Dickens and the Railways

David Mitchell | February 16, 2018


The Ottoline Club met on 5th December 2017 in the Archive for a fifth-anniversary talk by Anthony Grayling on “Mugby Junction”.

Those present were: Anthony Grayling (Master), Catherine Brown (Faculty of English), George Zouros (Faculty of Economics), Olly Ayers (Faculty of History), Marianna Koli (Faculty of Economics), Daniel Swift (Faculty of English), Sebastian Ille (Faculty of Economics), Naomi Goulder (Faculty of Philosophy), Callum Barrell (Faculty of Politics & International Relations), Charlotte Grant (Faculty of English), Christoph Schuringa (Faculty of Philosophy), Fred Pelard (Visiting Fellow), Ioannis Votsis (Faculty of Philosophy), Mark Fabian (Visitig Fellow) and David Mitchell (Faculty of Philosophy).


Mugby Junction is an 1866 collection of short stories by Charles Dickens and others. In the first story of the collection Dickens introduces us to ‘the Gentleman for Nowhere’, who at around the age of fifty abandons a dreary office job in London and takes the train to Mugby Junction, where he alights and considers which onward line to take. Thirty-odd years after the building of the first passenger line, Anthony reflected, the railways had become familiar enough to be used in this way as a metaphor for the course of a life. The nineteenth-century spread of the railways could indeed be compared with that of the printing press in the fifteenth, in terms of rapidity and the generating of unforeseen consequences. It brought in new systems of taxation, and many other economic and legal changes. It changed politics too, as with the connecting of London with MPs’ constituencies by the daily up and down trains, or ‘parliamentaries’, provided for in an 1844 Act of which William Gladstone was prime mover.


Dickens’s depiction of the traveller’s situation at Mugby Junction was, Anthony suggested, existentialist avant la lettre. Was it more similar to the thought of Sartre, in which the meaningless can be rendered meaningful by fully aware choice, or that of Camus, in which life’s absurdity cannot be negated but only courageously confronted? Perhaps the way Dickens’s plot continues, with inward realisations at the junction itself, is actually better described as Stoic.


Anthony concluded by comparing with the spread of the printing press and the railways that of the mobile phone since the 1970s. Overall, the new technologies of information and communication are changing lives and societies with great rapidity and in unobvious as well as obvious ways. Another case in point, Olly suggested in discussion, is that of twentieth-century mass production: Henry Ford’s initiatives in the direction of standardising not just production methods but the workforce itself led in ways that were unanticipated but are clear in retrospect to mass unionisation and the rebalancing of employer-employee relations.


Christoph recalled that with the building of the railways the multiplicity of local mean times around Britain soon gave way to a single mean time for the whole country. Might not this have had an effect in some ways similar to that of the mobile phone for us on the relations of space and time in the imagination, in making vivid the fact of things being far distant and different and yet simultaneous? Callum cited Mill’s writing to Tocqueville about the effect of the railways and the printing press in bringing people together figuratively ‘into one agora’ – and thus helping to constitute, as Callum put it, a single imagined polis.


The other aspect of Anthony’s talk which excited debate was what he said in estimation of Dickens’s literary merits. Catherine and Charlotte, while agreeing with Anthony that the novels are rather often marred by sentimentality, were both keen to defend Dickens’s characters from the charge of caricature, not so much because they do generally develop greatly – though Catherine mentioned the changes in Bill Sykes after he kills Nancy as a fine instance of Dickens’s powers in that direction – as because the novels are better seen as responses to the contemporary theatre – Charlotte observed how strikingly well they can work in performance. Catherine also differed from Anthony as regards improbable coincidences in Dickens’s plots: they may have had something to do with his writing for serial publication, but they can read as having point in other important ways, whether in relation to the theatre or for instance as responses to Darwin. There was general appreciative consent, however, that a passage from Dickens’s The Uncommercial Traveller about a shipwreck on the Pembrokeshire coast, which Anthony had selected and which Catherine read out, was an immensely vivid and powerfully involving piece of writing.



David Mitchell

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy