Victorian Contingencies
Experiments in Literature, Science, and Play
Tina Young Choi



IN A SERIES OF ARTICLES published between June and September of 1837, the Saturday Magazine introduced readers to a relatively new consumer product, life insurance, by way of an actuarial vocabulary of numbers and ratios, payments and premiums. Yet in approaching the subject of “probability,” the Magazine’s language took a dramatic, ominous turn. “[E]very event in nature is open to the possibility of happening or failing,” the unnamed author explained, before conjuring a set of apocalyptic scenarios for readers: “The commonest occurrences, such as the rising and setting of the sun, and the changes of the seasons, which from infancy we have been accustomed to look upon as morally certain, are only, therefore, mathematically probable in a very high degree.”1

The universe, it announced, was a contingent place. Past experience, which might have lent occurrences like the rising of the sun a semblance of certainty, was no guarantee of future events—just as, the article would go on to emphasize in subsequent pages, middle-class readers might find the long-enjoyed comforts of a steady income suddenly disrupted by illness or death. The contingencies of life and death as experienced through childbirth, warfare, and old age would surely have been familiar to these readers, many of whom would recall the way they’d been tested during the 1831–32 cholera epidemic and, a bit further back, in the Napoleonic Wars. But by situating contingency in the most quotidian and otherwise unexceptional of circumstances, the Saturday Magazine sought to startle readers, even healthy ones, out of complacency. It presented the seemingly extraordinary not within an older framework of miracle or divine intervention but in a newer language of probabilities and the calculus of chance, and it transformed even the most prosaic and certain occurrences so that not just the most expected or desired outcome, but any number of futures, might be possible at any given moment. By actively undetermining what were once thought to be assured outcomes, thinking contingently encompassed the previously unimaginable, inviting speculation about the relationships between past and future, cause and effect, a predictable result and an exceptional one. When and how, the Magazine’s readers might well have asked, had the “commonest occurrences” come to be treated as contingent?

To focus on contingency, to open “every event” to a range of potential outcomes, I argue, became a way for nineteenth-century writers, readers, scientists, and artists of all stripes to analyze causal operations and question narrative teleologies, as it also encouraged the shaping of new representational practices, techniques, and technologies. Scholarly work by sociologists, historians, and literary critics, among others, has had much to say about contingency, often associating it with twentieth-and twenty-first-century epistemologies, with modernism’s refusals of determinism, and more lately, with the experimental qualities of postmodern and digital narratives. From this perspective, the Victorians, concerned as they were with order and closure, were slow to admit contingency’s play of possibility. The present book, however, shows that contingency performed an essential, productive function in nineteenth-century culture. If the period revealed its investments in order and structure, it did so in dialogue with the sometimes disruptive but also creative engagements contingency invited with the formal apparatus of nineteenth-century visual and narrative representations. Through contingency, historical writing embraced narrative and temporal plasticity, while established fictional and visual genres experimented with incompletion, divergence, and reversibility. At the same time, through the act of representing contingency, these works established new sets of formal rules and parameters to describe the limits of chance.

The Saturday Magazine articles encouraged readers to see contingency as a part of their everyday lives, and that suggestion was amply reflected across a range of mid-century historical, scientific, literary, and religious texts, where authors wielded contingency as an analytical and epistemological tool for studying the causalities at the center of novelistic and natural narratives, for rethinking the nature of providential oversight, and for querying the teleologies that governed systems. When, at the end of Dickens’s 1852–53 Bleak House, Esther Summerson looks back on the illness that marked a turning point in her life, she enlists the language of contingency, “I thought it was impossible that you could have loved me any better, even if I had retained [my looks],” as does Darwin in his 1859 On the Origin of Species, when he refers repeatedly to the “many complex contingencies” shaping the natural world.2 The spatial logic of mid-century board games, with their multiply diverging and intersecting paths, made confrontations with contingency central to play, and scientific accounts calibrated the higher faculties of thinking and feeling against an ability to accommodate contingency. Thus Darwin, tracing the growth of the human mind, writes that the “direct instinct” of the child would eventually lead to “enlarged powers to meet with contingency,”3 and Charles Babbage, explaining how a chess-playing automaton might approximate cognitive processes, describes a sequence of computations (of a type still recognizable to programmers) based on an assessment of contingencies: “If not, can he win it at the next move? If so, make that move.”4

