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Railways and the Victorian Imagination. (Reviews: modern Britain).

Railways and the Victorian Imagination, by Michael J. Freeman. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1999. vi, 264 pp. $45.00 U.S. (cloth).

In the preface to his splendid book on railways in Victorian culture, Michael Freeman confesses to having spent school holidays on the ends of station platforms spotting (or "copping") trains. Some of that fascination obviously lingers. But the author promises not to conduct yet another study of the Victorian railway per se. Accounts of how tracks were laid, cuttings dug, stocks jobbed, companies amalgamated, urban fabrics reconfigured will be included but only to show how "deeply embedded" such activities were "in the evolving structures of Victorian society." Railways will be treated as "cultural metaphor." An attempt will be made to recover how they were "experienced" by those who lived through the "Railway Age." "Discursive insularity" will be avoided. The object will be "understanding" rather than mere "explanation."

An ambitious enterprise, not entirely realized. The "political fabric" hardly receives its share of attention. How the diversion of long distance travel from roads to rails affected patterns of leisure is not explored at any length. Next to nothing is said about the part steam vessels played in developing a leisure industry, in spreading the communications revolution world-wide during the "Age of Steam." But it would be petulant to go on about what is neglected, so wide is the frame, so imaginative are the cultural connections.

This richness is particularly evident in Freeman's treatment of the 1830s and 1840s when sudden advances in transport technology coincided with Chartism, famine, the furor over Parliamentary reform, and a mounting sense of social and intellectual crisis, this concurrence quickening awareness of radical change, deepening the consequent anxieties and, at the same time, giving apparent substance to faith in progress through "improvements."

Both sides of this paradox were apparent earlier in the century when what Carlyle called "the war with rude nature" was already well underway. Then, in a remarkable burst of rail building energy, engineers began cutting straight swaths across the lay of the land. They exposed rock formations and their fossil contents, giving support to uniformitarianism and weakening faith in biblical creationism. Soon after came the rush of locomotives, conquering space and imposing standard railway time on the natural rhythms of rural communities. "Natural" or "closed circuit" economies were undermined, the food and energy chains of cities were stretched ever further out, greatly encouraging the production of goods for exchange. For the hopes and anxieties stirred by these upheavals the railway served as focus, symbol, metaphor.

This approach allows the author to make claims for the central importance of the railway in every aspect of life without seeming a crude reductionist. The conceptual tool that he employs so effectively comes close to the "Cultural determinism" of Raymond Williams's Marxism and Literature. This is not a determinism, Freeman writes, "that occurs in relation to a static mode of production, but as part of a more active, conscious historical experience, grounded in human agency, and yet enframed within a clear set of historical conditions" (p. 99). He then uses this conceptual framework to examine a range of topics: "production of nature" and its effect on the early Victorian intellectual environment, the culture of capital, growth of money markets, separation of ownership and management, the articulation of class, reconstruction of cities and expansion of suburbs, alterations in the sense of space and territory, changes in labour organization and culture, uses of railway images in education and social reproduction, and their representation in art and music.

This method short-circuits arguments about whether the railway was a prime mover or merely an agent of economic forces. The factory mode of production needed to draw labour and production from the countryside and concentrate it within a restricted space. Industrial capitalism benefitted from a rapid circulation of capital in commodity form, from easy access to capital markets, from the centralization and combination of capital, and from a public conditioned to accept its values. Freeman argues that railways not only "facilitated" this process but were "vital means" in reordering Victorian cities, institutions, and values. Thus it was neither railways nor the needs of capitalists that, for example, shaped the nineteenth-century city but the two working together within specific cultural and political restraints and facilities. Consequences were often as unpredictable as they were complex. Speculative developers laid out suburban tracts and railway companies responded by building stations. Those stations then became male gathering places. The diurnal movement in and out, governed by the timetable, dictated meal times and other family rituals, with profound effects on the consciousness of suburbanites. Thus the architecture and dynamics of nineteenth-century suburbia cannot be reduced to the imperatives of railway engineers and managers nor can they be understood without tracing the connections between the railway and every aspect of suburban life. This tracing Freeman performs with care and virtuosity.

Another virtue of his method is the opportunity it gives for paradox. Railway travel extended the experience of long-distance movement (and the perceptual changes this particular method of conveyance brought about) to the many and, at the same time, heightened class consciousness. Implementation of the wishes of the higher orders to avoid close contact brought about a kind of apartheid in public transport, even on station platforms. Muscle power built rights of way for a radical new technology. The horse population grew as the rails were laid. Flight-like speed of travel annihilated space, erasing "the old absolutes of location," while railway managers were busy compartmentalizing space, forming "railway states" with distinct territories, loyalties, and insignia. Finally, steam railways, once carriers of commodities, turned in present-day Britain into "landscapes of consumption," nostalgic reminders of "what, for some, was a surer and more disciplined age" (p. 243).

Bentham warned against the fallacy of excessive laudation. But how can one avoid this error when every new page delights the eye, when text and beautifully reproduced illustrations constantly compliment one another? Note, for example, page 169. Below an elaboration of one of the main themes, the "production of nature," is a stunning, 1911, photograph showing loaded coal cars stretching across a Liverpool railway yard to the horizon. One sees what Freeman means by distinguishing between "explanation" and "understanding."
James Winter
University of British Columbia
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Author:Winter, James
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2001
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