Motive Force

Jonathan Grossman, Charles Dickens’s Networks: Public Transport and the Novel

Oxford University Press, 272pp, £25.00, ISBN 9780199644193

reviewed by Gee Williams

There’s a wonderful fantasy engraving run across this book’s front and back covers entitled ‘Train of Coaches’. Depicted is a series of coach bodies, their horses uncoupled but complete with coachmen and buglers, trunks piled on roofs, Regency bucks and women of fashion gazing out beneath elegant blinds: each is set upon a primitive goods wagon, the whole lot being drawn by a steam locomotive. The illustration is from 1823 (only six years after the death of Jane Austen, fiction’s greatest ever annotator of the parochial, the confined). But, as Grossman points out, two more years after Thomas Gray’s vision of what we now all revere and revile as the train, ‘the first truly operative steam-line, the Stockton-Darlington, opened.’

Grossman uses such images as these to make a strong case for his thesis. It is that a new transport system changed the nature of experience for a slice of England’s population (not all - the poor would continue to limp along like Little Nell, as foot-traffic of Planet Austen) and that this altered perception of time and propinquity stoked a fictional engine. In the hands of a Charles Dickens it turned the novel into the hot intellectual property it remained for nearly the next two centuries.

Grossman gathers his material convincingly. At every stop along the line we’re offered something both fresh and useful for the journey. Early on a nod to the horrors of horse-drawn transport pre-springs - wisely choosing to quote Dickens’ unbetterable description - is followed by an explanation of why McAdam’s new metalled surface was such a boon. (It offered the prospect of lightness and speed, twin gods of automobile designers still). But it is when he moves into the Dickens’ novels themselves he becomes most persuasive.

Faced with the entire product of another hyperactive machine, Grossman rightly selects his first full length work for close study, one in which horsepower and steam butt up against each other. Pickwick Papers is Dickens’ On the Road. Here a subtle case is made for the transformative action of travel (courtesy of a public transport network) on nothing less than human consciousness: ‘when what was once six hours away became two, far became closer, and that contraction of distance produced an expanded sense of people’s shared space, extending collective proximity.’

There’s a lively broadening out of theme with a discussion of Dicken’s international novel Little Dorrit. But the treatment of The Old Curiosity Shop shows Grossman at his very best, with an examination of narrative technique that’s both forensic and creative. It highlights the implications of writerly choices, but richly, non-reductively. It should send the reader back and forth between the chapter ‘On Tragedy’s Tracks’ and the original text often enough to promote motion sickness.

Public transport and Dickens: it could easily have been a case of chocolate beer, a previously untried combination and for excellent reasons. Not so: here’s a novelist whose restless nature forced him into movement of every type, walking half an hour a day for each hour spent at his desk, who braved the filthy Thames to swim from Petersham to Richmond Bridge and whose freak survival of the Staplehurst rail disaster would overshadow his later life. In the 200th anniversary year of his birth, Grossman’s book is a stimulating contribution to the Dickens Roadshow.
Gee Williams is a poet, playwright, novelist and broadcaster. Her latest literary thriller, Desire Line, will be published by Parthian in June.