He confessed to being absorbed in railways, the new lines of railways projected to thread the land and fast mapping it. — George Meredith, Diana of the Crossways

"How gloriously we go along! I should like to ride on a railway every day." Hippias remarked: "They say it rather injures the digestion." "Nonsense! see how you'll digest to-night and to-morrow." "I hate slow motion after being in the railway," he said. — George Meredith, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel

decorated initial 'V' ictorians experienced the coming of the railway age as a watershed in the history of Great Britain. Some greeted and others mourned the changes that came with the new technology. As one might expect, references to railways and the phenomena surrounding them become an important part of Victorian fiction. The railway not only changed both the landscapes and cityscapes of great British, often for the worse many writers claimed, but it also changed conceptions of time and distance. Since the construction and running of railways had major impact on the financial world, particularly after railway mania of the late 1840s — the Victorian equivalent to the dot.com bust of the 1990s — it provided obvious material for both plot devices and social commentary for writers.

Perhaps the simplest, most obvious appearance of the Victorian railway comes in the form of little realistic touches some of which serve as handy plot devices. The railway rug that travelers used to keep warm in the early carriages becomes a staple of Victorian novels — one of those well observed details that, like Gaskell's Indian shawl in the first chapter of North and South places the action in a broader cultural context. A similarly observed detail that situates a story in the railway age involves the oft-cited railway timetable. This new form of transportation not only allowed easier, though not always very comfortable, movement over greater distances but it also placed a rigid temporal grid over travel in the form of railway schedules. Making a train trip of any distance often required coordinating the schedules of several railroads. Not surprisingly, therefore, Victorian novels from Collins to Gissing are filled with characters requesting, obtaining, and consulting Bradshaw's and other timetables. Thus Norah in Wilkie Collins's No Name, like so many other character in Victorian fiction, "had the railway time-table in her hand."

Moreover, both the train station and the railway carriage became places where both acquaintances and strangers encountered each other, often with important consequences for the plot. The incipient romance of Margaret Hale and John Thorton in Gaskell's North and South becomes threatened, for example, when she is reported to have met an unknown man at the Milton railway station, and M. E. Braddon's The Lovells of Aberdeen centers on encounters and misunderstandings in a railway carriage.

Making and missing connections becomes an obvious plot device. Getting off a train in some location unknown to the character and waiting, often alone, to be met and taken to a country house also became a common means of setting a plot in motion. Both appear in Collins Woman in White when the narrator tells us:

My travelling instructions directed me to go to Carlisle, and then to diverge by a branch railway which ran in the direction of the coast. As a misfortune to begin with, our engine broke down between Lancaster and Carlisle. The delay occasioned by this accident caused me to be too late for the branch train, by which I was to have gone on immediately. I had to wait some hours; and when a later train finally deposited me at the nearest station to Limmeridge House, it was past ten, and the night was so dark that I could hardly see my way to the pony-chaise which Mr. Fairlie had ordered to be in waiting for me.

And, of course, it's always more effective when the train drops one off at a lonely station in the dark of night, which is both disorienting and mysterious.

The discomforts of railway journeys provide a common means of both conveying both the experience of travel and the character of the traveler. A character in M. E. Braddon's The Golden Calf makes the usual contrast of machine and nature: "I am only tired of railway travelling, smoke and sulphur, dust and heat. A quiet walk across the common and through the wood will be absolute refreshment and repose." Fictional and nonfictional speakers commonly complain about the bustle and chaos of large numbers of people rushing about, bumping into one another and in general acting in ways uncommon in earlier ages. Here Collins's No Name plunges us into the crowded scene at the York train station:

He reached the platform a few minutes after the train had arrived. That entire incapability of devising administrative measures for the management of large crowds, which is one of the characteristics of Englishmen in authority, is nowhere more strikingly exemplified than at York. Three different lines of railway assemble three passenger mobs, from morning to night, under one roof; and leave them to raise a traveler's riot, with all the assistance which the bewildered servants of the company can render to increase the confusion. The customary disturbance was rising to its climax as Captain Wragge approached the platform. Dozens of different people were trying to attain dozens of different objects, in dozens of different directions, all starting from the same common point and all equally deprived of the means of information. A sudden parting of the crowd, near the second-class carriages, attracted the captain's curiosity. He pushed his way in; and found a decently-dressed man -- assisted by a porter and a policeman -- attempting to pick up some printed bills scattered from a paper parcel, which his frenzied fellow-passengers had knocked out of his hand.

Equally common as complaints about crowds are those about vulgar behavior and having to associate with workers who bore the odors and dirt of hard manual labor. As John R. Kellett points out in Railways and Victorian Cities, reports to the House of Commons noted such complaints as well as the fact that workmen used foul language and "spat on the floors, smoked offensive pipes, cooked herrings in the waiting rooms if they were left open, cut off leather window straps and stole them, and, if they arrived too early for work, hung about the station killing time, 'with evil consequences' for the young female workers" (97-98). As a character in Dinah Mulock Craik's A Life for a Life complains,

I never take a short railway journey in the after part of the day but I am liable to meet at least one drunken "gentleman" snoozing in his first-class carriage; or, in the second class, two or three drunken "men," singing, swearing, or pushed stupidly about by pale-faced wives. The sadness of the thing is, that the wives do not seem to mind it, that everybody takes it quite as a matter of course. The "gentleman," often grey-haired, is but "merry," as he is accustomed to be every night of his life; the poor man has only "had a drop or two," as all his comrades are in the habit of taking, whenever they get the chance: they see no disgrace in it; so they laugh at him a bit, and humour him, and are quite ready to stand up for him against all in-corners who may object to such a fellow-passenger. They don't; nor do the women belonging to them, who are well used to tolerate drunken sweethearts, and lead about and pacify drunken husbands. It makes me sick at heart sometimes to see a decent, pretty girl sit tittering at a foul-mouthed beast opposite; or a tidy young mother, with two or three bonnie children, trying to coax home, without harm to himself or them, some brutish husband, who does not know his right hand from his left, so utterly stupid is he with drink. To-night, but for my chance hand at a railway-station, such a family party as this might have reached home fatherless, and no great misfortune, one might suppose. Yet the wife had not even looked sad — had only scolded and laughed at him.

In addition to providing plot devices and material for realistic description, Victorian railways generated three important themes — their destructive effects on the city, particularly on housing for the poor, their cutting up the English landscape, and their involvement with greed, swindling, stock fraud and the Railroad Mania.

Suggested Readings

Carter, Ian. Railways and culture in Britain: the epitome of modernity. Manchester, UK; Manchester University Press, 2001.

Kellett, John R. Railways and Victorian Cities. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979; Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 1979.

Kostal, R.W. Law and English railway capitalism, 1825-1875. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

The essential book for anyone who wants to learn about the relations of Victorian railways to contemporary government, industry, finance, urban life, and so on, Kellett's volume is packed with quotations from primary sources, including parliamentary reports and contemporary periodicals; it also has valuable maps and illustrations [GPL].

Robbins, Michael. Law in The railway age. Manchester, UK: Mandolin, Manchester University Press, 1998.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1986.


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Last modified 3 November 2009