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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

On Studying

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I signed up for my MA degree last year on a bit of a whim. I’d been thinking about doing an MA for years, but circumstances always got in the way of me being able to make the commitment. Last year, however, I finally felt in the right place at the right time, and thought, why not just do it now? So, without giving myself time to doubt the decision, I filled in the form and sent it that very same day. Within just a couple of weeks, I’d attended an interview and accepted my place. It all felt very sudden, and when the idea actually became reality, I panicked. What if I wouldn’t manage to fit all the work in? What if I would be the idiot at the back of the room, with everyone else already being experts? What if I couldn’t write MA level essays and ended up failing the course? What if I didn’t enjoy it and found the research I would have to do completely boring? What if this was all just a terrible mistake?! After a night of crippling self-doubt, I pulled myself together, pushed the nagging fear of not being clever enough to the back of my mind, enthusiastically bought all of the books on the reading list, and embraced the idea of becoming a mature student, going to the pub after lectures with my fellow students and spending my weekends in the library. This was going to be an adventure. And just like a rollercoaster, even if parts of it were going to be terrifying, and a little bit unpleasant, I knew, deep down, that I would love the experience. I’d already done the hardest part by getting on the ride in the first place.

One term in, and I can report that I have absolutely loved every second so far. I chose my course carefully, and it has exceeded all of my expectations. The difference between my MA and BA is enormous; my BA course was large and many of the texts we studied were not my cup of tea. I often felt disinterested and demotivated by having to study periods or genres of literature I found boring or impenetrable, and it was frustrating to have to skate over the surface of the things that really interested me because we had to gain a broad knowledge of a huge subject area in a relatively short amount of time. Doing an MA gives you the luxury of specialism, and I have found every week fascinating, as I am learning about the precise period I am interested in: the nineteenth century. I am having my eyes opened to so much, and the more I learn, the more I want to learn, and each seminar leads me down so many paths of interest that I take such pleasure in pursuing in my own time. Having very small seminar groups is also a considerable change from my BA, where groups were often pushing 20 students. Now there are less than 10 of us in each group, giving everyone plenty of opportunity to share their ideas and for us to bounce theories and interpretations off each other, creating fascinating and enlightening discussions. As all of us are mature students and have made the decision to pursue this qualification at no small sacrifice to our finances and leisure time, everyone is committed and engaged, and there are not the silences I experienced so often in my undergraduate seminars, when it became very obvious that all of us had been far too busy partying that week to read the assigned text! What’s more, we get to choose our own essay topics, and I’ve had such fun picking my topics and hanging out in the gorgeous University of London library, Senate House, which has an amazing rare book collection and incredible art deco architecture. Getting lost in books, finding undiscovered gems and spending evenings doing research has been brilliant. I love the experience of finding something that then leads to something else and then something else, sending me deep into a labyrinth of Victoriana that I could happily wander in forever.

When I started telling people about my decision to sign up for the MA, a lot of people asked me why I was doing it. The assumption from most was that I was doing it for a promotion, to improve my qualifications so that I could get a job in a more prestigious school. When I said no, I was doing it purely for pleasure, I received some interesting reactions. The concept that education was something to be pursued purely for pleasure, rather than for some sort of economic or practical advantage, seemed to be a novel idea. Why on earth would I spend so much time and money on something that offered me nothing of tangible benefit in return? This was something I thought about before I began the course; unlike my BA degree, an MA is not a requirement for me to be able to pursue my chosen career path. The teaching profession doesn’t really reward higher education beyond BA level, largely because the subject knowledge you gain doesn’t really get used on a day to day basis, unless you happen to be able to teach the texts you have studied. Having an MA in Victorian Studies wasn’t going to propel me up the career ladder. It wasn’t going to get me a promotion, a pay rise or any kudos from the kids I teach, who already roll their eyes and sigh the minute I begin the sentence ‘actually, I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here, but did you know that in the nineteenth century….’ In a world where so much value is placed on what we can measure economically, the concept of investing a lot of time and money in something that has no intrinsic value beyond enjoyment, is, for a lot of people, a waste. But for me, this MA course has been the best value for money I have ever received. It has given me so much more than I have paid out. It has revealed whole swathes of subjects I had not known about before, and that have inspired, excited and given me enormous pleasure in the pursuit of their discovery. It has set my brain on fire, reigniting the embers of interests I have had to dampen over the years thanks to not having enough time to look into them properly. It has opened my eyes more fully to the rich layers of history around me, and made me stop and think and question and not take things at face value. It has also surprised me by how much it has taught me about myself. With every passing week, I have grown a little more confident, a little more bold, a little more self assured. I have come to believe in the value of my own voice, and to trust in the value of my opinions. As someone who is constantly telling their students to believe in themselves, to trust in themselves, to have confidence in themselves, I was surprised by how little confidence I had in myself at the start of the course. I was convinced I would find it too hard, and that I would have nothing insightful to say, and that everyone else would find me stupid. Going back to an academic environment after so long sent me right back to my unconfident eighteen year old self, convinced that I wasn’t clever because I didn’t get into the university of my choice. Though I have no problem standing in front of a class of children and talking about my subject, being with an audience of my peers terrified me. But from the very first seminar, I found that my passion for my subject overrode my lack of confidence; to my surprise, I found myself initiating discussions effortlessly, so keen was I to share my interpretations, or to point out particular lines I had found interesting. As each week went by, I spoke up more and more, enjoying the experience of talking and debating and developing other people’s ideas. I was so focused on the subjects we were discussing, I forgot to think about what I thought about myself. And that has probably been the greatest gift this course has given me so far: freedom from the limitations I had placed upon myself.

