Tony Williams, editor of the book Dickens on Railways, picks out his favourite quotes from the great Victorian author, on train travel.
Charles Dickens was fascinated by technological progress and its potential for good — and he was lucky enough to live through the first great Railway Age, when Britain’s landscape was re-made, and trains could whisk him to France and across America on reading tours.
He referred to the act of writing as 'getting up steam' and talked of 'blazing away' when the creative fit was on him. John Ruskin described Dickens as being of 'the steam whistle party'. From his novels to his short stories, essays and letters — even after-dinner speeches — Dickens wrote about railways frequently, and with enormous vigour.
1. from The Individuality of Locomotives
All Locomotive Engines are low-spirited in damp and foggy weather. They have a great satisfaction in their work when the air is crisp and frosty. At such a time they are very cheerful and brisk; but they strongly object to haze and Scotch mists. These are points of character on which they are all united.
2. from Railway Dreaming
I am never sure of time or place upon a Railroad. I can't read, I can't think, I can't sleep — I can only dream. Rattling along in this railway carriage in a state of luxurious confusion, I take it for granted I am coming from somewhere, and going somewhere else… I know nothing about myself — for anything I know, I may be coming from the Moon.
3. What will become the West Coast Main Line, destroys Dickens's old school on the corner of Hampstead Road in Our School (1851)
We went to look at it, only this last Midsummer, and found that the Railway had cut it up root and branch. A great trunk-line had swallowed the playground, sliced away the schoolroom, and pared off the corner of the house: which, thus curtailed of its proportions, presented itself, in a green stage of stucco, profilewise towards the road, like a forlorn flat-iron without a handle, standing on end.
4. The railway station, from The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices
The Station was either totally unconscious, or wildly raving. By day, in its unconscious state, it looked as if no life could come to it, as if it were all rust, dust, and ashes — as if the last train for ever, had gone without issuing any Return-Tickets — as if the last Engine had uttered its last shriek and burst... By night… the station was not so much as visible… Then, the Furies would be seen, waving their lurid torches up and down the confused perspectives of embankments and arches — would be heard, too, wailing and shrieking. Then, the Station would be full of palpitating trains…
5. Dickens is caught up in the fatal Staplehurst rail crash (1865)
Suddenly we were off the rail and beating the ground as the car of a half-emptied balloon might. The old lady cried out 'My God!' and the young one screamed. I caught hold of them both… and said: 'We can't help ourselves, but we can be quiet and composed. Pray don't cry out.' The old lady immediately answered, 'Thank you. Rely upon me. Upon my soul, I will be quiet.' The young lady said in a frantic way, 'Let us join hands and die friends.' We were then all tilted down together in a corner of the carriage, and stopped. I said to them thereupon: 'You may be sure nothing worse can happen. Our danger must be over. Will you remain here without stirring, while I get out of the window?'.
6. Tony Weller avoids a marriage proposal in Master Humphrey's Clock
I wos a goin' down to Birmingham by the rail, and I wos locked up in a close carriage vith a living widder. Alone we wos; the widder and me wos alone; and I believe it wos only because we WOS alone and there wos no clergyman in the conwayance, that that 'ere widder didn't marry me afore ve reached the half-way station.
7. Mrs Gamp on railway procreation in Martin Chuzzlewit
I have heard of one young man, a guard upon a railway, only three year opened… as is godfather at this present time to six-and-twenty blessed little strangers, equally unexpected, and all on 'em named after the Ingeins as was the cause.
8. The railway revolution in Dombey and Son
To and from the heart of this great change, all day and night, throbbing currents rushed and returned incessantly like its life's blood. Crowds of people and mountains of goods, departing and arriving scores upon scores of times in every four-and-twenty hours, produced a fermentation in the place that was always in action… Night and day the conquering engines rumbled at their distant work, or, advancing smoothly to their journey's end, and gliding like tame dragons into the allotted corners grooved out to the inch for their reception, stood bubbling and trembling there, making the walls quake, as if they were dilating with the secret knowledge of great powers yet unsuspected in them, and strong purposes not yet achieved.
9. Railway food was always terrible - from Refreshments for Travellers (1860)
You are going off by railway, from any Terminus. You have twenty minutes for dinner, before you go. You want your dinner, and, like Doctor Johnson, sir, you like to dine. You present to your mind, a picture of the refreshment-table at that terminus… and your words are these: 'I cannot dine on stale sponge-cakes that turn to sand in the mouth. I cannot dine on shining brown patties, composed of unknown animals within, and offering to my view the device of an indigestible star-fish in leaden pie-crust without. I cannot dine on a sandwich that has long been pining under an exhausted receiver. I cannot dine on barley-sugar. I cannot dine on Toffee.' You repair to the nearest hotel…
Dickens on Railways: A Great Novelist's Travels by Train, edited by Tony Williams, is available from Safe Haven Books, RRP £14.99