Tag Archives: Dombey and Son

“A fiery devil, thundering along”: HS2 and the Victorians

Over the last few months, debates over the High Speed 2 railway line have been mounting, with a succession of reports on the future of the line following the submission to Parliament of the HS2 bill back in November 2013. I’ve followed with interest the development of the planned line over the last few years, with a focus on two areas that will be affected if the HS2 line goes ahead: where I currently live in Warwickshire, the HS2 line will pass about a mile from the University of Warwick’s campus, cutting across the Kenilworth fields and passing  just north of Leamington Spa; and then further down the route passes a few miles from my hometown in South Bucks, where there remains a campaign to further protect the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), including ancient woodland, which the line traverses. HS2 Studying as I do the Victorian railways, it’s been interesting to see the resonances in response to the HS2 line in the context of arguments surrounding the “coming of the railway” in the 1840s. In particular, it’s been indicative to identify a reiteration of ideas around the railway as a symbol of modernity. For the Victorians, the railway was the most evocative symbol of a new, modern era, often depicted as a “fiery devil, thundering along” (Dombey and Son) that seemed to come from another age and was pernicious in its spread into the furthest corners of the country that had yet been (seemingly) untouched by modernity. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874 – but set earlier in the century), the “projected line was to run through Lowick parish where the cattle had hitherto grazed in a peace unbroken by astonishment” (chapter 56); in Bleak House (1852-53) Dickens depicts an era pivoting on the edge of the railway era, contrasting the rural quietude of a place that is thus far beyond the reach of modernity – “the post-chaise makes its way without a railroad on its mind” – with the anticipation of the coming railway line which will soon change this: “with a rattle and a glare the engine and train shall shoot like a meteor over the wide night-landscape, turning the moon paler” (chapter 55). Wherever it went, the railway decisively announced that modernity had arrived, and had irrevocably changed the landscape: Dombey and Son shows us a landscape literally torn apart by the new railway line, Staggs’ Gardens “rent to its centre” and in a mess of chaos and confusion as the building of the railway tears houses to dust and creates a chasm in the city landscape.  HS2 sign HS2 poses much the same problem: as in the Victorian period, the requisite of the railway track to follow as straight a line as possible necessitates that everything in the projected path is demolished, moved or transported in order to make way for the tracks. There are countless areas where housing will be knocked down: in Burton Green, the track will cut through “straight as a ruler” and “slice” the village in half; in the Chilterns, the line will “bisect” the AONB although this has been avoided in plans for the northern phase 2 of the route. In this recent episode of Countryfile, farmer Robert Brown is among those to speak of the impact that the line will have on farmland (from c.17 mins in): running through the existing field layout, the route will change the way in which the land is managed and accessed, severing an existing field in two. It’s the same problem faced by the farmers of Middlemarch, who are occupied by “the vivid conception of what it would be to cut the Big Pasture in two, and turn it into three-corned bits, which would be ‘nohow’” (553). Railways don’t just destroy spaces, they change the organisation of space and restructure how it can be moved around.

There are of course crucial differences with the Victorian period, but what is interesting is the perception, as in the Victorian period, that this represents the onset of modernity for rural regions. HS2 does, of course, entail hardhitting and forceful destruction; but at the same time, HS2 is just one component of contemporary modernity’s impact upon the land. Every day, rural (and urban spaces) are being reshaped by the demands of new (and often contested) structures and it can no longer be said (if it could even of the Victorian period) that there are areas “untouched” by modernity: the rural areas through which HS2 travels are no less “modern” than the cities where it originates; modernity is here, now, in the machines that work the land, in the fibre-optic broadband cables that run beneath it, and in the planes that fly overhead. But as in the Victorian era, there is something about the railway that generates a more resonant and deeply felt response: then as now, the railway seems to stand for something more than the sum of their parts, forming an evocative site around which these other ideas about space and modernity coalesce. Railways make visible the latent structures that already permeate and produce the landscapes of modernity: as in the instances above, railways have a tangible impact on the organisations of locales and regions; in the railway network, uneven development becomes visible as those “off the railway” lose out; and in some iterations, the railway even becomes placed as the Moloch-like god of capitalism, which we are asked to view as an “act of faith“.

