Our canonical accounts of the novel form, arising out of formalist, psychoanalytic, structuralist, or Marxist interpretive practices, tend pervasively to occlude or ignore altogether one of its most salient elements: description. From Propp's schemas of narrative “functions” to Peter Brooks' textual “motor,” the driving energies of plot are taken as fundamental—to such an extent that a radically nondescriptive subgenre, the detective novel, is understood as a useful model for the novel per se. Such a focus is inevitably distorting—for the nineteenth-century British novel of everyday life, with its affinity for protracted descriptive pauses, more distorting still. Natural history influenced these descriptive practices; this essay argues that nineteenth-century novelistic description borrowed both a structure and an ethical justification from the observational practices of natural history and its knowing debt to natural theology. This borrowing included a delimited focus of attention on small objects or minute areas; the requirement to dilate at length upon such detail, finding much in the small and the quotidian; and the absolute value of close attention upon the detail, which yields truths inaccessible to wider gazes. The essay focuses on Gilbert White's The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789) and Mary Russell Mitford's Our Village (1824-32). It argues that we can detect the trace of a practice of close observation and a set of descriptive modes premised upon dilation of detail and delaying narrative drive, a descriptive mode that was particularly suited to the requirements of natural theology.
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Amy M. King; Natural History and the Novel: Dilatoriness and Length and the Nineteenth-Century Novel of Everyday Life. Novel 1 November 2009; 42 (3): 460–466. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2009-042
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