the nineteenth century saw in methods of communication and information management. Innovations such as the Penny Post, the telegraph, photography and wireless communication all raise fundamental questions about the representation in media both of the material world and of human subjectivity and social interconnection. Menke's discussion of these provides the context in which he examines how novelists grapple with similar issues, and he thus offers fresh new ways of thinking about realism as a self-conscious representational practice and about how the novel form develops along with media technologies as the century progresses. Menke demonstrates how fiction 'could begin imagining itself as a medium and information system in an age of new media' (3) but also suggests ways in which novels themselves anticipated and even shaped subsequent developments in the communication and management of information.
The introductory chapter explores some of the changing conceptions of information which arose with the advent of new technologies. In particular, Menke explores the problematic relationship between raw information and real human knowledge, a relationship thrown into question by developing media which could disseminate information at greater speed, in larger quantities, and over wider distances than ever before. Subsequent chapters trace the changing conceptualizations of information in novels and communication media. Trollope's The Three Clerks (1858) draws analogies between the Post Office's structure and operation and Trollope's own mode of fictional realism. Like the postal system, realist novels aim to accommodate a diversity of human relations within a coherent, organizing framework. Indeed, when we consider the striking similarities, which Menke reveals, between William Mulready's elaborately decorative design for the Penny Post's prepaid envelopes and the wrappers of the weekly parts of Nicholas Nickleby, the analogies between fictional form and postal medium seem closer than ever. Charting the advent of electrical communication technologies, Menke reads the telepathic exchange between Jane Eyre and Rochester as analogous to the transmission, enabled by telegraphy, of seemingly disembodied information from remote sources, and he thus usefully points to the conceptual overlaps between telegraphy and mesmerism as possible scientific paradigms underpinning this moment in the novel.