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The observation that human beings are narrative creatures is virtually a late-twentieth-century commonplace. Figures as varied as Paul Auster, Roland Barthes, Peter Brooke, Jean-Paul Sartre, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Hayden White have placed at the centre of their work the insight that narrative constitutes the primary means through which we create meaning out of experience. Through the stories we tell ourselves, we recollect and revise our past and envision our future. Through narrative, individual identities are fashioned, nations imagined and ideologies created and contested.
Given the importance of narrative in contemporary thought, it appears both useful and interesting to consider the position of narrative in the other periods. In Narrative Order Gavin Edwards does just this, examining the status of narrative in Romantic-period culture. He argues that ‘a widespread scepticism about narrative…appeared in British writing from 1789’ (4).
In his view, eighteenth-century writers believed that life was like a biography: that we see our lives as they really are when we stand back from them and construct a linear narrative out of them. However, the French revolution’s promise to end the old order and build a new one led British writers to question the notion that life formed a sequential narrative. For Edwards, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) constitutes ‘the text which first seriously threatened the narrative idea of life’ (8). Burke associated narrative sequence with Enlightenment threats to the status quo, preferring to assert ‘middles, mediations’ (9).
From Burke on, writers responded to narrative in a variety of complex ways. William Wordsworth and Walter Scott developed ‘forms of lyricised and temporalised narratives less committed to beginnings and endings’ (10). Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’ and Scott’s historical novels broke the universal linear time of the Enlightenment into fragments, expressing the disjointed nature of experience.
Ideas about narrative also played critical and contending roles in the work of the Godwin circle. William Godwin sought to uncover the true story about the way the world worked, versus the false story that people believed. However, the trauma of Mary Wollstonecraft’s death created challenges to this enterprise. The unfinished condition of Wollstonecraft’s last novel Maria; or the Wrongs of Woman (1798) expresses the fragmentary nature of experience. And in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), narrative provides an incomplete compensation for the world’s contingency. The narrator attempts to relate his life story so as to bring into being the relationship with the parents he never had. In so doing, he mirrors Shelley herself.
In addition to such Romantic mainstays, Edwards examines less well-known figures such as the soldier-storyteller Watkin Tench and the poet and naturalist George Crabbe. In his accounts of the founding of New South Wales as a British colony – A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay (1789) and An Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson (1793) - Tench used the form of the precisely-dated letter to ‘register the volatile and unpredictable character of revolutionary reality’ (12). In contrast, Crabbe’s attitude towards narrative was more equivocal. He both desired and doubted the possibility of clear moral endings.
Edwards peppers his account with marvellous close observations (a favourite of mine is when he notes that ‘in the Reflections the revolution of 1688 always has a capital initial letter while the revolution of 1789 never does’ (36–37)). But his case could have been strengthened by adopting a broader approach to the period. His neglect of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) is particularly striking. Not only is this poem a key exploration of both the power and the insufficiency of narrative, but it also could have provided a crucial connection-point between the Romantic canon and colonial figures such as Tench.
Edwards’s closeness of focus becomes particularly problematic in his account of eighteenth-century ideas about narrative. He bases his claim that writers favoured sequential narrative on the reading of a single text: Samuel Johnson’s Life of Richard Savage (1744). In so doing, he overlooks a strong strain of anti-narrative thought that existed in the period: from Lawrence Sterne’s deconstructive narrative perorations in Tristram Shandy (1759–69); to David Hume’s rejection of the necessary connection between cause and effect. Indeed, Johnson himself expressed his preference for anecdote over sequential narrative, declaring that ‘[m]ore knowledge may be gained of a man’s real character by a short conversation with one of his servants than from a formal and studied narrative’ (311).
Moreover, Edwards is too self-effacing in setting out the wider significance of his study. He does not consider the implications of his insights for narratology, missing a key opportunity to demonstrate his work’s broader relevance. More importantly, he implies that the crisis in narrative he describes plays an important role in the birth of the modern subject - as the dispassionate observer of the Enlightenment is superseded by the conflicted self of modernity. But he places this compelling if contentious claim very much in the background of the study.
Yet it is in many ways self-defeating to fault for incompleteness a book that seeks to the chaotic nature of experience. Narrative Order provides thought-provoking close readings of familiar and unfamiliar texts and uncovers interesting new areas of inquiry. Lord Chesterfield claimed that ‘[t]o have frequent recourse to narrative betrays a want of imagination’ (Stanhope 353). Edwards’s monograph provides a salutary reminder that imagination was something that Romantic-period writers never lacked.
Alex Watson teaches in the Department of English and Related Literature and the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York. He's currently writing a book on Romantic paratexts.
- Johnson, Samuel. “The Rambler: No. 60. Saturday, October 13, 1750.” The Rambler. 3 vols. 9th ed. (Edinburgh: Alexander Donaldson, 1781). 1:309–313.
- Stanhope, Philip Dormer. “Letter CXXXIV: To his son: Bath, October 19, 1748.” Letters written by the late Right Honourable Philip Dormer Stanhope (London: J. Dodsley, 1774). 353–59.