Book review: They knew their station in life

Railways and the Victorian Imagination by Michael Freeman Yale pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
There are some things a don has to keep dark, in order to retain an air of academic authority. You can't be taken seriously as a Ruskin scholar, for instance, if it gets around that you dress up as him at weekends. Michael Freeman's illustrated survey of Victorian railway culture opens with this bombshell: "As a young teenager in the mid 1960s, I might have expected that a fascination with trains would quickly fade amid the rebellious youth culture represented by groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Somewhat curiously in hindsight, it did not." For the rest of the book, you're stuck with this image of the bobble-hatted author standing by the Dairy Milk machine on Platform Three, clutching a spiral pad.

Marx - and not Foucault, as is more usual these days - provides a methodological model for Freeman's musings. This approach produces a number of striking and persuasive ideas. The three-tiered carriage-class system, he contends, nurtured a new British class-consciousness. The technological and technocratic triumph of the railway's construction, he notes, ironically required the mobilisation of old-fashioned manual labour on an unprecedented scale. Reckless speculation on railway stocks and shares, he argues, established the railway system as an exemplum of the new economic processes ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. If you want to know about how the train transformed 19th-century capital, then there's no better place to alight than Freeman's book.

But he's much less certain on the changes that the railway effected upon Victorian sensibilities, customs and discourse. He knows his clockwork toys and music hall songs, but his breadth of literary reference is rather narrow. Mr Carker, who commits suicide on the railway in Dombey and Son (1848) gets name-checked, but what about the similar demise of Felix Lopez in Trollope's The Prime Minister (1876)? Or the disfigurement of Isabel Vane in Ellen Wood's East Lynne (1861)? Or the mysterious death on the line in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Wyllard's Weird (1885)? These books would have been read by many Victorians while in transit on the railway system.

The railway and fictional narrative enjoyed a remarkable intimacy in the period, as long journey times on new inter-city routes encouraged passengers to bring novel-reading out of the domestic sphere and into the moving carriage. The activity gave rise to the production of so-called "railway novels": shilling editions of popular fictions. Rather alarmingly, the back covers of these publications often carried advertisements for companies which offered to insure the traveller against death or injury upon the very train she or he was about to board. On the back of Sensational Trials, Chiefly of High Life and Causes Celebres (c.1860), the Railway Passengers Assurance Company offered "pounds 1,000 in Case of Death, Or pounds 6 per Week while laid up by Injury", and encouraged the reader to apply to the station clerk for details - suggesting, outrageously, that employees of the railway companies had a financial interest in their passengers being mangled.

Freeman gives little attention to these texts - a pity, as they offer a good route into understanding another Victorian preoccupation: the psychopathological effects of rail travel. For some observers, the railway carriage was a potentially hysteric zone. Over-stimulating reading matter and physical jolts might conspire to unbalance the mind. Most cases of male hysteria described in French and British medical journals of the time were survivors of rail accidents, labouring under what we would refer to as post-traumatic stress disorder. Outside the clinic, the link between madness and rail travel proved a rich resource for novelists. The hero of Margaret Oliphant's Salem Chapel (1865) suffers a collapse exacerbated by the cross-country pursuit of his abducted sister. The tempo of train travel fuels the homicidal desires of the monomaniac protagonist of Balzac's La Bete Humaine (1890). Less canonically, the villain of the anonymous penny dreadful The Serpent on the Hearth: A Mystery of the New Divorce Court (c.1861) finds his murderous fantasies stoked by a piston-pumping trip to the coast: "On and on the train rushed, taking Faulaton nearer Dover. On it tore ... through the heavy atmosphere of a November night. For Faulaton the locomotion could not be too rapid, nor the clouds too lowering, nor the elements too perturbed or black. All was in keeping with his dark purposes."

Rail travel also offered more obviously pleasurable stimulation. The possibility of casual sex, for instance. The railway companies ensured that the ticket-pricing regime reinscribed the social structure of British society upon the train itself, but that can't have prevented passengers cruising each other within their own compartments. The existence of ladies- only carriages - a fact unrecorded by Freeman - suggests that impropriety occurred in the unsegregated parts of the train. Railway porters, like telegraph boys, had a reputation for obliging gentleman travellers on the production of a silver shilling. And more disturbingly, the Victorian porno classic, Raped in a Railway Carriage - reprinted throughout the 1890s - conjures the closed train compartment as a space in which all sorts of carnal outrages might be perpetrated. It's a subject worth investigating, as it's one of the factors that differentiates the Victorians' experience of rail travel from our own. While dreadful sex crimes still occasionally take place on trains, the British railway long ago ceased to provide opportunities for consensual sexual dalliance. The gum-spotted upholstery, slashed seats and humus of polystyrene cups found on today's railways militate, I'd suggest, against amour. The only sexual experience I've ever had on a train was in the Czech Republic, a country noted for the cleanliness of its rolling stock.

There's no carnal plot in Railways and the Victorian Imagination. So if the Victorians flirted and seduced and bounced up and down on the carriage cloth as they steamed through Brunel's tunnels under Durdham Downs, Freeman has decided to remain silent on the issue. Or at least to keep his bobble hat pulled well down over his eyes.