‘Dear Bradshaw’: Railway Travel, Detective Fiction, and the Actor’s Life

Gabrielle Malcolm (Canterbury Christ Church University)

In September of 2012 I had the opportunity to present a public lecture at the Canterbury St Margaret’s Street branch of Waterstone’s Bookshops. I was there to discuss and promote ‘neglected’ Victorians – no, not waifs and paupers, but those poor, forsaken authors that are no longer widely read. Mary Braddon is still, but less and less so every year, included in this canon of the marginalised. My lecture was part of the public events for the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers and organised to promote the publication of a new edition of Mary Braddon’s Henry Dunbar (originally published in 1864) from the independent press Victorian Secrets.

Those of us who inhabit the academic world have a different experience of neglected texts. We see seek them out and attempt to promote them and evaluate their significance. Often, the most neglected of writers can exhibit for us the most accurate picture of what audiences enjoyed and what was the currency of literary vocabulary for the popular market. However, the very popularity once enjoyed across the span of a couple of generations of readers can mean obscurity for the writer over ensuing decades. For every rush of enthusiasm for Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, or George Eliot another layer of dust gathers on Walter Scott, William Thackeray, or Marie Corelli.

So, we all agree that we must support the work of academic and independent presses, such as Victorian Secrets and Jennifer Carnell’s Sensation Press (Hastings), in re-producing and evaluating old texts for new markets. There is also the prospect, which I think needs to be promoted, for the wider general readership to enjoy these books, via e-texts, digital on-demand publishing, literary apps, and websites. There is plenty of scope for rediscovery and re-evaluation in many different genres, particularly those populated by women writers. These account for a different sort of perspective on the period, one that destabilizes values or criticism that were once thought of as universally embedded.

And where better to start than Mary Braddon? We are rapidly approaching her Centenary in 2015. A novel such as Henry Dunbar is a gripping detective story and I have been able to assess it in the light of working on the Archive of her unpublished papers. Very useful comparisons can be made about her experiences that evolved into draft form and then found their way into her published fiction. Foremost amongst these were her years spent on the professional stage. She plundered both the form and style of the popular melodrama for Henry Dunbar as well as drawing on her background of extensive rail travel in the 1850s as she pursued her career as a touring actress.

She had travelled widely, across the North of England, on the provincial Yorkshire circuit, and along the South coast, as well as to Surrey and London. Mobility of characters in novels of sleuthing and detection are essential for the progress of the plot. The frequency and detail of the journeys in this novel suggest the influence of her experience on her writing, as do the descriptions of their routes, especially up from London to the Midlands and North and eastwards from Derby, through Yorkshire and across to Hull. These must be taken from firsthand experience – for example, this, from the opening of Chapter 43:

The railway journey between Shorncliffe and Derby was by no means the most pleasant expedition for a cold spring night, with the darkness lying like a black shroud on the flat fields, and a melancholy wind howling over those desolate regions, across which all the night-trains seem to wend their way. I think that flat and darksome land which we look upon out of the window of a railway carriage in the dead of night must be a weird district, conjured into existence by the potent magic of an enchanter’s wand, – a dreary desert transported out of Central Africa, to make the night-season hideous, and to vanish at cock-crow.’

An interesting footnote here: Braddon uses ‘Shorncliffe’ as her fictional town in Warwickshire for the novel’s setting. It is actually the name of a coastal town in Kent, near Sandgate, and was a garrison in the 1850s used for troops returning home from the Crimean War, so it could have been in her mind as she composed this, especially as it had a reputation for being a rough spot where troops indulged themselves whilst on leave.

Braddon writes about the paraphernalia of travel, and the necessary timekeeping pursuant to making the train from Waterloo or Euston to head South or North from the capital. She captures the frustrations of the traveller as they are delayed in making their connection and the disturbance to one’s reverie or snatched attempts at sleep when the guard enters the carriage to bellow ‘All change!’ Bradshaw’s guide and timetable is the new map to understanding this world: ‘Dear Bradshaw,’ as one character remarks, ‘what an interesting writer you seemed to me on that day!’ George Bradshaw, the Manchester publisher and cartographer, produced timetables and the Railway Companion which began to appear from 1839 onwards. They were the essential guide for decoding the modern travel system. One had to be conversant in the Bradshaw style in order to get around. This publication led to increased independence – certainly for women such as Braddon whose lifestyle required them to navigate the growing network and take advantage of the opportunities it afforded.