For anyone thinking about studying as a mature student, I would say, go for it. Don’t overthink it, and don’t focus on the logistics, because you’ll be surprised by how much time you can find to do something you love, even if your schedule seems overloaded as it is. As long as you prepare in advance, use your time wisely and don’t set yourself unrealistic expectations, you’ll be absolutely fine. It’s the best decision I’ve made in a long time, and I love that I still have over a year and a half of it left to enjoy!

My Books of the Year 2016

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Happy New Year! I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Year break, and are feeling ready and raring to go for 2017…which must surely be a cheerier year than 2016, otherwise we’re all in trouble!

Sidestepping neatly away from wider world issues to discuss gentler pursuits, it’s been an interesting, and varied year in reading for me. Starting my MA course in Victorian Studies in September added a huge amount of non fiction and nineteenth century literature to my reading pile, and I also developed quite an addiction to detective fiction, aided in no small part by the fantastic reprints produced by the British Library. I received a six month gift subscription to Persephone Books in the summer, which led to me rediscovering their wonderful back catalogue, and mine and Simon’s attempts to find common reading ground for our podcast, Tea or Books? (if you haven’t listened yet, where have you been!? Come and find out what you’re missing here) has led me to branch outside of my usual preferred authors and genres. I have found new favourite novels, discovered new authors, and come to really enjoy reading non fiction. I have also failed to whittle down my pile of unread books and not read many books I meant to get around to, but that will be for 2017, especially as I’ve decided to join in with Simon’s Project 24, and restrict my book buying from the seeming hundreds I purchase every year down to just 24…

So, without further ado, here is my top 10 books of 2016, in reverse order:

10. The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

One of the British Library Crime Classics, I loved this murder mystery that had so many potential endings to choose from, and an intriguing crime to solve. Clever, stylish and full of period detail, this is one of the best of the many Crime Classics I’ve read. A wonderful light read for when you need a couple of hours to escape!

9. A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

This is another novel Simon asked me to read for the podcast, and having only read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I was keen to explore more Spark. This witty, wonderfully wry novel set in the publishing world of post war London had me laughing out loud, and the characterisation is second to none. A much more acerbic Barbara Pym, Spark is a fantastic observer of human behaviour, and this is a book I could hardly bear to put down. I can’t wait to read more Spark in 2017.

8. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Simon asked me to read this for Tea or Books? and knowing it was going to have a fantastic element to it made me not overly keen on picking it up. However, what I found inside its pages was not at all what I expected; a brilliantly, lyrically written exploration of the life of a spinster in early 20th century Britain, which surprises the reader with an intriguing and utterly unique source of escape from her narrow, stifled existence. A daring, powerfully feminist novel, it is half a richly detailed glimpse into the world of the early 20th century middle class, and half an almost dream-like invention of an alternative state of being for those who have been excluded from the normative structures of polite society. I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would, and it reminded me how important it is to step outside of my reading comfort zone in order to discover such gems as this.

7. Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton

Another Persephone, this novel about the life of an architect in 19th and early 20th century London was a real discovery for me. Helen Ashton’s writing is stylish and evocative, and her eye for architectural detail is wonderful. This, like Sherriff’s Greengates, is very much a chronicle of an ordinary life, where moments of wonder, fulfilment and immense joy are intermingled with petty frustrations, deep griefs and quiet despair, drawing the reader in to the world of the characters and leaving you richer for the experience as you ponder on similar experiences in your own life. I couldn’t put it down; Helen Ashton is an author I definitely want to read more of in future.

6. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

I was totally shocked by the ending of this brilliant murder mystery, which had me hooked right up until the last moment. A real jewel in the crown of Christie’s oeuvre, it’s perfect Sunday afternoon reading.

5. Greengates by R.C.Sherriff

A fairly new Persephone Book, this reprint of a 1930’s novel by Sherriff, who is mostly well known today for his First World War play, Journey’s End, is an absolutely enchanting account of a retired couple who find a new lease of life after a buying a house in the country. Sherriff is the master of making the ordinary extraordinary, and drawing wonderfully realistic, everyday characters whose stories open your eyes to the magic hidden in the reassuring routines of our workaday lives. This was pure and simple comfort reading; the best kind for troubled times, and a book I know I will delight in sinking into any time I want to be reminded of the many wonders of my distinctly ordinary existence. Don’t let it pass you by!

4. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

I’ve been meaning to read this for years, so when I found a copy in a charity shop, I finally picked it up and gave it a go. I hadn’t expected what I found at all; an intriguing postmodern take on the Victorian novel, which was both incredibly literary and fantastically entertaining, alongside being a brilliant, impeccably researched evocation of the nineteenth century. The characters are subtle and compelling, and both sympathetic and maddening, making you want to jump into the book and give them a good talking to. Moreover, the structure of the novel itself, with the frequent insertions of the authorial voice to remind us that we’re reading a fictional construction, adds a pleasurable novelty to what could have otherwise been a straightforward historical novel. If you’re looking for a more intellectually challenging read in 2017, this would definitely be my recommendation.

3. The Victorians by A.N.Wilson

If you thought history books were dull, then let this be the one that disproves your theory. Though it’s long and incredibly detailed, this fascinating account of the Victorian period, taking in the great and good as well as the insignificant and trivial, opened my eyes to so much and had me glued to its pages. I thought I knew so much about the Victorians before I opened this book; by the time I had finished, I realised how little I had truly understood about them.

2. London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins

Prewar London comes vibrantly alive in this rich, almost Dickensian account of the lives of the various tenants of 10 Dulcimer Street. The private triumphs and tragedies of these individuals are played out against the seedy glamour of a world on the brink of war, and Collins weaves you effortlessly into the inner lives of each of them, their voices completely distinctive and so vividly drawn. I loved every second of reading it, and particularly enjoyed Collins’ marvellous sense of place in bringing to life a not often recorded period of time in London’s history. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

1. The Cazalet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard.

It would be impossible for me to choose between the five wonderful books in this series, which chronicle the lives of the various members of the Cazalet family from the 1930s to the 1950s. It’s fantastically well written, brilliantly characterised, and utterly addictive. I can’t imagine why it hasn’t won every prize under the sun; to manage as many characters as Howard does, over so many years, and make each of them so completely alive, and their world so realistic, is truly awe-inspiring. If you want to get lost in another world, and forget your own completely; if you want to enter into a vanished society that yet still feels real enough to touch; if you want to laugh out loud and cry your eyes out, you will find everything you need within these five remarkable, irreplaceable books. I am devastated to have finished them, and already can’t wait to read them all over again. If you read nothing else in 2017, these have to be the books you choose.

Merry Christmas!

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Well, another year has flown by, and once again I haven’t been as regular a blogger as I’d like, but I very much appreciate each and every one of you who takes the time to read my posts, and also those of you who listen to Simon and I rambling away on our podcast, Tea or Books?. Thank you so much for your support! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my adventures in life and reading, sporadic as my postings are. Next year I am going to do my best to give you a little more variety; I want to write about some of the topics I’ve been learning about as part of my Victorian Studies MA, and also return to my ‘Notes from the Classroom’ series. I’m also thinking about experimenting with posting some excerpts from my fiction writing…but we’ll see how brave I’m feeling!

