Patricia McKee. Reading Constellations: Urban Modernity in Victorian Fiction

Patricia McKee. Reading Constellations: Urban Modernity in Victorian Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 184p. ISBN 9780199333905. GBP £44.49 (hardback).

Reading Constellations revisits the cities of London and Oxford as depicted in Victorian fictions including Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and Henry James’ “In the Cage.” For McKee, these works “propose urban experience as an antidote to, even as they participate in, capitalist development” (17). Steeped in the literature and cinema of contemporary British psychogeographers myself, I found the experience of reading McKee’s re-visitations somewhat uncanny; this is a book that renders the past urgently present – both the repressed pasts of the characters and cities of these novels, and the fictional and dispersed pasts that haunt our present, and which these novels form a part of. This is what McKee calls ‘the afterlife of the past and the former life of the future’ (12).

Beginning with Great Expectations and Pip’s bewildered attempts to accommodate his possible and past selves to the multifaceted expectations of early nineteenth-century capitalist London, McKee seeks to demonstrate how the assimilation of our possible selves enables commerce and exchange, but also leaves behind historical wreckage in the form of unassimilable or elided persons and places, or parts of persons and places (12-13). Drawing our attention to that which the narrative eye elides through description and story-telling drive, a poetics of absence opens up unfamiliar spaces in these familiar novels. Disruptions and interruptions are sites of resistance in these texts, and McKee is excellent on the materiality of discarded possibilities, on the special place of objects as disrupters and keepers of the past, “allowing memory to intrude into the present through them” (26).

The first chapter lays out McKee’s considerable theoretical stall and offers example-driven applications of Walter Benjamin’s concepts of constellation, colportage and the figure of the flâneur. In chapter 2, McKee explores Pip’s dislocation and reconfiguration in others throughout Great Expectations, demonstrating the power of Benjamin’s theory in re-reading nineteenth- century novels. Chapter 3 moves on to Our Mutual Friend, in which McKee finds a fuller exploration of the fractured re-alignments of self, history and narrative in the modern city. Chapter 4 offers a reading of Jude the Obscure for its moments of resistance to the homogenizing teleology of capitalist culture, and chapter 5 brings out the resonances of the themes explored so far in a modernist work, Henry James’ “In the Cage.” Here technology features perhaps most prominently, and seems an apotheosis of the trends of disintegration and reintegration of which the previously discussed authors have traced the emergence.

McKee’s decision to navigate the cities of Victorian fiction using that oblique guidebook for flâneurs, Benjamin’s The Arcade Project, turns out to be inspired. Reading Constellations provides a filter for Benjamin’s incomplete excess which works to populate the telling gaps in the narration of cityscapes with the happenstance discoveries of the fugue. The constellations of image, text, history, story and absence render these familiar cityscapes anew and inspire the reader to return once more to their unheimlich spaces. Collective experience is ranged against capitalist progression, which proceeds through the obsolescence of selves and products alike, intermingling desire and novelty to profoundly homogenising effect. The fragmentation of experience and identity which is part of urban modernity is seen to offer opportunities for both the discovery and the denial of the truth of history (19).

McKee’s provoking use of Benjamin is easy to recommend to scholars of nineteenth-century fiction, but also for those interested in the legacy of the philosopher’s writings, and in the progress of the figure of the flâneur, here reimagined as privileged reader of moments of rupture in the narratives of modernity.

Thomas Knowles
Birmingham City University