Abstract: Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth Century

[this is my proposal for this year’s BAVS conference. I’m on a special Northern Nineteenth-Century Network panel ‘Victorian Secrets’. The conference website is here.]

Time to Tell: Secrecy and Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century

The telling of secrets punctuates time. The revelation of whatever has been concealed creates a before and after, in which things are never quite the same. New information, should it be accepted as true, rewrites the ‘before’ as fiction and leaves the ‘after’ as truth. But such truths are only provisional and one never knows what other secrets there are to tell.

Secrets make the concealed past present. In a kind of gothic move, things that should have been left behind are resurrected, demanding attention. Such returns are the staples of countless literary plots in the period; they also underpin the many scandals that filled the pages of newspapers. Whereas literary plots can exploit the moments leading up to revelation, as tension increases, newspaper scandals break suddenly, creating a moment that calls for something to be done.

In my paper I sketch out some of the links between secrecy and temporality in the nineteenth century. In its first sections, it explores the ways in which secrecy depends upon time, focusing particularly on the way that telling secrets reorders past and present. I then go on to look more closely at such revelations in literary and nonliterary narratives. The paper concludes by looking closely at the way that telling secrets creates a moment in which past and present appear provisional. My argument will be that while secrets rewrite the past, they do so at the cost of the present.