Reflection by Anna Henchman
What immediately struck me in reading The Physics of Possibility: Victorian Fiction, Science, and Gender was the originality of Michael Tondre’s approach to intersections between Victorian physics, mathematics, and literature. Several recent books have evocatively applied the laws of thermodynamics to narrative theory, and compared novels to engines or other systems of energy. Others have mapped Faraday’s field theory onto character relations. Except for a chapter on George Eliot’s “Fine Excess,” Physics of Possibility sidesteps the topic of narrative energy altogether. It introduces gender to the conversation, and explores how novels and Victorian mathematical physics approach models of possibility. One of my favorite aspects of Tondre’s work is the way that he blends history of science with narratology. Predictions about “the jostling of gas molecules” and their future positions map suggestively onto the forecasting in which the readers of the Victorian novel are often engaged.
In a chapter on “The Interval of Expectation,” Tondre connects Wilkie Collin’s interest in postponement—when a “conflicted, emasculated hero” fails to act—with midcentury discussions of the “personal equation” in astronomy, a strange delay in reaction time that caused problems for astronomical observers. Subjective temporal distortions are set against models of collective temporality and “standardized systems of timekeeping.” Postponement becomes both a sign of ineffectual masculinity and a form of power.
Tondre offers a fresh take on Victorian probability and statistics. The Physics of Possibility is not the first book to treat intersections between the nineteenth-century emergence of mathematical physics and the form of the novel. But as Tondre succinctly explains, most scholars who have written about probability theory focus on the “dynamics of power, risk, and accident in modernity.” Departing from work on coincidence, Physics shows that developments in statistics and probability opened up models for thinking about time and history. Novels could imagine possible worlds, and could reimagine historical realities. Tondre associates plot not with the erasure of contingency, but rather with indeterminacy, uncertainty that allows for many possible futures. Several scholars have argued that statistics created “normal” populations, but what interests Tondre is the proliferation of possibilities imagined in science, math, and literature. As he writes, “alternatives to the register of history had a physics, an ontology that could be represented and even experienced on the pages of novels.” He connects Andrew H. Miller’s “Lives Unled in Realist Fiction” and Catherine Gallagher’s Telling it like it Wasn’t to John Herschel’s interest in “the non-happening of an event.”
One of Tondre’s talents is the ability to conjure up moments—or intervals—when two alternative worlds hover on the brink of existence until one becomes reality and the other fades into what didn’t happen. He argues that “Maxwell’s demon paradox is itself a theory of realism, rooted in the tension between empirical observation and mass molecular tendencies” and ends the book by invoking “the understanding of a history that is never quite itself, never quite singular and self-standing, … replete with trajectories.”
While reading this book, I repeatedly found myself inspired to view familiar material from a new perspective: picturing alternative plots as a set of possible worlds that could be graphed mathematically, or envisioning contradictory models of time as overlapping, “teeming, evanescent timescapes.” Tondre’s work corresponds with other scholarship interested in articulating alternatives to the bildungsroman. I find myself wondering how linear and confident the narrative arc of the bildungsroman ever has been—and what is it about our own moment in time that is inspiring scholars to ask, why this turn of events rather than that turn events, why this reality, or “why always Dorothea?”