Reading the Times: Temporality and History in Twentieth-Century Fiction

By Randall Stevenson

On Bastille Day, 2000, why did 3 million people sit down to a picnic lunch along a line carefully set out across the whole of France, from north to south?

The famous clock at the gate of Greenwich Observatory, with the Millennium Dome in the background, on the right.

Mostly, to remember and celebrate the Paris Meridian, running south from Dunkirk, through the Paris Observatory, down to the Mediterranean.  This meridian had played an important role in the introduction of the metric system, after the French Revolution of 1789, and for a time rivalled the meridian based on Greenwich as a benchmark for global navigation.  After the Prime Meridian Conference of 1884 – as Chapter One explains – Greenwich Observatory acquired, and retained, an official role as the centre of global measurement of time and space.

Why were Joseph Conrad’s exams, in the 1880s, so significant for the emergence of modernist fiction in the following decades?

A couple of weeks after the Prime Meridian Conference, when Greenwich’s new importance was still world news, Conrad was preparing to resit Board of Trade Examinations for his ‘Mate’s Ticket’ – the certificate allowing him to serve as First Officer on ocean-going vessels.  The material he had to study, the questions in his navigation exam, and all the daily calculations required during a career at sea, rigorously referred to Greenwich as the base of temporal and spatial reckoning.  How might this have affected his novels  – such as The Secret Agent (1907) — and the restructured fictional temporalities which influenced later writers?  Chapter Two explains.

Why did some clocks and watches in the later nineteenth century have three hands, instead of the usual two?

The Corn Exchange clock, Bristol, still in use at the present day. © Richard Hayman 13/

Before world time was standardised, new uniformities had already been established within Britain. Until the mid-nineteenth century, individual town and cities still relied on time defined by their own clocks, set according to local times of sunrise and sunset – obviously differing throughout the land.  After the advent of the railways, such local variances became impracticable.  ‘Railway Time’ came into general use in the 1840s, and the national standard was regularised by Parliament in 1880.  But some towns, especially those a long way east or west of London, still hung onto their own local measure, as well as recording the official one.  Hence the three handed clocks – symbolic, as Chapter One explains, of deviations from conventional chronology often practised by twentieth-century fiction.

What made the nature of time itself seem to change, during a single week in November 1919, and how did modernist fiction respond?

Home Office Poster, May 1916. Imperial War Museum

The poster announces the first introduction of Summer Time, in 1916.  But there were other ‘alterations of time’ around that period.  The first Remembrance Day, in 1919, established the most chronologically-defined moment in British history, stopping all activity, nationwide, at 11am on 11 November.  And yet the remembrances involved – however precise the moment of their initiation – obviously ranged freely and widely over earlier times and lives lost.  Acceptance of a fixed, universal temporality had been challenged in another way, a few days previously, by the Royal Society announcing confirmation of Einstein’s theories of Relativity,

The clock, in other words, controlled life more exactingly than ever in 1919, yet temporality could also be considered unusually free of its constraints.  Impacting within a few days, Remembrance and Relativity suggest (to amend a phrase from one of Virginia Woolf’s essays) that in or about the second week of November 1919, human temporality changed –with profound consequences for 1920s fiction, as Chapter Four discusses.

Why did novels published in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s – by Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, George Orwell, Rosamond Lehmann and many others – so often seem (to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald) ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past’?

Not – or not only – because they were nostalgic for the past in general, but because they sought in it happier days before history had apparently gone wrong, or taken a turn for the worse.  For many authors, this involved a particular form of Remembrance – a return in memory to the supposedly-tranquil ‘belle époque’ before 1914.  Emphasis on memory, and on keeping the past juxtaposed with the present, had complex implications for the structure of their novels, analysed in Chapters Three, Four and Five.

Why did time often seem to mid-century authors somehow to have somehow stopped altogether?

Virginia Woolf saw life between the Great War and the Second World War occurring ‘between the acts’.  This temporal/historic claustrophobia intensified for authors after 1945.  Behind them lay Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and the slaughter of another war.  Ahead, as the introduction of the Doomsday Clock in 1947 suggests, lay the possibility of proximate nuclear Armageddon.  No wonder that like Faust – or like Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) – authors sometimes felt they were just ‘waiting for the night’.  Loss of faith in time flowing toward a promising future – along with many other long-standing faiths – led to a phase of sceptical, ‘postmodern’ fiction examined in Chapter Six.

How did science and technology change views of time in novels published later in the twentieth century, and what happened to these feelings in the twenty-first?

In Back to the Future, The Doc (Christopher Lloyd) uses the town clock to set up a way back from 1955 to 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Photofest

‘A great devil in the universe . . . Time’ continuously troubles characters in Time and the Conways (1937).  Yet its author, J.B. Priestley, reckoned later in the century that both Relativity and ‘science fiction with its tricks with time’ had diminished temporal stresses so troubling in earlier decades.  Chapter Six considers this possibility, also examining ways new scientific theories — and the century’s new technologies of cinema, video, computing, and eventually the Internet – amended earlier resentments of the clock, though these still remain evident even after the millennium.

Chapter One of Reading the Times also provides a general answer to all these questions, pointing out that “The measured pace of clock and calendar – the steady chronological order on which fiction partly depends – remains unaltered throughout all literary periods.  Attitudes to this pace, measure and order do not – varying, instead, according to how stringently the clock seems to rule contemporary experience, and the extent to which its exact measures seems compatible with the life of the times.” 

Going on to examine varying responses to history and the clock, time and its passage, Reading the Times provides in a way a compact cultural history of the twentieth century, analysing a wide range of pressures shaping the changeful ‘life of the times’.  Its main aim, though, is to show how authors responded to these pressures, relying on memory and private registers of time to wrest their novels from the hands of the clock and free the imagination from the historical constraints of the age.  Reading the Times thus offers both a fascinating new way of understanding literary history, and a unique set of insights into the twentieth century and its fictions.


Randall Stevenson is Professor of Twentieth-Century Literature in the University of Edinburgh.  He has lectured on fiction in Nigeria, Egypt and South Korea, as well as in twelve European countries, and his writing has been published in Italy, Russia and China. His book Reading the Times reflects long-developing interests in temporality, history and narrative.

Carla Hepburn
Carla Hepburn
Articles: 45

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *