Past and Present, Technologies of Transportation, Old and New: Left: Old Style — The Mail Coach — from a Picture by Henderson Right: New Style — The Mail Train. Illustrations The Illustrated London News (1849). [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

In the body of his fiction, Charles Dickens seems to have had a peculiar attitude towards the Age of Steam in particular and contemporary issues in general: although "steam excursions" by boat occur as early as Sketches by Boz (for example, the City of London steamer is specifically mentioned in "The Tuggses at Ramsgate," published 31 March 1836), not until 1846 does the steam locomotive enter the novels conspicuously, when the villain in Dombey and Son, James Carker, is run over by a train and sensationally mangled in Chapter 55. As late as in works published in 1861, characters such as Pip still make their way to and from London by stage-coach rather than train, although regular rail service to the metropolis was widely available by the 1840s. All too often in Dickens we are in the pre-steam era, when, for example, in the year of the Great Reform Bill (passed in June, 1832) young shorthand reporter Charles Dickens rattled about the country by stage-coach to cover speeches by such political figures as Lord John Russell. Although there was considerable railway construction in the year preceding Victoria's ascension to the throne, one has little sense of the Railway Age in the principal work of fiction published at that time, The Pickwick Papers.

My first fall in life by Phiz. [Click on thumbnil for larger image.]

Nevertheless, the later stories, articles, and books have a markedly contemporary setting; for example, the Mugby Junction framed tales for All the Year Round at Christmas, 1866, particularly "The Haunted Signalman," are thoroughly contemporary, particularly in how they address popular anxieties about the safety of rail travel. In fact, only after the publication of this story was every train travelling more than 20 miles in a single trip obliged to have some means of communication between the guard and driver. Drawn some sixteen years earlier, Phiz's illustration of David Copperfield uneasily perched atop a coach in "My First Fall in Life" (November 1849) reveals both the illustrator's and the writer's nostalgia for the stage-coach age, which finally closed with little fanfare early in the twentieth century.

It is safe to say that Dickens was selective about his chronological settings, opting for a contemporary, "Industrial Age" setting, as in Hard Times (1854), when the exigencies of the narrative required it, but often retrospectively setting the narrative two decades earlier, particularly in such bildungsromans as David Copperfield and Great Expectations. One of the contemporary topics that occasionally surfaces in Dickens's novels is Australian emigration, as when Augustus Moddle decamps to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) in Martin Chuzzlewit, Ch. 54, and when the Micawbers and Peggottys emigrate to New South Wales in David Copperfield, regardless of the theoretical time of the action, which, for example, in the latter novel is probably no later than 1840 (and possibly earlier, if we accept 1812, the year of Dickens's birth, as being that for his protagonist), even though the coverage of the topic in The Illustrated London News in 1849 clearly establishes the matter as extremely topical.

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Last modified 12 July 2010