Trollope's description of a major railway junction in The Prime Minister has a almost Dickensian energy and style, rare in the novelist, as he tries to convey to those born in an earlier age of technology what it is like to experience the new. He therefore adopts two interwined literary strategies — (1) the self-presentation of the narrator as a curious, naive, and more than slightly puzzled "thoughtful stranger," who can't quite believe that something so full of strange energies, movements, and sounds could be coherent rather than anarchic and (2) a persistent anthropomorphism by which this narrator treats the engines, goods wagons, and passenger cars as self-directed and conscious rather than as machines:
It is quite unnecessary to describe the Tenway Junction, as everybody knows it. From this spot, some six or seven miles distant from London, lines diverge east, west, and north, northeast, and north-west, round the metropolis in every direction, and with direct communication with every other line in and out of London. It is a marvellous place, quite unintelligible to the uninitiated, and yet daily used by thousands who only know that when they get there, they are to do what some one tells them. The space occupied by the convergent rails seems to be sufficient for a large farm. And these rails always run one into another with sloping points, and cross passages, and mysterious meandering sidings, till it seems to the thoughtful stranger to be impossible that the best trained engine should know its own line. Here and there and around there is ever a wilderness of wagons, some loaded, some empty, some smoking with close-packed oxen, and others furlongs in length black with coals, which look as though they had been stranded there by chance, and were never destined to get again into the right path of traffic. Not a minute passes without a train going here or there some rushing by without noticing: Tenway in the least, crashing through like flashes of substantial lightning, and others stopping, disgorging and taking up passengers by the hundreds. Men and women, — especially the men, for the women knowing their ignorance are generally willing to trust to the pundits of the place, — look doubtful, uneasy, and bewildered. But they all do get properly placed and unplaced, so that the spectator at last acknowledges that over all this apparent chaos there is presiding a great genius of order. From dusky morn to dark night, and indeed almost throughout the night, the air is loaded with a succession of shrieks. The theory goes that each separate shriek, — if there can be any separation where the sound is so nearly continuous, — is a separate notice to separate ears of the coming or going of a separate train. The stranger, as he speculates on these pandemoniac noises, is able to realise the idea that were they discontinued the excitement necessary for the minds of the pundits might be lowered, and that activity might be lessened, and evil results might follow. But he cannot bring himself to credit that theory of individual notices. [II, 231-33]
By introducing, describing, and then explaining this new phenomenon of the late Victorian age, Trollope employs what are essentially the devices of travel writing as, like Carlyle, he take approaches something seemingly incomprehensible only to reveal, at the last, "that over all this apparent chaos there is presiding a great genius [spirit] of order."
Now some important questions:
Why does Trollope include this elaborate description of a railway junction in a novel about political order that explains the workings of elections, parliamentary debate, and the duties of the Prime Minister and his cabinet?
Second, why this emphasis upon order at Tenway Junction when Trollope a few paragraphs later has Ferdinand Lopez end his life there by deliberately placing himself in the path of a speeding train?
Trollope, Anthony. The Prime Minister. [1875-76] "Oxford World Classics." Oxford: Oxford UP, 1951.
Last modified 2000