The Victorian novel lurking behind Margaret Elphinstone's neo-Victorian Light (2006) is Middlemarch. Not in the sense of any direct lift from Eliot's plot(s), but rather in its approach: Light takes place over three days in 1831, just on the cusp of the Great Reform Act, and dramatizes the seismic historical shifts of the early nineteenth century via a small group of middling folk. Because virtually all of the novel takes place on the (invented) island of Ellan Bride, unoccupied except for the family that keeps the lighthouse running, the effect is something like that of a controlled scientific experiment. Or moderately controlled, anyway. The plot itself is simple: a surveyor, Archibald Buchanan (a Highlander by way of Edinburgh), and his assistant, Ben Groat (from Orkney), arrive on the Isle of Man in order to scope out the proper spot for a new lighthouse on Ellan Bride to be built by Robert Stevenson. Alas, there already is a lighthouse, which has been operated by Lucy Geddes ever since the death of her brother Jim; she, her sister-in-law Diya (the impoverished daughter of an English officer and an unnamed woman from India), and their children Breesha, Mally, and Billy will all be displaced once the new lighthouse is in operation. Diya, we are told, means "light," one of the many changes the novel rings on its title. For Diya herself, "light" permeates her memories of India, memories she also eventually concedes may be filtered through nostalgia. There is the lighthouse itself, whose light makes it safe for ships to pass, but also interferes with smuggling operations. There is the post-Enlightenment, of which Archie, with his Edinburgh education, is a representative. But light has its dangers. Breesha tries to kill Archie by setting out a false light (which would have made him fall to his death). And the new lighthouse, designed to bring in more and larger ships, represents the multi-edged effects of new technology in a capitalist age. The conflict between the necessity of updating the lighthouse and the family's needs drives what follows.
In a sense, nothing follows. One of the most interesting things about the book's construction--which will also be the thing most frustrating to many readers, I expect--is that it glories in being incomplete. The most disruptive or shocking events, such as Jim Geddes' death by drowning or Diya's unexpected arrival in Castletown, happen prior to the novel's opening and are only partially represented to the reader. By contrast, the most shocking potential event in the novel's present, Breesha's attempted murder of Archie (whose agency in the family's removal she doesn't really understand), not only fails, but is kept a secret. "Who the hell would I want to tell?" (351), asks Archie, baffled by Lucy's fear that he would have Breesha arrested. By the end, only one plot thread--the immediate fate of the Geddes clan--has a conclusion in sight. Everything else--Ben's proposal to Lucy, the illegitimate Billy's newfound interest in his father, Archie's upcoming voyage on the HMS Beagle, Archie's impending confrontation with the governor, Diya's growing romantic interest in Archie, the building of the new lighthouse itself--is simply left open. Both characters and readers are left suspended between beginnings and endings. "If only it had never happened," Lucy thinks to herself on the first page, the "it" left momentarily without an antecedent; this unspecified but definite beginning--Jim's death--is, in a sense, not the beginning at all, given that all the novel's characters are either working for or at the mercy of others. Despite Lucy's attempt to fix on a single cause, the narrative, as academics like to say, is overdetermined.
Despite the novel's title, this narrative strategy emerges from its other major figure for history: geology. Charles Lyell exerts a strong influence on Archie--whose religious doubts hint at how faith will be transformed by scientific inquiry--and his work intrigues Diya as well. Contemplating some cliffs, Archie thinks to himself that "Mr. Lyell, in his revolutionary book, argued that aeons of unending change had created the rock formations one saw today, but in Archie's experience the sea cliffs often looked deceptively like the results of a sudden, unimaginable cataclysm, and perhaps nowhere so much as here" (83). The tension between these two poles--the "aeons of unending change" invisible to the present viewer's gaze and the startling shock of apocalyptic transformation--animates how the characters understand the ways in which they have been grounded in local history and culture. But the novel complicates Archie's formulation of this tension, which casts the "sudden, unimaginable cataclysm" as an illusion. Archie's problem, which plays out at the level of individual relationships, is that he is far better at taking the long view (literally: he spends a lot of time with telescopes) than he is at negotiating the kind of upheavals that take place between people in clock time, as it were. By contrast, Lucy's desire to remain on the island is an attempt to maintain the fantasy of an "always," in which the island preserves time and community apart from the terrors of a rapidly-changing outside world. Yet, as she comes to admit by the end, "[w]hat might start with one tuft of thrift dislodged from its crumbling ledge, might end as a cataclysm, sweeping away plants, birds, nests, paths, beaches--people too, if they happened to be in the way" (421). Her ability to embrace change and decide to leave the island partly derives from her ability to finally balance the long duration of geological history and the local cataclysms of human existence. More generally, the novel's three-day time span is both of cataclysmic importance to the characters and merely a geological layer of sorts in terms of their own life histories--hence the novel's deliberate incompleteness.
Although the novel is better on intra-British tensions than it is on empire, Archie and Diya alike hint at the unevenness of what constitutes the relationship between personal and national (or global) identity in the early Victorian period, split as they are by regional and class affiliations. The Manxmen resent both Archie and his employer because the Duke of Atholl (presumably the fourth) had exploited the Isle for the profit of his and other Scots. Archie, though, occupies an uneasy space as a Highlander who, while educated at the University of Edinburgh, lacks a classical background (he notes more than once that he cannot understand Latin) and thus is more genteel than Lucy Geddes but less so than the cultured Diya. In turn, Diya, who was transplanted from India and then effectively abandoned by her father, has a more-than-ladylike education, but both her race and her marriage to a working-class man (along with her probable illegitimacy) have ejected her from middle-class status. This is not, however, what Archie sees: "She was a lady. She spoke the King's English. Her skin was as brown as a hazel-nut. She wore gold studs in her ears, and a sacking apron stained with soil" (105). The anaphora highlights Archie's inability to process the signifiers of her social identity; Ben, equally at sea, comments that "[i]t's like being in a bloody fairy story!" (110) Diya's status as both quintessentially English and quintessentially Other is never fully resolved, any more than is Archie's status as both educated and working-class. "Master Buchanan," thinks Finn, the man responsible for transporting goods and passengers to and from the island, "was the sort who got into trouble because they were too confused about who they were themselves to think clearly about the effect they might be having on everybody else" (431). Their mutual inability to do anything about their romantic attraction further suggests how they are both defined by being between: Archie's education has alienated him from his parents, and his ambitions lead him to a state of ongoing transit with no fixed point of re-entry; Diya cannot return to India but also, unlike Lucy, cannot bear to remain on the island, nor does she see the family's next stop as anything but a jumping-off point. The commonalities that may make readers expect the two of them to pair up also explain why, at least at this point in their histories, they can't.