How the HS2 plans play out in practice has yet to be seen, and there is still time in which some of these impacts can hopefully be reduced, if not averted altogether: the next round of petitioning starts in July, and with near-daily news reports on the case against HS2, it can but be hoped that the government will reassess the situation; meanwhile attention is beginning to turn to phase 2 which will continue the line from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester, and it will be interesting to see how the impact is perceived in these regions too.

Happy Birthday Dickens!

Today marks 200 years of Dickens’s birth.

There are plenty of celebratory websites and blogs reflecting on Dickens’s life and works, and I’ve already written my piece on why Dickens remains so popular and important today. So by way of a celebratory birthday post, I thought I’d take the opportunity to focus on some of Dickens’s local connections.

Dickens visited Leamington Spa several times, including one visit in 1838 which included Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Kenilworth. A letter from November 1st 1838 notes:

We found a roaring fire, an elegant dinner, a snug room, and capital beds all ready for us at Leamington, after a very agreeable (but very cold) ride. We started in a postchaise next morning for Kenilworth, with which we were both enraptured, and where I really think we MUST have lodgings next summer, please God that we are in good health and all goes well. You cannot conceive how delightful it is. To read among the ruins in fine weather would be perfect luxury. From here we went on to Warwick Castle, which is an ancient building, newly restored, and possessing no very great attraction beyond a fine view and some beautiful pictures; and thence to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we sat down in the room where Shakespeare was born, and left our autographs and read those of other people and so forth.

Ten years later in the novel Dombey and Son we see a similar visit undertaken by the main characters: in one of the novel’s most well-known passages Mr Dombey travels on the train (the London-Birmingham railway line, as Leamington wasn’t connected to London by railway until 1852) and then stays in the town at “the Royal Hotel”; Mrs Skewton and her daughter stay “in lodgings that were fashionable enough, but rather limited in point of space and conveniences” (323). They visit the Pump-room several times (in the image below, you can see a sign pointing “to the Pump Room”), and make an excursion to Warwick which takes the party over a landscape of “smooth undulations, wind-mills, corn-grass, bean fields, wild-flowers, farmyards, hayricks” (423) before visiting the Castle where “grim knights and warriors looked scowling on them”. Having exhausted the Castle, they ride “to several admired points of view in the neighbourhood” to sketch the views, and then take “a stroll among the haunted ruins of Kenilworth”.

Dombey

In a later visit to Leamington in 1858, Dickens notes his travel on the railway line between Leamington and Wolverhampton, saying

We came through a part of the Black Country that you. know., and it looked at its blackest. All the furnaces seemed in full blast, and all the coal-pits to be working

Less well known, however, is that Dickens also visited Coventry in 1857 and 1858; on the first visit he gave a reading of A Christmas Carol in the city and on the second visit in December 1858, he was thanked by the city with the presentation of a gold watch. In his speech to mark the occassion he stated:

the memory of to-night, and of your picturesque and interesting city, will never be absent from my mind, and I can never more hear the lightest mention of the name of Coventry without having inspired in my breast sentiments of unusual emotion and unusual attachment.

Coventry’s connection to Charles Dickens will be the focus of BBC Coventry & Warwickshire’s feature on the bicentenary later this morning (available on iplayer for a week)

Dickens’s enduring appeal

This is a cross-post of a piece I wrote for the University of Warwick’s Celebrating Dickens site: you can read the original here.

