Trains of thought for artists and poets

Railways and the Victorian Imagination
March 3, 2000

As the author of this carefully footnoted and beautifully illustrated volume states in his introduction, the history of the English railway is "probably among the most prolifically researched of all facets of the 19th century". He does not set out, therefore, to add to the shelves yet another volume of railway history on conventional lines. Nonetheless, there is nothing new in his "central ambition", which he describes as "re-engaging the railway with the age of which it was part".

Michael Freeman himself is a geographer, and he ends his introduction with a reference to the "emphasis" of his book on the "spatio-temporality of experience". What other kinds of experience are there? As a defence against the foreseen charge that his book has an uneven temporal and geographical coverage, more or less leaving out late Victorian England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland, it is thoroughly unconvincing. It is best to consider Freeman's book not as an "imaginative history of the railway" but as an informative and stimulating examination of the "cultural relations" of the railway.

He talks in his introduction of examining the railway as a "cultural metaphor", but does not deal systematically with the multitude of British railway metaphors. It would be interesting to compare them with metaphors of the highway and the automobile and with American railroad metaphors, some of which we share. Freeman notes how the image of flight was pervasive in the pages of early railway commentators, quoting as an example two lines from William Pickering's Railway Eclogues of 1846, in which a railway stoker tries to persuade a "respectable young lady" to elope with him:

"Quit, quit with me this antiquated scene,/And fly on railroad wings to Gretna Green." There was certainly spatio-temporal imagination there, if not experience.

The best railway metaphor to apply to Freeman's study is "getting up steam", for in a compelling two-page autobiographical preface he explains how his own imagination came to be fired by railways. His father gave him a whole variety of model trains to which he added each birthday; and as a teenager he took up trainspotting. He still recalls "the exhilaration of seeing, hearing and smelling a crack steam-hauled express in full motion - from a position high up on one of the massive embankments of Joseph Locke's dramatically engineered London and Southampton line as it cut through the chalk downs north of Winchester. Here even today [with, of course, no steam] one can still see mile after mile of straight double track, merging at a point on the horizon."

In the eight chapters of Freeman's book, the last, "Representations in art", is most accessible to a reader who has not shared his early experience. Railways as straight lines fascinated printmakers and painters, and Freeman provides excellent illustrations of their work. At the same time, railway speed offered what he calls "a time-space convergence" that it was difficult for them to capture. One did.

Turner's famous Rain, Steam and Speed deserves all the attention that Freeman gives to it, although sadly he leaves out the hare. He is right to consider the painting alongside Turner's The Fighting Téméraire and The Burning of the Houses of Parliament . A comparative reference to Manet's The Railroad , which contained no locomotive but merely its driving force and its product, steam, is apposite, too, but it might have been extended to encompass impressionism more generally. It was in the late 19th century that railways caught the impressionist imagination just as aeroplanes and automobiles were to capture the futurist imagination.

Along with illustrations, there are references throughout to pictorial representation - as there are to the poetry of the railway. Many of the poets were concerned almost solely with steam, and some, like William Morris, were negative: "Forget six counties overhung with smoke,/ Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke.../Think rather of the packhorse on the down".

There is no Tennyson or Whitman in this volume, nor any William McGonagall, the "Stuffed Owl" poet, whose "Tay Bridge Disaster", characterised by bathos, not rhetoric, was one imaginative response to a terrible railway disaster in 1880. A delayed response to the disaster was a novel by Max Eyth, 20 years later. Imagination can never be contained within years or frontiers. As an anonymous poet of 1846 put it, railways helped to break down "the barriers that since earth began have made mankind the enemy of man".

Lord Briggs was formerly provost, Worcester College, Oxford.

Railways and the Victorian Imagination

Author - Michael Freeman
ISBN - 0 300 07970 2
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 264

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