Sometimes understood as a timeless, essential component of human existence, contingency was central to scientific, literary, and historical writing in nineteenth-century Britain. As a hinge between cause and effect, past and future, contingency often took material form and allowed writers and publishers to shape experimental representational practices across a range of narrative and visual genres. These engagements with contingency drew on the period's new statistical and thermodynamic sciences, its renegotiations of faith and belief, a secularizing vocabulary of chance and causation, as well as an expanding print culture.
The life insurance industry that emerged in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century encouraged the public to regard human life as contingent. Charles Babbage's early work as an actuary and his 1826 volume on life insurance, often overlooked, in fact informed his later efforts. His turn from his plans for the Difference Engine, whose calculations plotted a linear future, toward his more complex Analytical Engine, registered his ambitions to construct a machine capable of responding to a contingent future. His later writings on natural theology and his personal scrapbook analyzed the ways contingency might be encoded in material records, in newspaper fragments, the natural world, or in a computing engine's numerical output.
Contingency played a central role in the rescripting of predictable, historical narratives, whether drawn from the Bible or from popular melodrama. In Principles of Geology Charles Lyell focused on moments of contingency to rewrite the earth's history, as he asserted authority over causes and apocalyptic events in his geological narrative. In Adam Bede, George Eliot mobilized contingency to open spaces of temporal and causal flexibility in an otherwise familiar tale of a woman's seduction and downfall, while in On the Origin of Species Charles Darwin envisioned the natural world as the synchronic and diachronic result of nature's own experiments with contingency and its multiplication of alternative outcomes.
Nineteenth-century forms of play focused attention on contingency, those moments of causal and temporal possibility whose degrees of freedom delineated new rules, limits, and boundaries. Early board games, with their moralistic lessons and predictable layouts, transformed through the use of cartographic conventions into more open-ended and secular arenas for play. Lewis Carroll and others adapted the spatialized and multidirectional narratives of games to remake children's fiction; Carroll's Alice books and word games emphasized dysteleology and synchronous multiplicity. William Spooner's protean (transforming) views, visual toys that displayed before-and-after scenes of volcanoes and avalanches, distilled historical contingencies to crucial moments of transformation.
James Clerk Maxwell and George Eliot advanced probabilistic approaches to describe invisible phenomena to which they could not apply more traditional empirical methods. Maxwell asserted that the movements of molecules could only be understood statistically and questioned the absolute truth of the second law of thermodynamics by proposing a subjectively unlikely but still statistically possible distribution of molecules. For George Eliot, thinking probabilistically allowed for a sympathetic approach to others while still allowing for the contingencies of character. Like Maxwell, she was interested in the points of intersection between personal belief and statistical likelihood, and from that probabilistic stance she reframed novelistic coincidences as statistically possible events in Daniel Deronda.
Victorian pastimes undid historical and literary foreknowledge of outcomes. They took pleasure in suspending certainty and closure through their novels, entertainments, and scientific pursuits.