Dickens and the railway

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My course for my MA in Victorian Studies this term is on Nineteenth Century London, and it’s proving fascinating so far. However, when I initially got the reading list, my heart sank when I saw the first novel I would have to read: Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens. Unusually for a Victorianist, I am not a fan of Dickens. I hoped when I did my English degree that I would develop a love for his flowery prose, colourful sidekicks and insipid women, but I didn’t, and I struggled my way through the inadvisedly chosen course on Dickens I studied in my third year. Wading for what feels like years in sentences weighted down with illegal quantities of adjectives and treacle thick sentiment is not my idea of reading pleasure, no matter how good the essential story might be. I can think of dozens of nineteenth century authors I’d rather read, and having slogged my way through the 900-odd pages of Dombey and Son over Christmas, I’m not about to change my mind on that score. Having said that, I did quite enjoy the story, and found myself wrapped up in the events, though the heavy handed ‘plot twists’ were noticeable from a mile off and there were more unnecessary periphery characters to keep track of than you could shake a stick at. It is a piece of Victorian melodrama at its finest, containing creepy preternaturally wise children, an innocent, lovely maiden, a selfish father, an evil villain, fallen women, scheming mothers, a shipwreck and a spectacularly violent death. Somehow all of these random people and events manage to converge into a faintly believable plot, and though I wouldn’t have read it out of choice, it was laughable enough to keep me interested despite being under duress.

As much as I have damned Dombey and Son with very faint praise, there was an aspect of the novel that really piqued my interest, and is an area of history I am currently researching with the idea of potentially doing my dissertation on it next year. The history of the railway and London is a fascinating one, and Dombey and Son is Dickens’ railway novel, in which he shows the impact of the railway on London’s topography as well as on the mindset of its people. There is a wonderful passage where he shows us the building of a new railway line in the neighbourhood of one of the characters, bringing the atmosphere completely to life: ‘The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre.  Traces of its course were visible on every side.  Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood.  Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill.  … Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable. … In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.’ This is an image of almost Biblical destruction; the railway is depicted as a force of nature, unstoppable, elemental, destroying all it comes into contact with. The neighbourhood of Stagg’s Gardens, which was in the area of Camden Town in North London, is all but obliterated, the cottages and market gardens that once made up its streets sacrificed to the onwards march of the railway. It’s an incredibly powerful image, and one that represents the conflicting views of the railway and what it represented by Victorians themselves. Some saw it as a great civiliser, drawing together the different ends of the country and enabling freer and faster movement of people, labour, industry and ideas. Others saw it is a destroyer, both of the natural environment and of community life. With everyone rushing about from place to place, life was going to change inordinately, for everyone. After all, it was the railway that instigated the need for standardised time, thanks to the use of timetables, and it has been noted that after the advent of the railway, deaths due to heart attacks rose, perhaps suggestive of some people’s inability to adjust to a more frenetic, stressful pace of life.

In the late 1840s, when Dickens was writing the novel, there was a great surge of railway building in England, and almost a mania amongst railway companies in wanting to be the first to lay a line in as-yet unreached areas. As the railway companies were all private entities, there was no overall plan, no strategy, for covering the metropolitan area, and so London became served by several terminal stations operated separately by each company. Passengers needing to switch to a service operated by a different railway company had to join the throngs of traffic on the heaving streets of London to make their way to another station across town; rather than easing congestion, the railway actually made it worse, by throwing yet more people out into the streets of the metropolis. Dombey and Son is wonderful at showing those crowds, those jostling mixtures of sex and class and purpose, moving in constant motion through the ever changing streets of the city. For the railway radically altered the geography of London, destroying old neighbourhoods and creating new ones, as Dickens shows us when he revisits Stagg’s Gardens when the railway is completed: ‘there was no such place as Staggs’s Gardens.  It had vanished from the earth.  Where the old rotten summer-houses once had stood, palaces now reared their heads, and granite columns of gigantic girth opened a vista to the railway world beyond.  The miserable waste ground, where the refuse-matter had been heaped of yore, was swallowed up and gone.  The old by-streets now swarmed with passengers and vehicles of every kind; the new streets that had stopped disheartened in the mud and waggon-ruts, formed towns within themselves.  …  Bridges that had led to nothing, led to villas, gardens, churches, healthy public walks.’ Here the vocabulary is undoubtedly positive. What once was a slum has become a sort of paradise. In its destruction, the railway has brought about a new utopia. But Dickens is certainly not consistent in this attitude throughout the novel; his use of the railway as a symbol of death and destruction, even personifying a train as death at one point, clearly evidences his own deep distrust and fear of the railway, as much as he could see the benefits of it. This is especially interesting when considering that Dickens was involved in a fatal rail crash in Kent a decade or so after finishing Dombey and Son. His fear of trains afterwards is of course very understandable, and this was a fear shared by many Victorians, who, despite the fairly low statistics, terrified themselves with thoughts of fiery crashes after reading the sensational reportage of any accidents in the newspapers. In fact, considering that the railways were run entirely by manual rather than technological processes, and safety was reliant on good old fashioned observation and timetabling, it really is testament to Victorian railway workers that there weren’t more accidents.

