Mind the Gap: Transport, History, and the Work of Fiction

Charles Dickens’s Networks: Public Transport and the Novel, by Jonathan H. Grossman, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, vii + 256 pp., illustrated £25 (hardback), ISBN 978-0-19-964419-3

Reviewed by Ruth Livesey (Royal Holloway, University of London)


Living through the transport developments of the nineteenth century seems to have been a pretty dizzying experience. In 1851 Charles Dickens celebrated the opening of the new railway line from Boulogne to Paris by the South-Eastern Railway in an article in Household Words. No longer would the French side of the journey be drawn out by travel in that throwback to an earlier age – a horse-drawn Diligence or public coach from the coast to the capital. Rattling over the pavements of Paris at 8.30pm after leaving London Bridge station that morning at 8am left Dickens’s journalistic persona in ‘a pleasant doubt of the reality of everything about me’ and ‘blessing the South-Eastern Company for realising the Arabian Nights in these prose days’.[i] In the decades since the publication of Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey (1977), such disorientation of the senses that resulted from the age of steam has been the focus of a rich vein of scholarship on rail travel which traces the pathology and textuality of ever-speedier modernity from the 1830s onwards.[ii]

Jonathan Grossman’s study of Dickens and transport is a welcome reminder, however, that the coming of the railway was a relatively late arrival in the nineteenth-century experience of mass transit at speed. Grossman, following the historian Philip Bagwell, concludes that a truer narrative of the ‘transport revolution’ in the long nineteenth century needs to reflect the significant role played by developments in road engineering and travel prior to the railways. In 1784 John Palmer initiated a system of contracting out Royal Mail delivery to competitive tender among  stagecoach proprietors who could then combine lucrative Government contracts with passenger transportation; this in turn led to the acceleration of regular stage-coach services in the first few decades of the nineteenth century in order to compete with the new patent Royal Mail coaches. It is this sort of experience of speeding through the nation that Thomas De Quincey, as Grossman notes, commemorates in retrospect in ‘The English Mail Coach’ (1849). For De Quincey, the mail coach of the Napoleonic era represents a lost moment of organic English patriotism – a trembling sensibility of mass national identity – brought into being by this vehicle of news. For Dickens too, the mail coach became a charged symbol of a departing era. In Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) – a novel that anachronistically (but purposively) contrasts a stagecoach era Britain with an America crossed by Pullman Cars – Tom Pinch escapes Salisbury on a mail coach that seems to embody the excesses of Regency dandyism: ‘The coach was none of your steady-going, yokel coaches, but a swaggering, rakish, dissipated London coach; up all night, and lying by all day, and leading a devil of a life. It cared no more for Salisbury than if it had been a hamlet’.[iii] The London mail coach blasts through the countryside, ‘Yoho, past hedges, gates and trees’, forcing customary rural culture into the ditch as it passes. From this brief contrast of De Quincey’s unifying patriotism and Dickens’s violent social division, the nineteenth-century experience of the mail coach becomes a matter of perspective: who is looking at the mail coach, and from where.

Grossman’s study focuses on three Dickens novels in great detail in three extended chapters: The Pickwick Papers (1836-7); The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) in its original publication context, Master Humphrey’s Clock; and Little Dorrit (1855-57). This tight focus enables Grossman to conduct some remarkably intensive readings of the texts. Dickens, Grossman argues in conclusion, ‘was … [the transport] revolution’s Copernicus’ and in order to take us to this point, Grossman conducts readers on a journey through these novels that, in its concentration and pace, is as brilliantly dizzying – and sometimes bewildering – as any nineteenth-century race from Elephant and Castle to Brighton. An illustration of Bob Sawyer atop a coach in Pickwick Papers, for example, is the centre of ten pages of close discussion; the disclosure that the omniscient narrator of The Old Curiosity Shop is in fact Master Humphrey himself – who is also the ‘single gentleman’ within the narrative is the subject of a third of Grossman’s chapter on that novel; the contrast of ‘sunshine and shade’ at the start of Little Dorrit energise a sustained and important reassessment of that work away from a preoccupation with stasis and immobility to the internationalisation of transport and time. As may be evident from this, in Grossman’s reading, the transport revolution was key to establishing a system of connectivity across time and space; Dickens’s Copernican genius, Grossman asserts, was to transliterate this system into the form of the novel itself allowing readers to experience imaginatively the reorientation that the fast (inter)national system of stage and mail coaches brought into being in the nineteenth century.

It is in his discussion of Pickwick (the most obviously coach-driven of all Dickens’s narratives) that Grossman draws out the latent parallel between the novel and transport that he illuminates in this study. The ‘intercity routes Pickwick rides’, Grossman argues, ‘established the public transport system’s swift interconnections as a means to defining a new form of community based on people’s networked arena of coordinated circulation’ (38). Through ‘a technology of the novel, Pickwick helped to instate the experiencing of a public transport system as creating a new kind of community in people’s circulation round a network’. The very serial form of Pickwick, Grossman suggests, and its common critical disparagement as haphazard in plot, is in itself to be understood as the result of unifying underlying principle of public transport: through his novel, Dickens from the start ‘inducted [his readers] into a world transformed by a public transport network’ (54).

