The Bodies of Things

  • Bill Brown
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)


Tertius Lydgate, the doctor who arrives in Middlemarch as an ambitious medical reformer, has been an obsessive reader of Rasselas as of Gulliver. Indeed, by the age of ten, the already precocious lad had read ‘Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea, which was neither milk for babes, nor any chalky mixture meant to pass for milk’.1 This is to say that he has read those adventures Wherein are Exhibited Views of Several Striking Scenes, with Curious and Interesting Anecdotes of the most Noted Persons in Every Rank of Life, whose Hands it Passed through, in America, England, Holland, Germany, and Portugal. The novel proved so popular that it was reprinted three times before Charles Johnstone expanded it into a four-volume edition in 1764, and so esteemed that it was collected in Ballantyne’s Novelists’ Library in 1822, just a decade before the events of Middlemarch (1872) take place. Though Jonathan Swift may buoyantly breach the human-nonhuman divide in Gulliver’s Travels, Johnstone’s guinea goes so far as to tell its own tale (and the tales of those humans through whose hands or pockets it travels), comfortably inhabiting a literary subgenre in which things become persons — or at least sound and behave rather like them. This is the subgenre of the object autobiography, popular in France as in England, and now widely designated the ‘it-narrative’, whose protagonists — shoes, quills, coats, cats, dogs, cork-screws, coaches, kites, canes, pins, and any number of coins, most famously the gold guinea Chrysal — assume not only authorship but considerable authority when it comes to assessing the lives of humans.2


Inanimate Object Object Culture Animate Object Considerable Authority Secret Life 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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© Bill Brown 2012

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  • Bill Brown

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