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Bad Timing: Cliffhangers and Historical Crisis in Nineteenth-Century Fiction


“Bad Timing: Cliffhangers and Historical Crisis in Nineteenth-Century Fiction” argues that the cliffhanger became central to the historical novel’s effort to represent historical crisis and change in the nineteenth century. In the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, the acceleration of technological, social, and political changes produced a general sense of historical disorientation – a sense that time itself was somehow out of joint. The historical novel sought to mediate this widespread sense of historical rupture by scrutinizing historical turning points and plotting more tangible relations between past and present, in an attempt to give coherence and meaning to bewildering historical changes. I argue that what we now call the cliffhanger was a key element of this project, because the cliffhanger offered a way to reproduce a sense of rupture and acceleration in the actual scene of reading. By dramatically halting the story to frame an imminent crisis, the cliffhanger offered an efficient means of isolating and analyzing narrative turning points. In chapters on the classical historical novel (Walter Scott), its mid-century re-configuration under the regime of realism (Charles Dickens), and its late-century heirs (the adventure fiction of Ballantyne, Haggard, and Stevenson), I argue that the cliffhanger represented a way for novelists in the nineteenth century to pose larger questions about the experience of historical time.

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