For those of you wondering about the picture I’ve used to illustrate this post – as always, London has provided a cornucopia of beautiful Christmas displays, but my favourite this year was Liberty’s gorgeous Nutcracker inspired windows. The above image is a glimpse of one of them, but they are all marvellously inventive and if you have the chance to pop by and have a look over the holiday, make sure you do!

I hope you all have a marvellous Christmas, eating lots of delicious food, reading plenty of exciting new books, and spending quality time with your family and friends. See you in the New Year!

Greengates by R C Sherriff

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When Persephone Books announced that they were reprinting another R C Sherriff this year, I was delighted. The Fortnight in September, a wonderful novel about a family’s trip to the seaside and the quietly transformational effect of a holiday away from their ordinary lives, is one of my absolute favourite Persephones, and the promise of another Sherriff along similar lines filled me with anticipation. As it turns out, I was right to be excited, as Greengates is a lovely, life-affirming book that I could hardly bear to put down. It’s just the sort of thing to curl up and read on a cold winter’s evening, and I can see it becoming a perennial favourite.

When Tom Baldwin retires from his insurance clerk job in the city, and returns to his sooty semi in Brondesbury Park, he is initially filled with joy at the prospect of no longer having to form one of the homogenous mass rushing to and from suburban stations and trudging their weary way through the streets of the city, forever bound by the ticking hands of the employer’s clock. As he sits in the train on his final journey from the office to his home, clutching the meagre retirement gift handed to him by his colleagues, he has wonderful visions of years stretching ahead, full of a new epoch of purpose and achievement. At not yet sixty, he thinks, there is still so much he could do. Not for him the pipe and slippers by the fire that the office seems to think he will be sloping off to enjoy; no slow, gradual descent into the grave with nothing to show for himself. No, indeed; Tom intends to become a historian, discovering new ways of interpreting England’s fascinating history for the masses. He and his wife Edith will go on tours of historical sites, spending their days rambling across the countryside and having enlightening conversations on all manner of subjects. When not immersed in his writings, Tom will also enjoy the healthful occupation of tending his garden, and finally get around to all of those pesky jobs in the house that he has been ignoring for years. Retirement, he is sure, will be the making of him. By the time he returns home from the office for the last time, Tom feels a changed man; a man for whom retirement holds nothing but glorious promise.

It is not long before this vision proves to be far from reality, however. Tom soon finds that his dreams of becoming a historian are nothing but a fantasy, and he becomes irritable and argumentative as he broods on his failures. Edith, her tranquil routines upset by Tom’s presence in the house all day, despairs at the prospect of spending the next twenty years with a man with whom she now seems to have nothing in common. The cosy chats they used to enjoy at the end of their respective days, sharing the news of their separate worlds, have disappeared, and with little else to tie them together, all seems lost and utterly hopeless. That is until Edith suggests a walk to a favourite spot in the countryside they enjoyed on weekends before the war. The fresh air and happy memories of times past invigorate them, and they are thoroughly enjoying themselves until they are shocked and appalled to find the magical valley views they were so looking forward to spoiled by the building site of a new housing estate. Indignant, they go down to take a look at the works, and find themselves convinced by an eager young sales assistant to take a look at the sparkling show home. Unexpectedly entranced by the clean, modern lines of the house and its blissfully peaceful setting, they find themselves starting to dream of a different life. But will they have the courage to take the plunge, and will this dream offer them the meaning to their later years that they have so far sought in vain?

This is a truly wonderful book that I raced through, so caught up was I in the lives of Tom and Edie. They are both very real and sympathetic characters, whose ordinariness makes them recognisable and irresistibly endearing. I loved the descriptions of life in their suburban semi; Sherriff is excellent at finding the perfect turns of phrase to capture the pleasures of quiet, comforting routines and the smells and sounds of domesticity, and the details of 1920s furniture and home decoration fashions are fascinating to read about. Sherriff is a remarkable creator of characters who are well rounded and touchingly true to life; his sensitive exploration of the disappointments and disillusionments that can crush the spirit are quietly moving, just as the moments of sheer joy and exhilaration when inspiration strikes and all seems golden send a thrill down the spine.I couldn’t bear it when I got to the end; I felt that I was being forced to say goodbye to dear old friends. Greengates is such a truly delightful story; I can’t recommend it highly enough.