Joseph Drury, Novel Machines: Technology and Narrative Form in Enlightenment Britain

Joseph Drury, Novel Machines: Technology and Narrative Form in Enlightenment Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) 269 pp. £60 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-19-879238-3

In a book that considers how the novel functions as a machine, it is comforting to find an approach which leaves programmatic thinking far behind. In Novel Machines, Joseph Drury employs a set of critical tools which, rather than tinkering with ideas of the novel, subject it to a radical overhaul. This is interrogative writing of the highest calibre; every chapter questions master narratives of the novel, barely a page goes by without an insight into the literature of the Enlightenment, and the result is a fascinating exploration of the period’s narrative strategies and how they respond to technological change.

One of the many valuable contributions Drury makes is in fact to argue that the novel was never a mechanism used to instil a society-wide system of power, but that its moving parts were always contingent, playful, and capable of serving multiple uses – think Swiss Army Knife rather than steel press. The book aims to find a productive resolution to the binaries of considering machines as either deterministic (the metallic ‘other’ to the organic), or the constructivist approach, which notes the hand is itself shaped to use tools, and that ‘humans and machines are fundamentally interdependent’ (111). In one view, machines are dominant, twisting the human in more or less painful ways; in the other, they are analysed for how they actually operate in the world, but often in such a way that they become so local and precise they lose any sense of collective agency. Drury works towards a blending of the two approaches, emphasising the sense of plurality where ‘the modifications one makes to any kind of machinery can significantly alter its uses and effects’ (10), without at the same time relinquishing its political or ideological import.

The historical context of Drury’s world of automatons, scientific shows, and philosophic debates about L’homme Machine are superbly handled. As Drury neatly observes, the ‘Mechanical Age’ described by Thomas Carlyle is situated firmly in the eighteenth century, long before its usual nineteenth-century ‘home’. Drury argues that in ‘the period from the Scientific to the Industrial Revolution […] British authors sought to transform the novel into an Enlightenment machine, a form of technological mediation methodically designed that would produce useful philosophical knowledge about human nature’ (47). This project proved so successful that it began to shape ‘narratives whose explicit purpose might seem to have been far removed from Enlightenment discourses on technological modernity’ (47).

The formulation of novel as machine immediately situates Drury’s analysis closer to a concept of the book as a type of user interface, its ‘dynamically interacting parts’ (13) designed according to their ‘likely effects on readers’ (19). These are both moving parts, with Drury stating that ‘just as the narrative machinery of eighteenth-century fiction develops in response to the period’s changing attitudes to modern technologies, so its narrative dynamics evolve in changing ideas about the machinery of the human subject’ (20). It is a feedback loop; if the novel as machine aims to produce a repeatable response, it must continually adjust to predict audience reception. The arguments that follow challenge accepted reading of such well-known texts as Love in Excess, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy and The Mysteries of Udolpho, as well as issues surrounding libertinism, empiricism, the gothic, and questions of speed and mobility. The scholarship is exemplary; current debates are always addressed, and the scope of the argument has a remarkable range (the book moves from the early 1700s to a nineteenth-century coda).

The first chapter considers how one can usefully think of the novel as a machine, observing that this did not necessarily condemn writers to the type of mechanical labour Jonathan Swift satirised in A Tale of A Tub (1704), but became more like the well-defined production techniques of a Thomas Chippendale, creating the rococo, rather than the robotic. A closer analysis of texts follows, and these chapters are divided into two; Eliza Haywood and Henry Fielding are regarded as exemplifying a project to retrieve science and technology from its associations with libertine irreligion and mountebank imposture, while the latter chapters address a new worry that narrative machinery was becoming too rational and too easily plottable.

Chapter 2 examines libertinism in Love in Excess, arguing that Eliza Haywood aims to combat the ‘widespread assumption’ that the novel ‘promoted moral depravity’, with the machine-like drive of desire used as an apology for sexual licentiousness (at least for the male). Drury observes that ‘if men do not think when they are in the grip of a powerful erotic passion, it is not because they cannot, but because they have no reason to do so […] the sexual double standard means the men have no specific social prohibitions acing as a check on their desires and thus less to think about’ (68). Conversely, for women, libertinism foregrounds the importance of cognition precisely because there is so much to fear as well as to desire. If, for men, libertinism can become an easy ‘heroism’ that costs them little, the difficulty for women was to prove that, like a Pamela, maintaining their chastity was not the result of calculated self-interest. As Drury argues, for the libertine heroine ‘to be admirable from both the moral and the heroic point of view, she must resist transgression while at the same time demonstrating that her desire to transgress is ultimately irresistible’ (81). As a result, instead of manufacturing sexual fantasies to lure the impressionable, Haywood’s narrative provokes a much more rational debate. This reading also helps to contextualise the remarkable ennui of so many libertine figures, such as Dorimant in The Man of Mode, who risks little (despite his hyperbole), and appears like an increasingly worn-out machine.

The third chapter, on Tom Jones, traces the way Fielding situated his novel in relation to other ‘shows’, ranging from the pantomime entertainments of John Rich, puppet shows and automata, to the scientific displays exemplified by Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Showing an Experiment with an Air-Pump. Drury argues that ‘Fielding set out to contrast the rational, probabilistic belief he solicited from his audience – as well as the transparent, consensual methods he used to earn it – with the “vulgar” superstition commonly attributed to consumers of contemporary forms of spectacular entertainment’ (87). Fielding moves the narrative machinery of the novel away from wonder and superstition, yet does it paradoxically by pulling his own secrets out of the hat, surprising the spectators not with his magic, but the probability and rationality of his performance.

In chapter 4, Drury suggests the ‘most important influence’ (128) on Sterne’s description of the alienated post-chaise mobility of Tristram Shandy was Rousseau’s Emile (1762), and argues that ‘the more human beings extended their desires beyond their immediate proximal relations the less capable they became of responding to the pleasures and moral obligations of the here and now’ (109). This is followed by a fine discussion of Ann Radcliffe, noting that ‘optical technologies’ have tended to define the gothic, ignoring the importance of sound effects. Drury suggests critics have overlooked the importance of the auditory, and asks what happens if instead of the waxwork figure behind the black veil, we substitute the Aeolian harp as the central trope of Udolpho, with its ‘ethereal technologies’ and ‘expressive aesthetics’ (148). Drury concludes that ‘Radcliffe’s hollowed-out gothic narrative was thus the ideal expressive narrative instrument: like the Aeolian harp and the glass harmonica, it was machinery that appeared not to be machinery; it produced effects that had no apparent cause’ (156).

It is not possible to do the subtlety of the argument justice in these chapter summations. This is far from a ‘Rise of the Machine’ story to accompany an equally dubious ‘Rise of the Novel’ narrative. Drury instead sets each of his chapters in a precise historical register, and rejects the teleology of the machine becoming ‘The Machine’. It is a stimulating approach, and will provide engaging reading for all those interested in the novel, technology, and the relationship between the two. The chapters on Radcliffe, Haywood, Sterne and Fielding will surely also become required reading for scholars in their field.

Chris Ewers, University of Exeter

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