So, to finish, Dombey and Son might not be the best written book in the world, or the best story ever told, or the best Dickens, but it’s a fascinating insight into the contemporary concerns of Victorian society, and offers an intriguing glimpse of London at a time when it was being transformed by the criss-crossing of several competing railway lines through its core. The railway changed London forever, and it continues to do so; those of us living with the headache of Crossrail can certainly sympathise with the residents of Stagg’s Gardens, who are forced to go and live elsewhere, with no promise of compensation – a standard practice in the nineteenth century, when no one batted an eyelid at forcing poor people out of their homes in the name of progress (plus ça change!).

If you’re interested in reading more about the railway in Victorian Britain, I can recommend these books:

Michael Freeman, Railways and the Victorian Imagination

Wolfgang Shivelbusch, The Railway Journey

David Turner, Victorian and Edwardian Railway Travel

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35 comments

  1. I recall what a disruption the railway was in Cranford. I’ve recently become a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell, an author who was never covered in my undergraduate studies. I think her character development far exceeds Dickens.

    1. I haven’t read Cranford in years but remember loving it when I did. I need to re-read! I love Gaskell – she’s a far superior writer to Dickens in my opinion. She deserves far more attention than she receives!

    1. Yes, wasn’t it something to do with the plague? I think they’ve found some amazing stuff during the Crossrail digs – as far as I know it’s all in the Museum of London. I’m hoping they’ll do an exhibition at some point.

  2. I feel the same about Dickens! If I read a short passage of his work I can admire the prose in an objective way and enjoy the characters he creates … but I can’t get emotionally engaged with a whole novel. I prefer Thackeray or Charlotte Bronte, or mildly trashy ‘sensation’ novelists like Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

    1. I’m glad I’m not alone! I feel like Dickens has stomped all over the 19thc to the extent that everyone feels he was the leading light of the day – so many greater artists have been trampled in his wake! I LOVE the sensation novelists – there’s nothing quite like a Wilkie Collins to liven a dark winter’s evening!

  3. Oh how lovely to be on her course of study. I did not read the whole article yet, but agree about Dickens.

  4. I love long Victorian novels, but have somehow never read ‘Dombey and Son’. Railway stories/scenes that immediately come to mind are: ‘The Railway Children’, ‘Stories of the Railway’ (VL Whitechurch), Moriarty chasing Sherlock Holmes in a “charter train” (‘The Final Problem’) and Dickens – ‘The Signalman’. ‘Middlemarch’ is set during the building of the first railways – interesting stuff. Oh yes, ‘Anna Karenina’ (if that counts). Excellent post.

    1. Well, you’re not missing out on too much! Thank you for those suggestions. I’ve read them all apart from the Whitechurch, which I haven’t heard of – I am off to investigate!

  5. Very interesting post. Are you familiar with Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel “Cranford”? I believe the railway plays a significant part in it. (I have seen the TV series based on it, but not read the book.)

      1. In my opinion, the biggest difference between Gaskell and Dickens is character growth. Particularly in North and South, the main characters mature and really broaden their worldview. So many of Dickens’ characters are very static, almost just figures who serve as representations of characteristics like good, or evil, or quirky. Gaskell’s development of Cynthia in Wives and Daughters is amazing.

  6. Always look forward to your blog, Rachel, mostly for your interesting & lucid comments about the books you’re reading or places you’re visiting, but also for your VISUALS…Speaking of which: who is the artist who depicted those two splendidly attired young ladies (twins?) in the railway compartment?
    PS Hope your new railway fascination ‘switches’ into a rewarding Masters’s trajectory…XO

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comments – that really is very heartening to hear, so thank you! The artist is called Augustus Egg, and this is actually a very interesting painting that has a lot of potential interpretations and has garnered a significant amount of discussion amongst critics – it’s worth looking up if you’re interested! Oh, yes, so do I – I’d happily read about railways forever!