To be sure, contingency has a longer history than the one sketched by these examples. Classical and biblical texts demonstrated a grasp of the concept in other times and places, just as it was also relevant to both gambling and legal practice in Britain throughout the eighteenth century. But as early nineteenth-century writings turned to questions about origins and processes—whether in the form of post-Napoleonic histories tracing the links between past and present or in scientific investigations into geological and natural history—the operations of causality and contingency came under greater scrutiny than ever before. Through contingency radical discontinuities between past and future became imaginable. If a middle-class wife could become a penurious widow, then contingency raised the stakes on foresight, which the rising middle classes, poised between the certainties of aristocratic privilege on the one hand and of working-class poverty on the other, championed as their defining virtue. At the same time, the languages that might be used to describe contingency, which in earlier periods had been associated with philosophical and theological inquiry, expanded in the early decades of the century to encompass the apocalyptic as well as the actuarial and entered a range of genres. The emerging statistical and probabilistic sciences, the new geo- and natural histories of the earth, and on a more quotidian level, the rhetoric of life insurance and of historical reenactment: All of these spoke the language of contingency—and invited the public to consider the dimensions and limits of possibility.

While the concerns that contingency brought to the fore—regarding the relationships between determinism and chance, providence and free will, structure and free play—might have been abstract ones, the present book is particularly interested in the material forms it took during this period. Publishers and writers used contingency to animate narrative and natural systems, where it served as a virtual hinge joining one condition to another in temporal or causal relation.5 When, in Bleak House, Esther ends her narrative “sitting here thinking” about the contingencies that have shaped her life,6 she does just what so many of her contemporaries did, playing and replaying contingencies in the imagination. The board games they enjoyed as children increasingly reflected the workings of chance on a thematic and spatial level, allowing them to take a railway journey or evade pirate ships, for example, and the protean views—those optical toys that offered before-and-after images—they purchased as adults allowed them to visualize a specific point of historical contingency, such as the moment when an avalanche buried a Swiss village, for instance, or flames consumed the Royal Exchange. Like the table of projected outcomes in a life insurance advertisement, these objects made contingency legible, and contributed to the emblematic form it assumed in many of these works, where the volcanic eruption, the figure of Napoleon, and the roll of the dice stood as shorthand for contingency and its range of outcomes.

In encouraging speculation and in testing the limits of possibility at any given moment, these engagements with contingency also functioned as a kind of experimental practice. The assessment of outcomes and of possible alternatives reproduced the logic (and indeed sometimes borrowed the language) of scientific hypothesis, where a posited “if” anticipated, whether explicitly or implicitly, an “if not” and an array of foreclosing “thens.” Like experiments in the laboratory, these uses of contingency were structured operations, analytical explorations of causality and possibility often conducted under controlled conditions. But the link between contingency and experiment is more than a useful premise in the chapters that follow. For Darwin, thinking through contingencies served as a key tool in scientific inquiry, where it assumed a place alongside the laboratory and the natural world as a domain for empirical observation and experiment. Likewise for Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Charles Lyell, and James Clerk Maxwell, it became central to the thought experiments they mounted, as they altered conditions and envisioned outcomes on the printed page.