She alights on more than one occasion in Henry Dunbar upon the figure of a lone female traveller, late at night on a platform or in a waiting room. This would seem to contradict popular notions about the nineteenth century and the social proprieties placed upon women; but there is no doubting the frequency and normality of solo female travellers from the earliest days of the railways. Something about Braddon’s descriptions resonates again of personal experience. From Chapter 42:

‘There was a porter asleep upon his truck on the platform, and there was one solitary young female sitting upon a bench against the wall, with her boxes and bundles gathered around her, and an umbrella and a pair of clogs on her lap.’

I think we can recognise this figure as Braddon, the young actress on tour. The bundles and boxes around her, the amount of luggage she is carrying, is indicative of the profession she is engaged in. In order to be even partially successful on the Victorian stage, actors and actresses had to supply their own costumes out of their wages. This meant collecting a lot of gear that would serve them for the different roles they would be called upon to inhabit, and often their ownership of the correct costume meant they could be cast in that role, irrespective of actual talent. In all fairness, actors and actresses only got to a certain point in their career thanks to their flexibility and fluency in the different parts. Many of these parts were ‘stock’ characters of the melodrama or popular comedy and so costumes could be interchangeable. The pair of clogs is something of a clue, as they were part of the ensemble for playing a rustic heroine, perhaps the role of Eily in Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn.

Figure One: The hustle and bustle of the nineteenth-century platform, William Powell, The Railway Station (1862)

In Braddon’s unpublished short story, Circumambulatory, from about 1858 in the Braddon Archive, she tells of three actors and an actress, Hypatia, who, during the closed season in town, decide to embark upon a mini-tour of the provinces. For this they must pack, and Hypatia’s idea of essentials to go on tour consist of her lapdog (Punch), her canary bird in its cage, and a large assemblage of hatboxes, carpet bags, packets, parcels, and suitcases. One of her colleagues in this small and close-knit company, the Zoophyte (thus named for his ‘sponging’ nature), is entrusted with accounting for these items at every stage of their journey. It becomes an expedition in juggling and transporting the precious belongings intact, with Hypatia fretting along the way that something or other has been left behind. By the time they arrive at the small country station in Sussex they realise too late that their attempt at finding small low-key venues has been fruitless, and once the porters have constructed a sort of ‘rampart’ of their possessions on the platform, the Zoophyte has had enough:

“And now,” said the Zoophyte, clambering over a wall of trunks & boxes & parcels, “now I wash my hands of your goods & chattels, I wash my hands of your eccentric canine quadruped of foreign principles, & perhaps revolutionary politics. I shake the dust of your winged fowl from the tropical islands in the neighbourhood of St. Martin’s Lane, off my feet, & I go to find a hostelry at which they sell beer & strong drinks.”

Gabrielle Malcolm is the Visiting Research Fellow in English at the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers, Canterbury Christ Church University. Her work there is concerned with the investigation of the Mary Braddon Archive, a major collection of primary source material from the life of the novelist, her family, and associates. Gabrielle has published on Braddon in Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, The Dickensian, and the University of Leeds’ Working Papers in Victorian Studies. Her books include Mary Braddon’s Circe with The Sensation Press, Writing Women of the Fin-de-Siecle: Authors of Change (McMillan, 2011), and within her other field of Shakespeare Studies, Locating Shakespeare in the 21st Century (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2012). She is also a reviewer with Victoriographies and The Latchkey. She lives in Wiltshire with her family, near the beautiful city of Bath. Gabrielle tweets @gabymalcolm.


  1. Thank you for a very interesting piece. I should be ashamed to admit that I knew nothing about Henry Dunbar, even though it is relevant to my interest in things Northern and itinerant. I have now got a copy and will read it forthwith.

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