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