Grossman’s readings of his chosen texts are both playful and full of serious intent. This is the work of a scholar steeped in the textual expertise and the passionate advocacy for Dickens’s place at the centre of nineteenth-century culture that one has come to expect from affiliates of the remarkable Dickens Project at University of California, Santa Cruz. Grossman’s analysis of ideas of simultaneity in relation to plot, narration and omniscience in all three novels makes for an important contribution to our understanding of the shifting temporalities of nineteenth-century experiments in the novel.

Grossman’s book also helps bring into focus some broader questions about the relative status of history and literary form in several other recent studies of the nineteenth-century novel. What does it mean to claim that the novel is itself a kind of system and an agent in history: a ‘technology’ that shapes the lives of historical actors? What does the discipline gain (and lose) by reading history from a distance as a bold schematic whilst pursuing questions of form in meticulous detail? Underlying Grossman’s study is the assumption that innovations in transport in the early nineteenth century constituted a national (and eventually, international) system, connecting individuals in a network of time and space as different locations adopted congruent clock times. Reading around in the history of technology clarifies something obvious but often overlooked: it takes a fair bit of time to see any innovation as an all-encompassing system that will change how we interact with the world. Who (old enough to remember the 1990s) felt a seismic shift in affective relations when sending a first email, or first looking at a website? And whilst the coming of the railways created corridors of standardized national time from the 1840s, local astronomical time continued to set the clocks outside these specific narrow contexts for decades to come. To shift from the temporal to the social-geographical, I’m always reminded of Doreen Massey’s brilliantly off-hand devastation of theories of techno-modernity and mobility: in contrast to visions of the near future like Blade Runner, Massey reminds us, ‘most people actually still live in places like Harlesden or West Brom. Much of life for many people, even in the heart of the First World, still consists of waiting in a bus shelter with your shopping for a bus that never comes’.[iv] Massey’s reflection on the ingrained historical-political crosscurrents of her local high street gives us a means to understand locality and emplacement as a necessary component of mobility: the nineteenth-century housing stock of the inner suburbs of London and the West Midlands, their roads and transport innovations, play host to, and in some senses continue to inform the structures of feeling of place, mobility, and locality in the present.

Grossman’s distant reading of history provides a schematic approach that allows him to read transport and Dickens’s novels as equivalent ‘systems’ producing experience. But for me at least, claims to mass historical agency need to attend to particular locations and actors: who read these books and how matters (and of course, as Juliet John has recently reminded us, mass consumption of Dickens’s narratives has never been limited to reading); so too does the question of who could afford to pay the fare for a stagecoach; or what it meant to live in the vast geographical areas of Britain (such as most of Scotland North of Edinburgh) in which there was no regular connecting stagecoach service. Grossman reads Little Nell’s isolating ‘intercity’ journey on foot as a reflection on the ‘passenger network’s own self-created limits and intrinsic failures in constructing its networked community’ (92). Nell’s poverty and the fact that, for the vast majority of nineteenth-century people for most of the century, walking or hitching rides on carrier’s wagons or barges remained all that could be afforded could also be read as a means to question exactly how far-reaching and systematic any passenger network was in the nineteenth century. For all investment, then and now, in the idea of a networked nation ushering a singular communicative body, shaped by the act of reading novels, surely it still matters (as it did to William Cobbett and to George Eliot) that life for many people even in the heart of England, consisted of a long trudge along a muddy road with a glance over your shoulder in the hope of a ride in a market cart, and some entertainment on the way from bits read out of a miscellany. If nineteenth-century novels neither modestly reflect, nor hubristically determine such history they remain places where elements of such historical experience can be reformed and re-presented. But the wholeness of what results is something other than history itself; the novel’s agency is that very otherness: minding the gap between is the critical agency of the reader.

Ruth Livesey is Reader in Nineteenth Century Literature and Thought in the Department of English, Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of Socialism, Sex, and the Culture of Aestheticism in Britain, 1880-1914 (2007), the co-editor of The American Experiment and the Idea of Democracy in Britain, 1776-1914 (2013) and an editor of JVC. She is currently completing a Leverhulme funded research project, ‘Writing the Stagecoach Nation, 1780-1870’.

[i] Charles Dickens, ‘A Flight’ (1851) repr. Selected Journalism ed. David Pascoe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997) p. 145.

[ii] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: Trains and Travel in the Nineteenth Century, trans. by Anselm Hollo (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980).

[iii] Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) ch. 36.

[iv] Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender (Cambridge: Polity, 1994), p. 167.

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