Although such engagements with contingency had a central role in scientific thought, the form they took was narrative. Whether as sequential arrangements of words, numbers, or images, they expressed a temporal, spatial, or causal relation,7 even as, I suggest, they also called the conventions of narrative into question by disrupting established causalities and, through the use of speculative, often conditional language, arrested its teleologies and forward momentum. Narrative causality remains, according to Marina Grishakova and others, “one of the most neglected and undertheorized” in contemporary theory, where it’s also been inconsistently historicized.8 Still, narratological methods, with their close attention to sequence and temporality, structure and closure—not only in prose but also in non-prose-based genres like hypertext, graphic novels, and video games—offer one of the most fruitful analytical approaches to the transmedial, often experimental texts at the center of this book’s inquiry. Indeed, through the exploration of possibility, multiplicity, and simultaneity, contingency often unsettled established generic conventions and encouraged innovative transpositions. Such exchanges were not uncommon in nineteenth-century Britain, where, as Gillian Beer explains, “ideas . . . metaphors, myths, and narrative patterns” slipped across fields of research and genres;9 as natural historians borrowed from political economy and theology, so too, did poets reflect on findings in geology and physics. But by linking the methods of New Historicism and of historical epistemology, especially as advanced by Lorraine Daston and Mary Poovey, to Caroline Levine’s new formalism, the chapters that follow are also interested in the sometimes unexpected ways in which (to borrow Levine’s words) the “abstract organizing principles” of contingency were transmitted “to new contexts” and “across varied materials,”10 where historical writing adopted elements of novelistic conventions, children’s play drew on cartographic practices, and prose turned to image.

Still, as these explorations and experiments focused on and pressed up against existing representational practices, their performance always took shape within structured narrative or visual forms. Even when inviting readers to contemplate possibility, these works offered reminders that the contingent operated within a circumscribed field and through articulated statistical, narrative, and spatial channels. Rather than a kind of “resistance to system, to structure, to meaning,”11nineteenth-century treatments of contingency in fact asked readers to invest in a governing form or system. Contingency might admit the uncertainty of the future, but its representation in these works also pointed to a finite set of possible outcomes. It helped to transform a shapeless, unknowable future into an imaginable, knowable realm of expectation, if not of choice, and as a form of risk management, it helped to domesticate accidents and disasters, so that these assumed the quality of events that could be, if not predicted, then at least anticipated.12 The language of contingency allowed Lyell to redirect the narrative and temporal foreclosure of biblical accounts and of natural theology, but through its use he also affirmed his adherence to the established causalities of modern geology; so, too, as Lewis Carroll’s and Maxwell’s experimental works would demonstrate, “possibility” was itself a foreclosed space, not so much an open-ended freedom as a range, a defined distribution, a finite system as structured as the metropolitan sewerage plan or the network of railways being constructed in those same decades.


1. “Popular Illustrations,” 5. The example might have been inspired by one of Hume’s footnotes: “Mr. Locke divides all arguments into demonstrative and probable. In this view, we must say, that it is only probable all men must die, or that the sun will rise to-morrow” (Hume, Enquiry, 46). For Hume, these examples illustrate the principle by which near certainties might come to be regarded as natural laws—when, as George tells us, probability takes an event “beyond the shadow of a doubt”; see George, Everlasting Check, 6–7. By contrast, the Saturday Magazine article invites readers to consider apparent exceptions to natural law.

2. Dickens, Bleak House, 989. Emphasis in original. Darwin, Origin of Species, 318, 325, 342.

3. Darwin, “Darwin’s Notebooks,” 142.

4. Babbage, Passages, 350.

5. Implicit in this framing of contingency as mechanism or technology is what Ketabgian calls a “technocultural approach,” which acknowledges the ways that machines (and a language and epistemology associated with machinery) were a central part of Victorian subjectivity, leisure activities, and literature. Ketabgian, Lives of Machines, 6.

6. Dickens, Bleak House, 989.

7. I borrow this helpfully expansive account of narrative from recent narratological work that encompasses non-prose genres and media, such as video games and computer programs. See, for example, Ryan, “Toward a Definition.”

8. Grishakova, “Narrative Causality,” 127. See also Richardson, Unlikely Stories.

9. Beer, Darwin’s Plots, 5. Emphasis in original.

10. Daston, “Historical Epistemology,” 282–289; Poovey, Making a Social Body, 2–3; C. Levine, Forms, 7.

11. Doane, Emergence of Cinematic Time, 11.

12. There is an impressive literature on nineteenth-century risk management across multiple disciplines. Freedgood, Victorian Writing, and P. Fyfe, By Accident, examine the literary and cultural history of accident and risk in Victorian Britain; Hacking, Taming of Chance, and Daston Classical Probability, survey transforming conceptions of probability and risk in the broader contexts of Continental science and culture; Ewald, “Insurance and Risk,” and Clark, “Embracing Fatality,” consider assessments of risk with relation to the history of life insurance.