In 1850, speaking at the Lord Mayor's banquet in London, Prince Albert gave voice to the optimists. 'Nobody who has paid any attention to the peculiar features of the present era,' he said, 'will doubt for a moment that we are living in a period of most wonderful transition, which tends rapidly to accomplish that great end, to which, indeed, all history points—the realization of the unity of mankind.' He reminded his listeners that the Great Exhibition, which would serve as a graphic confirmation of the Prince Consort's words, was soon to open, and with it, 'knowledge acquired becomes at once the property of the community at large.' And thus, 'man is approaching a more complete fulfillment of that great and sacred mission he has to perform in this world.' To him, as to others disposed to see the cheerful side of change, it seemed almost self-evident that their century was one of continuous and triumphant progress.
And it is true; inventors, engineers, natural scientists made the old fantasy of power over nature, articulated as an ideal by Francis Bacon over two centuries earlier, appear more realistic than ever. The organization of, and striking increase in, the number and functions of governmental institutions, though at first often clumsy and inefficient, aimed at the same goal: to underwrite human control over many of the new problems triggered by urbanization and industrialization. Private entrepreneurs—bankers, merchants, factory owners—built international companies, financed railroad networks, opened that glittering bazaar of Victorian life, the department store. So-called ordinary citizens—at least many of them—also benefited from all this activity. Certainly the impressive improvement in the speed, reliability, and inexpensiveness of communication after the great reform of the mails in the 1840s delighted them as much as it did merchant princes.
All this is easily said: it is necessary to enter the minds of those experiencing these changes. Let one major development of the Victorian age stand for the rest. No nineteenth-century invention can convey more impressively than the railroad the Victorians' vertiginous sense of living through a hailstorm of prodigious transformations in their accustomed ways. Early in 1848, just before the fall of his master, Comte Duchatel, Louis Philippe's minister of the interior, described his age as one when 'things move more quickly than they did sixty years ago. Events, like travelers, move by steam.' The railroad proved a triumphant metaphor for this enveloping sense of surprise and insecurity I have mentioned—did it not literally speed up life almost beyond belief? And not just a metaphor; for more and more bourgeois, and for working people as well, it uprooted them from where they lived and how they lived. It radically modernized the transport of goods and people. It ruined some market towns and boosted others. The feeling of having to take in more stimuli than one could readily assimilate—in short, nervousness—was generated as much by that stunning novelty, traveling by train, as anything else.
The humorous hyperbole of Thackeray trying to convey the feeling of just what it was like before the railroad provides a graphic clue to the distance the civilized world had come since the years of Napoleon I. 'We who have lived before railways were made,' he wrote in 1861, 'belong to another world.' He granted that gunpowder and printing had 'tended to modernize' civilization. But no less a shock, the railroad now 'starts the new era.' Those who had lived before its advent were antediluvians, 'like Father Noah and his family out of the Ark. The children will gather round and say to us patriarchs, 'Tell us, grandpa, about the old world.' And we shall mumble our old stories, and we shall drop off one by one, and there will be fewer and fewer of us, and these very old and feeble.' Thackeray is joking, of course, but not only joking.
It is not surprising, in fact characteristic of the time, that the railroad should invade the literary imagination. Anthropomorphism was rampant; the locomotive in particular became a potent, humanlike force. It was a quick and thundering lightning in a poem, 'On the Railroad' (1844), by the minor German poet Luise von Plonnies, or a 'Fierce-throated beauty' in Walt Whitman's 'To a Locomotive in Winter' (1876). Both poets hint, and more than hint, at the erotic energies of the locomotive, energies spelled out more overtly in Jules Claretie's Le train 17 (1905) whose protagonist, a married man who drives this beauty, is really in love with his engine.
More often, though, and quite as appropriate what with frequent and spectacular lethal accidents on which the press liked to dwell in detail, writers saw the locomotive as a demonic menace. More than one fictional character loses his, or her, life under its wheels. Anna Karenina is only the best known among them; Carker, the villain of Dickens's Dombey and Son, is run down and dismembered by a train; and in Zola's La bete humaine, a train decapitates two battling characters at the climax of the novel. This is only a small selection. For a massive majority of Victorians, of course, the mundane realities of the railroad—the ease of communication, the glamour of grand terminals, the chance at speculation, the irritations attached to travel, the realities of traveling in first-, second-, or third-class carriages—were closer to their hearts. But the prominence .of the railroad in fiction attests that it had come to occupy a dominant place in the Victorian mind. For some decades, in fact, it even claimed its own disease, "railway spine," a disorder causing severe back pains after accidents.