  7. I do love some Dickens but Dombey and Son isn’t one I’ve attempted yet .
    His contemporary Wilkie Collins is preferred favourite Victorian writer , gothic plots , creepy characters and laudanum usually figures somewhere . Great stuff.
    Seeing your current reading I hope you will review The Pin to See the Peepshow.Read it 20yrs ago and still remember it vividly .
    I wish Persephone would reissue it .

    1. I love Wilkie Collins too! Much preferable to me than Dickens. I loved Pin to See the Peepshow – I shall be discussing it with Simon on our podcast soon and then I will review it. I’d love to see it back in print – it’s a fantastic novel.

  8. My mother taught herself English in part by reading Dickens and using an English-German dictionary when she migrated to Australia in the 60s without an English.. This was before any English lessons were available.

    I have never been able to get through a whole Dickens. Fantastic tales. But I’ve been stumped by his style.

  9. How very interesting this was, Rachel. My Dickens is mostly confined to his smaller, Christmasy tales, but, perhaps in time I will live Dombey and Son a try.
    Last winter, during a stop at one of my local libraries, I passed a sign about a program set to start just minutes from the time I saw the sign. I turned myself around and asked if I could attend – and did. It was phenomenal; all about how the El (elevated train) shaped Chicago, helped it grow, and formed the vast, surrounding suburbs as well.
    What an interesting dissertation this would be, Rachel.
    Like many of your other commenters, I love Cranford, and, actually, right about the same time as the train lecture I attended, I picked up an audiobook of Cranford for a re-read and loved “reading” it once again.

    1. I hope you’ll try some more Dickens, Penny – I really like Our Mutual Friend and I know lots of people rave about Bleak House – one day I’ll give it a go. I bet that talk was fascinating! Anything to do with public transport fascinates me. Its role in the development of cities is so interesting and something you never really think about until you realise how many towns are built around their railway stations!

  10. It’s funny to read all of these comments – I am also not a huge Dickens fan! I actually intended to read all of the full length Dickens novels for my Classics Club project, but changed my mind after reading one of them. I struggled through, I think, four of them. Dombey and Son was my least favorite, by far. I wanted to face punch Mr. Dombey for his misogyny. The others I read were The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield & Oliver Twist. I recognize that Dickens is engaged in superior social commentary, but I prefer Trollope, Gaskell, any of the Bronte sisters, and Wilkie Collins. Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire has been one of the great delights of my recent reading life.

    1. Well done you for slogging through so many – there are some much better 19th c writers out there and Dickens really isn’t for everyone! I really want to read more Trollope this year – I read Can You Forgive Her? years ago and loved it – I will get onto the Chronicles of Barsetshire next!

  11. I saw the title “Dickens and the railway” in my reader, and prepared to scroll on by. But then the painting! And I just had to come take a look… and read the whole thing. Wonderful post, thank you for writing it.

  12. Have you read Mrs Gaskell’s Cousin Phillis? The railway and a broken heart – though it isn’t London! And Gissing – he is wonderful on London and much more engaging than Dickens.

    1. No, but I shall – thank you for the recommendation. And I have only ever read The Odd Women by Gissing – I did love it so I don’t know why I haven’t read more. So much reading to do!

  13. Zola’s The Beast Within (1890) has the railway and an engine as main motifs. I know its later than Dickens but could be interesting.

  14. Don’t know if it’s easy for you to get to but the painting of the two girls is on display in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG).They actually have a good collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings if they also float your boat! If you can get there it’s well worth a visit. I’m ashamed to admit to not knowing that the artist was Augustus Egg (great name!) but have read a bit about the symbolism of the painting,one view is that it’s about contrasts – the one girl embodies a paragon of virtue; she’s sitting upright, reading a no doubt improving book, she’s wearing gloves whereas in contrast the other girl is asleep, her dress is unbuttoned at the front, she has bare hands and it appears from the basket at the side of her that she’s been eating oranges (a sign of decadence perhaps?) Anyway its beautifully painted and has a depth to it that is fascinating and we find hard to replicate today, we seem so shallow in comparison!

  15. Have you come across Henry Mayhew’s ‘London Labour and the London Poor’? He was a journalist, who investigated street sellers, street sweepers, traders and all sorts of other people, and published his findings round about 1850. I think it’s fascinating, and surpisingly readable. The people interviewed are the ‘real life’ originals of all those odd Dickensian characters, but Mayhew lets them talk about their lives, in their own words, without judging them and without sentiment, so they really leap off the page. I like Dickens, but I can see why other people don’t, and I think Mayhew’s work gives an added dimension to Dickens and helps you understand the period.

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