In the last few months building up to the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth, there has been an unprecedented level of interest in Dickens’s life and works. Dickens’s popularity is, of course, not just a trend of recent years but stems right from his earliest publications, when Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers grabbed the attention of readers and established Dickens as a household name. But many popular writers of the nineteenth century haven’t remained so prominent in our literary culture, so what is it about Dickens’s work that continues to appeal to readers?

There is much to be said about the prominence of Dickens in our national cultural heritage, or the literary politics that determine why some writers’ legacies perpetuate whilst others become lost; not to mention the ways in which “Dickens” has become somewhat synonymous with our idea of the “Victorian novel”, and even the Victorian era more widely. But at the heart of Dickens’s legacy lies his writing: vivid and richly detailed language, the ability to succinctly capture human character, and to evocatively depict a wide spectrum of emotions, from humour to sympathy, across characters from all levels of society.

Whether of places, things, or character, Dickens’s observation is acute. Our idea of “Dickens’s London” comes from his sharply perceived descriptions of the city streets: the opening of Bleak House, for example, depicting foot passengers jostling through the city enveloped in dense layers of fog, remains one of the most memorable literary descriptions of London. A detailed knowledge of the city streets recurs throughout his novels, from characters like Pip or David Copperfield entering the city for the first time and becoming overawed “by the immensity of London” (Great Expectations), to those who see only the monotony of the claustrophobic city, with “nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up” in the “streets, streets, streets” (Little Dorrit, chapter 3).

These city movements frequently take us into the spaces of the poor, placing narrators as urban observers revealing the squalor of urban life: one account in Sketches by Boz traverses “streets of dirty, straggling houses, with now and then an unexpected court composed of buildings as ill-proportioned and deformed as the half-naked children that wallow in the kennels”. In this emerges Dickens’s sympathetic portrayal for those at the lowest end of the social spectrum: from individuals like Jo, the poor crossing-sweeper in Bleak House who “don’t know nothink,” to the multitudes of “stragglers who come wandering into London” only to provide “food for the hospitals, the churchyards, the prisons, the river, fever, madness, vice and death” as they are swallowed up by the monstrous city (Dombey and Son).

As this makes clear, Dickens’s narration always situates individual experience within wider social structures. His satire comes into full force when attacking social institutions, demonstrating varying degrees of inadequacy, inefficiency, and downright injustice. The Circumlocution Office of Little Dorrit is a memorable example: “the most important Department under government” has “its finger in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart”; nothing can be done “without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office” and yet it is “beforehand in all public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT”.

Dickens’s characterisation of individuals is also always attentive to detail and his novels are populated by a host of memorable characters – all the more so for their names: Pumblechook, Pancks, Micawber, Peggotty, Bagstock, Mr. F’s Aunt, Chuzzlewit, Turveydrop, and M’Choakumchild are just a few of the vividly inventive names. Dickens’s descriptions of character are often ironic or humorous, and typically succinct in capturing the essence of character: in Bleak House, for example, his introduction to Sir Leicester Dedlock tells us “his family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Dedlocks.” Those two short sentences encompass Sir Leicester’s mode of feeling, raising a smile with something of a humoured sympathy towards the blinkered vision of the aristocracy.

Finally, what has often interested me in Dickens’s works is his approach to new technologies such as the railway, met with an ambivalence that produces a fearful fascination: who can forget the railway journey of Dombey and Son in which the train moves “away, with a shriek and a roar and a rattle, plunging down into the earth again, and working on in such a storm of energy and perseverance, that amidst the darkness and whirlwind the motion seems reversed.” The insistent urgency of the passage is expressive of the railway’s capability for destruction, but is all the more effective for the way it renders human experience within this landscape: the railway serves to represent Dombey’s tormented psychological state at this point in the narrative, his distress at the death of his son clearly conveyed as he “hurries headlong, not through a rich and varied country, but a wilderness of blighted plans and gnawing jealousies.”

200 years after his birth, Dickens’s writing remains as evocative as ever and the range of responses to the bicentenary stands as testament to the variety within his writing.