Tag Archives: Railways

From the archive

I’ve been enjoying The Guardian’s “From the Archive” blog series, which is tracing the history of the paper’s reportage from its beginning in 1821 as the Manchester Guardian, progressing through the years by selecting a highlight from each year every day. They’ve now got to the end of the nineteenth century, and some of my top picks so far have been:

The opening of the Stockton-Darlington railway in 1825, describing in great detail how the “locomotive engine, or steam-horse, as it was more generally termed, gave ‘note of preparation’; the cry of ‘all ready,’ was heard, and the enging with its appendages moved forward”, with “no less than 548 persons” on board.

The return of HMS Beagle from its voyage of discovery from 1825-36, surveying, amongst other things, “the whole coast of Chile and Peru […] no port or road-stead has been omitted,” and completing “a very valuable chain of chronometric measurements”.

A review of Gaskell’s Mary Barton which is decided to be “as a whole, beautifully written” but the “authoress” has worked “gravely against truth, in matters of fact either above her comprehension, or beyond her sphere of knowledge”.

Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition in 1851:”interest and excitement” prevailed throughout the “multitudes” of visitors from all sections of society; “the English showed most curiosity about the foreign half of the exhibition, while foreigners eagerly inspected the British department”.

An 1861 report on Crinoline: A Real Social Evil, in response to “recent deaths resulting from the prevailing fashion among ladies of wearing extended crinolines”, crinoline is here denounced as “responsible for more deaths than any other fashion ever caused”. Deaths by fire, crushing under carriage wheels and in machinery, are nothing compared to the “cases of actual disembowelling from the gashes inflicted by broken steel springs and hoops”.

And another review, this time of George Eliot’s Middlemarch , highly praised as “not a mere intellectual toy, to be smiled over in the drawing-room or coupled with a cigar at the club” but rather a “work of art” to be read and re-read.

“Whirling through the pretty open country”: Modern mobility in Lady Audley’s Secret

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.

lady-audleys-secret-mary-e-braddon-paperback-cover-art.jpgThis 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.