'I cannot tell you all the story' : narrative, historical knowledge, and the museum in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine

Kistler, Jordan (2021) 'I cannot tell you all the story' : narrative, historical knowledge, and the museum in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Configurations. ISSN 1063-1801 (In Press)

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Abstract

In amongst the climactic events of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine – the visit to the Morlock'’ underground lair, the death of Weena, and the final struggle for possession of the time machine – the Time Traveler visits a museum. The episode is odd, as it does little more than provide the Time Traveler with a new box of matches. Yet, the text is structured to suggest that the episode will provide important information, and the museum's layout and collection only reinforce that expectation. It is the Palace's status as a universal survey museum that marks its importance to the text as a whole. Universal survey museums, the dominant form of museum after the mid-nineteenth century, included all branches of knowledge (a 'universal' collection) and were intended to display "a total representation of human reality and history". In the museum and in Victorian historicism more widely, "total representation" was supposedly achieved through narrative, which transformed history from an "ever-living, ever-working Chaos of Being" into a linear, teleological progression through time. Historical narrative borrowed the structures of literature, particularly the realist novel with its investment in seriality, causation, and personal growth, in order to construct history as the bildungsroman of the world. This narrative was intended to provide complete and universal knowledge of the past, but also to allow "the Present and the Future be interpreted or guessed at," according to Thomas Carlyle. A universal collection like the Palace, therefore, should contain vital information about the past, the present, and the future. The fact that it doesn't, I suggest, is key to understanding The Time Machine.