The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

Last Update

Talk Synopsis

25 May 2009

Romance and Railways
Dr Jill Murdoch
13 November 2006

It was another full house, with 19 members present on 13th November, when Jill came to give us a slightly unusual talk based on her research at the Institute of Railway Studies at York University. Jill started by warning that there would be few photographs of trains or engines, but she still managed to keep the audience engaged during her fascinating talk.
She commenced with a quote from a recent holiday programme by Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen "Train travel in Ireland has lost none of its romance. It really feels like you are stepping back in time". Since he was at the time travelling in a high-tech train, moving at high speed and containing other modern travellers all going about their ordinary business, this statement when taken at face-value seems totally inaccurate. Yet everyone instinctively understands what he meant.
So, what is meant by "romance and railways"? There are certainly plenty of books in the Museum with "romance" in the title, but little explanation of why it is romantic. The word gets used in some quite surprising settings; Jill quoted from one passage in a Victorian travel journal - "The dishonest side of railway travelling is not so romantic in England as it is overseas". Apparently, the writer felt it far more romantic to be attacked by brigands in the East or Red Indians in the Wild West, than mere ruffians in a carriage on the old LBSCR! The extraordinary use of the word "romance" is not the preserve of railway or travel books - she had come across and interesting monogram in the British Library when making her researches called "Truncheons - their romance and reality" - each to his own, I suppose!
So what does the dictionary tell us about romance? Jill quoted from the Oxford English Dictionary which gives a pretty woolly definition. This is nothing new, even that English wordsmith Samuel Johnson was concerned over the loose use of the word in the 17th Century.
Perhaps the most relevant application of the word is when, according to the OED, it is used "to describe a story, often involving travel, e.g. the Arthurian Stories." It is, perhaps, this use that is meant when we talk of the "Romantic Art" movement of the mid 19th century. But this movement was supposed to have been established as the communion of man and nature. This implies that Railways as new would be despised by the Romantic Artists. Wordsworth as a follower of the movement was known to be anti-rail, but even he, in 1833, wrote a poem describing how railways merged in with the land as if they had always been part of the countryside. However this view didn't last and, in 1844, he wrote his well-know damning poetic indictment of the Lake District Kendal line. Perhaps all is explained if we think of Wordsworth as one of the early Nimbys!
The early Wordsworth views were shared by others. Ralph Waldo Emerson - stated that "When a science is learned in love, and its powers are willed by love, they will appear the supplements and continuation of nature".
Perhaps the epitome of this explanation is the famous romantic painting by Turner "Rail, Steam and Speed", produced in 1844 and showing a train on the then-new GWR crossing Brunel's flat-arched bridge at Maidenhead. Most art critics of the time hated the painting, both because it concentrated on the industrial rather than idyllic and its novel use of blurred images. But the idea fitted the concept of romance as a journey and determination of a quest and it is one of the most popular items in the National Galley. Incidentally, Jill recommended a close-up inspection of the painting because of its amazing detail - far more than you will see in any reproduction.
In Victorian writing, the railways, with their determination to build and operate a public service in the face of challenging opposition, was often compared to the challenges faced by the knights in the Arthurian legends. Ruskin was one Victorian worthy to speak of the locomotive in a comparison with a living creature - a view that many of us share. That most Imperial of all Victorian writers, Rudyard Kipling, even found time to glorify the railway machine in "The King" of 1894.
Even the railway companies themselves seem to have been caught up in this thinking. As an example, the Southern Railway's "King Arthur" class are the most obvious example to cast back to the old romantic stories. It was, however, a well-thought out bit of promotion, hedging its bets for both those customers who yearned for a past golden age, as well as the modern technology of its state-of-the-art locomotive engineering. The 1920s and 1930s posters also draw on the aesthetics of the romantic art, both in UK and overseas.
Nowadays, it seems that any steam engine epitomizes the golden age- i.e. the yearning for something that has been lost. Hence the rise of the heritage railway, which, to many represents Britain at its greatest. Yet when the railways were being built in the early 19th century, the public were complaining in the press that Britain had already lost its pre-eminent position in the world!
Travel and adventure are an essential element of romance. We see this echoed in recent documentaries, such as those of Paul Thoroux and Michael Palin. Perhaps the epitome of this was the original Orient Express, a heritage that the modern-day reinstatement has capitalised on; and there is no more obvious example of this than its Valentine Day journeys, when a concierge is on hand to "pop the question".
Freud associated trains entering tunnels with sexual connotations. The locked compartment of a train compartment was also a new experience for Victorian ladies. At the opposite end of the social spectrum, the vision of people crowded together in 3rd class were considered threatening. Although women travelled alone even then, artists warned of the moral danger to females finding themselves in a carriage alone with a strange male. Abraham Solomon's first version of the encounter in a railway carriage had to be withdrawn and redrawn because of public opinion. In the original a woman is seen talking intimately to young man, while her father is asleep.
The 1899 song "Oh Mr Porter", by Marie Lloyd, reflected the worries of forced male/female meetings on trains. The film "Brief Encounter" also deals with unexpected meetings and is often described as the most romantic film ever made. It was released in 1947. Arguments still run about whether it promotes or was against illicit romance following the disruptions to family life cause by WW II.
Jill ended her talk by pointing out that even today, despite the interruptions of mobile phones and Internet, a rail journey can still be an adventure in a space outside everyday life. Even recent adverts by Virgin Trains, which harked back to 1930s films, show that romance is alive and well on the modern railway.

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