Wendy Parkins

in Victorian Literature

ISBN: 9780199799558
Published online April 2012 | | DOI:

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Arguably the defining characteristic of the 19th century, mobility seems omnipresent in Victorian literature as narrative device, symbol, or merely descriptive residue. The movement of people and things—whether due to the new technologies of transport or the demographic drift brought about by industrialization—repeatedly attracted the attention of writers, providing opportunities for sensational plot twists, sentimental partings, or uncanny encounters. The pace and scale of Victorian mobility seemed to find a particularly potent symbol in The Railway: from Bleak House to Middlemarch, Lady Audley’s Secret to Jude the Obscure, the railway was a force of disruption that recast social relations in ways that could be depicted as liberatory or destructive, depending on the author’s perspective. Less spectacular forms of mobility, however, were also a source of inspiration and incident for Victorian writers. The urban rambler, for instance, took many literary forms over the course of the century—from George Augustus Sala’s articles in Household Words to Charlotte Mew’s short story “Passed”—and the mobility associated with urban spectatorship has become a dominant theme in scholarship and criticism of the Victorian period (see The Flâneur and Gender and Mobility). The bicycle, too, warrants mention as a new form of mobility in this period that became a byword for women’s independence, as the caricatures of women cyclists in the pages of Punch make clear. The Victorian era also witnessed the rise of mass tourism and travel, from the day trips that new rail networks across Britain made possible for industrial workers to the beginnings of package tours and the democratization of foreign travel to the Continent and beyond. Underpinning the movement of people and things was, of course, the British Empire, instigating the mobility of populations, imperial forces and expeditions, and the circulation of capital and commodities. It is not surprising, then, that over the past few decades scholars of Victorian literature have emphasized the close links between mobility and modernity. If certain themes and preoccupations have dominated scholarship—the figure of the flâneur, most notably, as the much-contested embodiment of urban modernity—studies of Victorian mobility have also reflected the emergence of trends in scholarship such as an emphasis on gender and sexuality. More recently, the insights of postcolonial theory have been brought to bear on the movement of people, things, and capital that resulted from the expansion and consolidation of the British Empire in this period. This work on the movement of objects between metropole and margin has also intersected with a resurgent interest in material culture and the history of emotions.

Article.  6875 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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