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  • Fictions of Order in the Timetable:Railway Guides, Comic Spoofs, and Lady Audley’s Secret
  • Beth Seltzer (bio)

In mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), Robert Audley consults “a volume of Bradshaw” in order to find his way to the isolated asylum where he will place Lady Audley, the woman who bigamously married his uncle and, he believes, killed her first husband to conceal her crime (382). Robert learns that

Villebrumeuse lay out of the track of all railway traffic, and was only approachable by diligence from Brussels. The mail for Dover left London Bridge at nine o’clock, and could be easily caught by Robert and his charge, as the seven o’clock up-train from Audley reached Shoreditch at a quarter past eight. Travelling by the Dover and Calais route, they would reach Villebrumeuse by the following afternoon or evening.


This passage is characteristic of a novel that is unusually saturated with precise travel times. We discover, for example, that “an express for London left Wildernsea at a quarter-past one” (251), that Lady Audley “started for London by the 12:40 train” (142), and that when Robert misses the Liverpool express by half an hour, he must “wait an hour and a quarter for a slow train to take him to his destination” (97). References to specific times underpin and at times obsessively haunt the text, calling us repeatedly away from the fictional narrative of the sensation novel and to the tabular conventions of the timetable.

Nicholas Daly, in Literature, Technology, and Modernity, 1860–2000, calls the sensation novel a “punctual form, depending on accurate time-keeping and scrupulous attention to the calendar … the first subgenre in which a Bradshaw’s railway schedule and a watch become necessary to the principal characters” (47). Daly’s argument that sensation fiction retrained readers to “accommodate the shocks of mechanical modernity” (33) forges a strong critical link between the sensation novel and the train, one that reappears in more recent work such as Matthew Wilson Smith’s “Victorian Railway Accident and the Melodramatic Imagination” and Louise Lee’s “Lady Audley’s Secret: How Does She Do It? Sensation Fiction’s Technologically Minded Villainesses.” Yet despite this critical interest in train travel and sensation fiction, there has been relatively little consideration of Daly’s point [End Page 47] about the punctual, time-centred nature of the sensation novel, and, by extension, the overly specific times in Lady Audley’s Secret. This timekeeping ties the sensation novel not just to the train but to the seemingly unsensational genre of the railway timetable.

The railway timetable was seen by Victorians as “a marker of the modern” because it was a “rational, precise, abstract representation” of the railway, itself a symbol (perhaps the primary symbol) of Victorian modernity (Esbester, “Designing Time” 103). One Victorian critic, comparing the Bradshaw’s of the 1830s with that of the 1880s, suggests the contrast between them is an effective way to “estimate at a glance the wonderful progress that has been made in the Victorian era” (“The First Railway Timetable” 4). A triumph of the Victorian drive toward classification, timetables contain large quantities of information in a condensed, orderly, and sensible form, one seemingly at odds with the disorderly content of the sensation novel.

Yet, paradoxically, in the press and literature of mid-century, timetables are described in figurative or hyperbolic language, associated with madness, and represented as constantly in danger of breaking down conceptually and sliding into the irrational. Genres such as the comic spoof story and the railway guidebook reveal Victorian skepticism of the primary fictions inherent in the timetable form—the fictions of organization and usability, the fiction that the timetable represents the real, and the fiction that detailed information denotes human meaning. Thus, these fictions of the timetable ultimately reveal the fictive nature of the timetable itself. When we apply this fuller reading of the timetable discourse to Lady Audley’s Secret, we discover the novel’s self-reflexive skepticism about its own plot’s epistemological processes and procedures.

railway schedules, railway guides

Had he lived a century earlier, Robert Audley might never have thought of the time...


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