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In this paper, I examine the complex temporality and spatiality of London in fin-de-siècle British fiction. Memories of the past and anticipations of the future saturate the urban present; this elision of the past reveals a deep anxiety over the longevity of the British Empire. I use the palimpsest as a model for the way in which past, present, and future are layered in these fictions. However, as we see through three different types of spaces, this layering is not necessarily chronological. First, I examine urban spaces of exhibition, including house museums, in Henry James’s A London Life (1888), Arthur Machen’s “The Red Hand” (1895), and Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903). These small museums show how the past can spill out into and even dominate the present. In the following chapter, I turn to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) to explore the interaction between the worlds above and below the ground. These texts also feature atavistic returns that contribute to the threatening nature of the subterranean worlds. Finally, I return to the street level, analyzing Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four (1890), H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1897), and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). These fictions render the city illegible by fragmenting space, temporality, and even narrative itself, following characters through this distorted metropolis to see how they will reconcile with the collapse of London’s imperial status. Through connecting the present of Victorian literature to the past and the future, I demonstrate the palimpsestuous nature of the many urban layers that appear, both spatially and temporally, in these fictional versions of London.
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