Barry McCrea

 

On his book In the Company of Strangers: Family and Narrative in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust

Cover Interview of October 10, 2011

In a nutshell

In the Company of Strangers is about how different ideas of the family affect the deep narrative structure of novels.

The principles of marriage and reproduction seem to be fundamental to the idea of narrative—we traditionally expect stories to end with marriage and often with an implicit promise of reproduction.  The prospect of marrying and having children is associated with narrative closure; the adventures and chaos of the story are given retrospective meaning and legitimacy by the happy marriage at the end, and its promise that the family line will continue.

My book looks at how alternative ideas of family and kinship challenged this template.  In particular, I argue that a fundamental rethinking of how family ties are formed and sustained was behind the experimental narrative projects of Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (In Remembrance of Things Past in an earlier translation).

We all know that plots about genealogy—wills, long-lost relatives, marriages, bequests—were the great obsession of the English nineteenth-century novel.  In the Company of Strangers suggests that this fixation with the family and its mechanisms was also a way of thinking about it, of casting it into doubt.

In many Victorian novels, Oliver Twist most obviously of all, outside strangers (such as Fagin) and relatives of blood or marriage (Mr. Brownlow) compete to control the destiny of the protagonist.  In Dickens, the family (almost) always wins; In the Company of Strangers explores how in Joyce and Proust, the stranger wins, and how these novels offer a narrative world in which continuity and meaning come from outside the genealogical family structure.

The construction of a narrative world which is not implicitly built on the family is a lot of what feels “modern” about Ulysses and Proust, but my book also shows how the roots of this can be found in “anti-families” throughout Victorian fiction that rival the family plot, such as Fagin’s den of thieves, or Holmes and Watson’s mini-“family” in Baker Street.