Railways in Victorian fiction

The first railway line in Britain opened in 1830, transforming how the public travelled and communicated – and read fiction. Focusing on the work of Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and George Eliot, Professor John Mullan explores the influence of the railway on Victorian novels.

In Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Jude is courting Sue Bridehead in Melchester (based on Salisbury) and suggests that they go to sit in the Cathedral together: ‘“I think I'd rather sit in the railway station,” she answered, a remnant of vexation still in her voice. “That’s the centre of the town life now. The cathedral has had its day!” “How modern you are!”’ exclaims her admirer (Part Third, ch. 1). Victorian ideas of modernity and progress were formed by the railways. Hardy’s novel was published in 1897, but was set between the 1850s and early 1870s, in a Wessex already utterly reshaped by the train. The first rail line connecting British cities, running between Liverpool and Manchester, came before Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), opening in 1830. Yet many of Britain’s major rail lines were built during the first decade of her reign: London-Birmingham opened in 1838; London-Bristol in 1841; and London-Glasgow in 1848. Britain’s first railway boom took place in the 1840s: by 1850, over 6000 miles of track were laid. The 1860s saw a second boom, and by 1880 there were about 18,000 miles of track and a web of connections between the nation’s towns as well as cities.

Reading on the railways

Some powerful accounts of the coming of the railways are to be found in English novels, but the railways also shaped the development of fiction in material ways. W H Smith and Sons developed on railway concourses (the first outlet was opened at Euston in 1848), selling cheaply priced novels. The firm sponsored two shilling reprints of successful novels. Special ‘railway editions’ were marketed by other publishers for reading on trains – notably George Routledge’s ‘Railway library’ of one shilling reprints. Novel reading and rail travel became closely connected. As the railway network grew, so did W H Smith’s bookselling business: by the end of the century it had well over 1000 station bookstalls.

The Pilot

The Pilot [page: back cover]

The Pilot by James Fenimore Cooper, published under the Railway Library umbrella in 1849.

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Dickens and the railway

The inclination of Victorian novelists to set their works several decades back from the time of composition means that few of the major novelists of the mid-19th century immediately registered the influence of the railways. The exception is Dickens, who witnessed the building of the London and Birmingham Railway through Camden Town to Euston in the later 1830s. He gives a description of the ‘great earthquake’ produced by this project in Dombey and Son (ch. 6). This novel began appearing in monthly instalments in October 1846, at the height of the railway boom, and measures the impact of the train in many ways.

Drawings of the London and Birmingham Railway in the 1830s

1830s drawings of the London and Birmingham Railway [page: plate 6]

Railway-building spread rapidly, this image from the 1830s showing how much of it was dependent on manual labour, and how much disruption to the urban landscape was caused.

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Dickens notes with sarcasm that from ‘the very core of all this dire disorder’, the unfinished railroad ‘trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement’ (ch. 6). A few chapters – and several years – later, we revisit the locality in the company of the novel’s hero, Walter Gay, to find the ‘the railway world’ has become accepted fact. ‘There were railway hotels, office-houses, lodging-houses, boarding-houses; railway plans, maps, views, wrappers, bottles, sandwich-boxes, and time-tables; railway hackney-coach and stands; railway omnibuses, railway streets and buildings, railway hangers-on and parasites, and flatterers out of all calculation. There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in’ (ch. 15).

The railway is irresistible, first destroying, and then bringing ‘throbbing currents’ of new vitality to the city. On a train journey, the grim, life-denying Mr Dombey experiences the momentum of the train as a hellish intimation of doom. On the other hand, the affectionate Mr Toodle, husband of Paul Dombey’s devoted nurse, is a stoker who eventually becomes a train driver, and entertains his many children with observations playfully built out of train and railway metaphors. The railway brings nothing but good to him and his family.

George Eliot and the railways

Inevitably, communities argued about the desirability of the railway. In Middlemarch (1874), George Eliot looked back some 40 years to the early 1830s and dramatised such an argument. ‘In the hundred to which Middlemarch belonged railways were as exciting a topic as the Reform Bill or the imminent horrors of Cholera’. News of the likely arrival of the railway spreads, and men from London appear ‘with staves and instruments’ to chart possible paths for the planned railway. Caleb Gath, whose integrity the reader has learned to trust, thinks of the new development as necessary and welcome. He contradicts farm labourers who have been scuffling with railway agents: ‘Now, my lads, you can't hinder the railroad: it will be made whether you like it or not’ (ch. 56).

Symbols of destiny

This irresistibility is something of a refrain, and railways often seem to symbolise destiny to Victorians. The railway accident, for instance, becomes a plot device in fiction. Carker, the villain of Dombey and Son, is killed by a train, as if the very forces of progress that he thinks he represents also destroys him. In Mrs Henry Wood’s best-selling sensation novel East Lynne (1861), the adulterous Isabel Carlyle is suitably punished when she is involved in a railway accident. Her child is killed and she is disfigured. In two other leading sensation novels, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Wilkie Collins’s No Name (1862), the protagonists have parents killed in train accidents.

Plot lines and the railways

Train travel starts becoming essential to the plots of Victorian mystery fiction, often featuring, for instance, in the sensation fiction of Wilkie Collins and the detective fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle. Railway travel is integral to the many Sherlock Holmes stories in which the sleuth descends on some seemingly pleasant provincial spot to reveal its hidden evil (The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) is perhaps the most famous example). In ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’ (1892) Holmes, suspecting villainy in rural Hampshire, asks Watson to consult Bradshaw – Bradshaw’s Railway Guide, the monthly timetable of all British train services. It is a table of possibilities for Holmes’s investigations.

London is now connected (narratively) to the distant provinces. Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes (1872-3), for instance, is set mostly in Cornwall, yet the plot relies on it being easily reached from London. The railway brings two men in turn for Elfride Swancourt to fall in love with, the architect Stephen Smith and the literary man Henry Knight. It makes possible two of the most striking and painful episodes in the novel. The first is when Elfride elopes to London with Stephen, but no sooner reaches the city than suffers a change of heart (the railway making retreat as easy as adventure.) The second, at the novel’s end, is when the two rivals for her hand travel together on the train West, wondering about each other’s motives while unaware that Elfride is dead and her corpse is making the same journey in the baggage car.

The last great Victorian novelist, Hardy was suitably fascinated by the fictional potential of train journeys. Reading his final novel, Jude the Obscure, one is struck by the many local train journeys taken by Jude and Sue, the novel’s restless central characters. For many middle-class Victorians, the railways must have seemed to bring a new freedom; in Hardy’s gloomy novel, all the rapid travelling only emphasises the constraints under which his characters suffer.

  • John Mullan
  • John Mullan is Professor of English at University College London. John is a specialist in 18th-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. He also has research interests in the 19th century, and in 2012 published his book What Matters in Jane Austen?

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