Richard Menke. Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2008. ISBN: 978-0804756914. Price: US$60.00[Notice]

  • Tamara Ketabgian

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  • Tamara Ketabgian
    Beloit College

Menke most eloquently poses these aims in his introduction, which evokes Charles Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, an eccentric technological defense of miracles that imagines the universe as a library, a databank, and a work of multiplot fiction requiring careful information management. Following Babbage, Telegraphic Realism envisions realist fiction “as part of an analog library initiative, a project to translate and reimagine the data composing the world, in a medium that maintained a sense of potential connection to that world” (26). In chapters spanning the Victorian period, two of which previously appeared in ELH and PMLA, Menke provides an exciting account of these informatic possibilities in fiction. Aside from its contributions to media theory, Telegraphic Realism is impressive as a study of the literal, figurative, and thematic functions of information in fiction. Beginning with Dickens and ending with Kipling, its chapters are distinguished both by sophisticated literary interpretation and a fine-grained treatment of the discourses predating and inaugurating technological change. Chapter one reads early Dickens and Anthony Trollope’s The Three Clerks through popular debates surrounding the Mulready postal envelope and the new postal order of Rowland Hill. As “part of a national discourse network” (43), Hill’s postal system supported a regular, inclusive, and transparent mode of communication that, Menke argues, was remarkably analogous to literary realism. The next chapter explores how the electric telegraph fuelled fantasies of immediacy, objectivity, and disembodied cosmic telephony in Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Dickens’s Household Words, and Gaskell’s letters. Here Menke offers one of the most compelling interpretations I have encountered of Jane’s spiritual “call” by Rochester from miles away—as a premonitory telegraphic fantasy of long-distance narrative intimacy. For Menke, Jane Eyre’s spiritual telecommunication resonates with an influential vision of realist fiction as a technological medium for conveying neutral, bodiless information beyond human limits. This image of disembodied objectivity repeatedly appears in his third and fourth chapters, both of which explore abstract forms of perception promised by modern media systems. Chapter three traces the uneasy tension between past and mid-nineteenth-century media environments in A Tale of Two Cities, dwelling both on the early telegraphic use of optical semaphore signals and on a later media form: Sydney Carton’s death and consequent transformation into the novel’s “speaking machine for modern information: neutral, bodiless, swift, communal, transcendent” (131). Menke’s fourth chapter further examines the power and costs of such disembodied information in George Eliot’s short story “The Lifted Veil.” It analyzes Eliot’s fiction as an objective record of internal and external life, comparing the uncanny clairvoyance of her character Latimer to other forms of storage, inscription, and dissemination realized by mid-Victorian photography, physiology, and print media. Indeed, whether in the case of Latimer, Sydney, or Jane, Menke shows how the most implausible fictional scenarios follow a “telegraphic” narrative logic—a logic that pursues “the machinic possibilities of characters and their stories” (128). The remaining three chapters of Menke’s study explore telegraphy both as a figure for narratorial consciousness and as an increasingly central theme in late-Victorian literature. Menke does not accord this fiction the same premonitory cultural power that he credits to earlier texts. Nonetheless, his analyses perform crucial and insightful work, examining the role of the telegrapher’s own mind and body in ordering, transmitting, comprehending, and sometimes confounding information also idealized as objective and disembodied. Discussing fiction by Dickens, Trollope, R. M. Ballatyne, and Bracebridge Hemyng, his fifth chapter considers the rise of women telegraphers, the development of acoustic telegraphy, and new forms of labor, trauma, and desire that attended these transformations. As Menke shows in his final two chapters on James’s In the Cage …

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