- Women and the Railway, 1850–1914by Anna Despotopoulou, and: Transport in British Fiction: Technologies of Movement, 1840–1940ed. by Adrienne E. Gavin and Andrew F. Humphries
In the last decade or so, a plethora of studies have taken up topics related to Victorian mobility, transportation, travel, tourism, and forms and experiences of temporality and spatiality. The expansion of digital archives and databases today has resulted in an unprecedented amount of primary documents, many still to be excavated. Yet, current work on Victorian transport is still trying to catch up to the profound critical interventions introduced by Wolfgang Schivelbusch's The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century(1977), which situates the study of nineteenth-century railway transportation within a cultural materialist paradigm. For Schivelbusch, the railway network introduced profound transformations not only in the movement of bodies across space but also in the phenomenological experiences of modern life. As a symbol of modernity, the railway network in Britain resulted in both democratization of mobility and newly-discovered fears about the monstrous speeds and perils of modern industrialization. While Victorian studies scholars since Schivelbusch tend to situate transportation within less totalizing microcosms of thought, it seems that all research on Victorian transport must now begin with Schivelbusch's dialectic of simultaneous democratic expansion and cultural anxiety. Given the critical preoccupation with transport networks in current work in the social sciences, we might ask the question: where can scholarship on Victorian transport go after Schivelbusch?
Schivelbusch's materialist context frequently serves as a limitation to the breadth and scope of recent work on Victorian transport. Scholarship of the last few years seems at times content to merely echo Schivelbusch's claims about the dialectic tensions between emancipatory progress and anxiety-inducing catastrophe in modern transport networks. One of the finest of recent scholarly interventions in studies of the railway, Anna Despotopoulou's Women and the Railway, 1850–1915is an exception to this trend because of its decision to push literary analysis of the Victorian period toward postmodern theories of space and geography. This is a crucial step that should be lauded. The book's chapters on railway speed and railway space and time are indebted to Schivelbusch, but they part ways provocatively through application of Michel de Certeau's theoretical speculations on railway incarceration to the study of nineteenth-century women's experiences on the rails. Embracing de Certeau's short chapter on rail travel in The Practice of Everyday Life [End Page 355](1984) and theories of spatial geography by Henri Lefebvre, Marc Augé, Tim Cresswell, and Doreen Massey, Despotopoulou argues that the railway provided women travelers "opportunities for resistance to ideology, not in any revolutionary way but through one's everyday, quotidian, thoughts, fantasies, and activities" (14). The railway became a site of "contestational practices" and thus included an openness that defies the otherwise closed, heavily regulated and demarcated spaces of the railway compartment itself (14).
What separates Despotopoulou's thesis from current scholarship in Victorian studies are its claims that, first, such practices are by no means heroic and, second, women's internalizations of railway experience "defy the rigid standardisation of time, precision, and punctuality that train travel required" (160). Literary and journalistic narratives of women's experiences on the rails throughout the century indicate a persistent sense of the everyday and the ephemeral articulated as a "socio-political and psychological adventure" (16). Despotopoulou's chapters are impressive in their documentation and analytic interpretation of a wide range of Victorian primary sources from novels and short stories to newspaper articles and periodical illustrations. Refusing to limit chapters to individual readings of a particular text or a select range of texts, the book takes an expansive view of the Victorian era's accounts of women's experiences on the rails and the ways in which those...