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Newcastle University

By Author: lin.white
Total Articles: 41

Every scholar of the nineteenth century knows that Victorian thinkers were haunted by geological study and the prospect it opened of a vast time scale that seemed to contradict the Bible and cast human life into insignificance. We know this, of course, because the Victorians told us; most famously, John Ruskin complained of hearing the 'clink' of the geologists' 'dreadful hammers... at the end of Thomas Sabo Jewellery every cadence of the Bible verses'. In recognizing the crucial place of geology and the younger discipline of archaeology in the Victorian imagination, Virginia Zimmerman does not break fundamentally new ground. But her study is valuable for its convincing analyses of the relations between high Victorian literature and geology or archaeology, as well as for aligning the subject with present-day efforts to rethink literary history in terms of 'deep time'.

Zimmerman begins with a theoretical account that builds on Paul Ricoeur's notion of the 'trace' in order to recognise how multiple chronologies intersect in objects used to view the past. Equally important for her is Johannes Fabian's recognition of 'coevalness' between anthropologists and the cultures they study. Even when excavated objects revealed a geological time that seemed imponderably vast, Zimmerman argues, those objects provided traces from the past that rendered it coeval with the present, and consequently offered hope that something from the present could survive to become coeval with the future. She points out that the establishment of uniformitarian's as a geological principle (versus the catastrophism that attributed the earth's configuration to sudden volcanic eruptions or epic floods) could bring a parallel kind of hope: if slow, ordinary, everyday phenomena could invisibly carve out Thomas Sabo Bracelets coastlines and rock formations, then perhaps the small, individual actions of men and women might have some similarly great cumulative effect over time. For Zimmerman, developments in geology that might seem to diminish the importance of human beings could actually end up allowing writers to amplify the importance of the individual especially the power of the person who excavates and interprets the fragments of the past, and who uses them to construct knowledge about the present and future.

Taking Gillian Beer's analysis of the reciprocal movement between scientific discourse and literary texts (especially in Darwin's Plots [1983]) as a model, Zimmerman alternates chapters on geology and archaeology with chapters on Tennyson and Dickens. In her discussion of Victorian geologists, she argues that the writing of uniformitarians effectively displaces the Paley-esque provision of evidence for a Creator with the authority of the scientist as creative observer. While Charles LyelFs epoch-making Principles of Geology (1830-33) illustrates 'the power of the geologist to become deep time's storyteller' Gideon MantelPs identification of the fossilised iguanodon epitomises the expert's ability imaginatively to reanimate the past even if Mantell bought his famous fossil rather than finding it himself.

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