In many of the texts I study in the thesis, railways make only a fleeting appearance – not least because, whilst written contemporaneously with the coming of the railways, many of these novels retreat into an earlier time period for their setting. Dickens’s Dombey and Son and Gaskell’s Mary Barton (both 1848) feature railway journeys, and others at least reference the railway, but it’s not until the sensation fiction of M. E. Braddon that more frequent occurences of train travel appear.
This isn’t so much a more sustained engagement with the mobilities of modernity, however; in Braddon’s best-known and most successful novel, Lady Audley’s Secret (1861-2), railways are assimilated into the fabric of everyday life and to take the train appears, at first glance, to no longer be a matter of great concern. Both male and female characters traverse the novel’s spaces with the ease and rapidity that, of course, characterises rail travel; through Robert’s movements between London, Essex, Portsmouth, and the northern sea-side town of Wildernsea, the railway allows for rapid developments of plot that hinge on mobility. The unfolding of the solution to the novel’s “secret” depends upon the acquisition of place-bound evidence, and the ease of movement afforded by the railway therefore enables the narrative progression – such that we might say this narrative is only made possible through the rapidity of modern mobility.
Yet whilst the narrative structure resides in the possibilities of modernity, at the same time the novel is often seemingly unconcerned with this; to take the train is no longer a remarkable occurrence, simply an accepted facet of everyday life. It’s worth noting in this respect that Braddon’s characters here, as typically in her other novels, are wealthy and thus their mobility is not dependent upon the democratisation of travel that the railways afforded. This fuels, however, a further facet of the novel’s articulation of mobility; for it seems, in large part, to be resistant to the mobile structures of everyday life and attempts to reside in the place-bound history of the aristocracy. From the opening pages, a concern with stasis pervades throughout descriptions of Audley Court; the emphasis on its location in a secluded hollow, removed from modern life, appears repeatedly in the first few chapters of the novel, and is frequently reiterated throughout. This contributes, of course, to constructing the atmosphere of mystery that is essential to the sensation narrative; but it also serves to emphasise a sense of stasis that contrasts with the facile mobilities elsewhere in the novel. It’s also a retreat from the concerns of capitalist modernity.
But what’s interesting is that these concerns emerge in the journeys of the novel which, whilst relatively brief in the narrative space afforded to them, significant in their representational features in which issues of capitalist modernity are played out; what is resisted elsewhere in the novel emerges in the journey narratives, the spaces of mobility inextricably tied up with modernity and the restructurings it effects. The details of this are reserved for a forthcoming article on the subject that I’m currently working on – “‘A perambulating mass of woolen goods’: Bodies in Transit in the mid-nineteenth century railway journey” – but suffice for now to say that the representational renderings of these journeys demonstrate both a fundamental anxiety about the modern mobile condition and its implications for the human subject, whilst also demonstrating the possibility of moving into modernity.