Barry McCrea Discusses "In the Company of Strangers" on Rorotoko

Barry McCrea

Rorotoko recently published an excellent essay by Barry McCrea about his new book In the Company of Strangers: Family and Narrative in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust.

In the piece, McCrea discusses how the idea of family offers new ways of understanding narrative but also the ways in which canonical modernist works such as Ulysses have similarities to Victorian classics like the novels of Dickens and Conan Doyle. McCrea writes:

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.

McCrea also offers an argument for why his analysis of narrative matters for our understanding of literature and beyond:

What I most hope for as an outcome for the book is that readers will come away first with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce and Proust, but also questioning forms of narrative we take for granted as standard, and think about other ways we can make sense of time and of lives, other ways in which we can narrate the world.

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