- Writing the Stage Coach Nation: Locality on the Move in Nineteenth-Century British Literature by Ruth Livesey
During a “humdrum” railway journey through France, described in The Innocents Abroad (1869), a character recollects a stage-coach journey from Missouri to California: “two thousand miles of ceaseless rush and rattle and clatter, by night and by day, and never a weary moment, never a lapse of interest.” Mark Twain’s narrator belongs to the generation that idealized the days of traveling stage-by-stage from locality to locality, never wearying of event and encounter, and regretting the demise of the coach as it was rendered obsolete by the onset of steam technology. As Ruth Livesey demonstrates in Writing the Stage Coach Nation, the gradual transition from road to rail travel, from the 1830s onwards, was far-reaching in many spheres: social, historical, political and literary. Certainly, it was a process that continued to engage Dickens’s literary imagination until the early 1860s. Exploring the work of novelists and journalists from Walter Scott to Thomas Hardy, Livesey examines the ways in which the stage-coach was envisioned as a figure that communicated a sense of national belonging, conveyed through the experience of intensely-felt locality.
Writing the Stage Coach Nation will appeal to many Quarterly readers as Livesey focuses more on Dickens than on any of his contemporaries, devoting one chapter to The Pickwick Papers (1836–37) and a second to Martin Chuzzlewit (1842–44). Livesey educes in Pickwick Dickens’s paradoxical vision of energetic journeying that allows travelers to feel at home even when on the move, while also proposing an almost utopian vision of a nation liberated from class hierarchy. There is, however, little that is “warm and fuzzy” about the stage-coach world of Chuzzlewit (132), since it contains Dickens’s ominous vision of Britain in the future, of its land and its people being ruthlessly reshaped by the demand for speed at all costs.
Firm scholastic foundations underpin Livesey’s thesis; she engages with numerous critics and theorists, and is meticulous and generous in her referencing. She starts with Ian Baucom’s premise of nationhood emerging out of locality, then draws on Nicholas Dames’s notion of nostalgia, and Alison Landsberg’s concept of “prosthetic memory;” she molds and evolves these and other ideas to forge a model for elucidating the nation through the figure of the stage-coach. Livesey analyses action which is set in what she calls the “just past,” that is, “neither in the present nor in a definitively historical epoch but, rather, in a past of collective memory” and she positions the implied reader in “a place and time just seeming to slip out of reach” (3). She convincingly makes the case that the affect of nineteenth-century nostalgia is rooted in the spatial rather than the temporal, and that in the Victorian [End Page 270] literary imagination the stagecoach system provided “a sort of prosthetic replacement” that addressed a deep yearning for home in a vigorously mobile society (6). By the work of memory, affect, and imagination, the stage-coach in literature evokes the sense of being at home, or “being-in-place” within the abstract space of the modern nation state (12).
In her reading of Pickwick, Livesey provides historical, political and pictorial evidence to support her presentation of Dickens’s creation of a world with its own temporal and social fluidity. Although set in the “just past,” the action is synchronized with the times of the year in which the serialized parts appeared, generating a disorienting sense of immediacy. With a corresponding sense of freedom, the stage coach interior ignores social hierarchies: “master squeezes next to talkative servant and learns his version of the world” (90). Whilst on the move, the vehicle becomes “a site of imagined national unity” (109). As demonstrated by her thoughts on Wellerisms, Livesey’s dissection of the micro in Dickens’s language further elucidates the macro of her argument. For example, she suggests that Wellerist knowledge and speech...