Dickens and the Railways | University of Oxford
Dickens and the Railways

Dickens and the Railways

It might not be the first connection to leap to mind, but Dickens and the railways are actually intimately connected. In this short podcast, Professor Stephen Gill from Lincoln College talks about how the greatest novelist of his time was fascinated by the greatest transport phenomenon of the same period.

The speed and scale of change brought about by the development of Britain's railway network was astonishing — and it also made new possibilities of action for writers. Dickens’ stories were littered with references to the positive impacts of the infrastructure: giving a nod to both the engineering feats required, and the more human elements, too. Indeed, he made many an observation of drivers, stokers, porters, ticket inspector and the like — most notably in his set of short stories Mugby Junction.

Dickens was, however, attentive to all aspects of the railways, both good and bad. As a journalist he aired views with which many of us would still agree today. In 1960, for instance, he explained at some length that refreshment rooms in railway stations behaved as if they never expected to serve a single passenger, stocking "the kind of stuff you can't eat". His experiences of "stale sponge cakes that turn to sand in the mouth" compare, almost directly, with the abominations we all face in railway stations and motorway services around the country to this very day.

There is, of course, far more to be unearthed, but you'll have to listen to Professor Gill's talk to learn about the rest. You can listen to Dickens' Railways on the University Podcast website.