Railway Journeys in Fiction
Simon Bradley was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1965. Author of the acclaimed St Pancras Station (Profile, 2011), Bradley has written a major new book, The Railways: Nation, Network and People, which explores the history and character of Britain's railways in greater breadth, from the passenger's changing experience to the cult of the preserved railway, via the tracks, buildings and operation of the system itself.
Railway Journeys in Fiction
Certain set-pieces tend to recur in books about Britain’s railways. Writing a new social history of the railways, I wanted to go deeper. That meant a close reading of some well-known pages, as well as spending time in less familiar corners of the library.
Take Dombey and Son (1848). Mr Dombey’s desolate journey after his little son’s death – ‘Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle’ – is the earliest railway trip in Dickens’s novels. But how many readers notice that Dombey is not in an ordinary carriage, but sits in the isolation of his own rail-borne road coach? There was nothing odd about this in the 1840s, when a train might carry ten or more such coaches each lashed to a flat wagon, their owners often riding within. Yet by 1900 the practice was extinct, as trains with through corridors, lavatories and restaurant cars replaced the old isolated compartments for long-distance journeys.
Fascinated alike by railways and by the working lives of their staff, Dickens often returned to them in his journalism and short fiction. The most compelling of these pieces is ‘The Signalman’, a Christmas ghost story from 1866. The haunted worker of the title is a perfectly realized psychological portrait, but the story can also be read as a sublimation of Dickens's trauma after a hideous train crash the year before. To reveal more would risk spoiling the plot; but the story has been reissued separately, with another of Dickens's railway tales, and a specially written introduction.
Dickens’s nearest rival among the great British novelists in clocking up train-miles was Anthony Trollope. For most of his writing career Trollope also had a demanding day job as a Post Office inspector. This took him on many long journeys, and his asides about dingy waiting rooms (The Belton Estate, 1866) and nasty railway sandwiches (He Knew He Was Right, 1869) have the acid edge of experience. But the novelist also turned his railway hours to profit by means of a portable writing desk. Most of Barchester Towers (1857) and The Three Clerks (1858), among other books, took shape on this wooden proto-laptop.
Trollope’s novels have a narrower social range than Dickens’s, but he is a wonderful source for conventions of polite behaviour in the carriage. An example: Alaric Tudor, one of the Three Clerks, takes a long journey westward on official business. He has been looking forward to doing not very much along the way, but his colleague Mr Neverbend turns up at Paddington with a bulging despatch box, including ‘twenty-six pages of close folio writing’ which he expects Alaric to study en route. Travel time can be work time in fiction too.
Other famous authors also have much to offer. Robert Louis Stevenson supplied the first account of a sleeping car in British fiction, in a short story of 1878. Arnold Bennett left a pungent description of the shortcomings of gas-lit carriages in a tale of 1907. Both of these found a place in the book.
One railway journey that didn’t make the cut is that shared by Rickie Elliott and his ungovernable half-brother Steven in E.M. Forster's The Longest Journey (also 1907). ‘Someone in the next carriage [compartment] punched at the partition, and when this happens, all lads of mettle know that they must punch the partition back’. Which Steven duly does, and the train continues on its way ‘to an accompaniment of dust and bangs’.
A confession: travelling to and from school in South London in the 1970s, I sometimes played this game when the train included a compartmented carriage. Hard cases would even swing from the luggage rack to kick the timber with both feet, hoping to jolt a fellow pupil sitting in the next compartment. No wonder that these elderly carriages were withdrawn not long afterwards, in favour of open-plan designs. As it happened, they were the last of their kind: direct descendants of the first enclosed carriages, themselves derived from the horse-drawn coaches which the railways made obsolete.
This kind of confrontation between new and old is harder to find nowadays. Yet many railway buildings are still those the Victorians knew, as are nearly all the lines connecting them. The Railways: Nation, Network and People explores this network, and its uniquely rich inheritance from the past, in the country that gave railways – and railway travel – to the world.
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