Victorian Literature Mobility
Wendy Parkins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0085


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.

General Overviews

In the 1980s a number of important studies of European modernity argued that mobility lay at the heart of modern experience, due to the impact of new technologies of transport and communication, industrialization, and urbanization in the 19th century (see Berman 1983, Kern 1983, and Schivelbusch 1986 under The Railway as well as Harvey 1989). These accounts of modern mobility were strongly influenced by Marx’s analysis of 19th-century capitalist modernity, as Berman’s title, All That is Solid Melts into Air, a quotation from The Communist Manifesto, most clearly demonstrated. Two recurring concerns in these accounts of modern mobility were: the man on the city street, usually rendered as The Flâneur and bearing the trace of the essays and poetry of Baudelaire (e.g., Berman 1983); and The Railway as an exemplum of “time-space compression” (Harvey 1989) and a mode of movement that profoundly affected the human sensorium (e.g., Matus in Michie and Thomas 2003). While the influence of these 1980s studies has been significant, they have also been subject to vigorous critique on two main grounds: their limited scope (Eurocentric in focus, with a noticeable blindness to gender, sexuality, and class: see The Flâneur and Gender and Mobility) and their totalizing narrative of modernity, underpinned by a certain technological determinism. More recently, scholars have instead emphasized the uneven rates of movement brought about by modernization (e.g., Stein 2001) but Williams 1973 had implicitly made this point much earlier, by insisting that the experience of modernity is often a case of movement between country and city, and back again (even though the author of that study, too, assumed a masculine subject). In other words, 19th-century modernity was not a unidirectional narrative of relentless acceleration into the future but was experienced differentially according to subject position and location (Parkins 2009 under Gender and Mobility. These earlier works continue to be widely cited (if only to provide a starting point for critique) but, with interest turning to a wider range of literary texts beyond the traditional canon, scholars of the Victorian period are now developing a more nuanced account of modernization and the forms of accelerated mobility associated with it (e.g., Keep 2002; see also Mobility and Material Culture).

  • Berman, Marshall. All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Verso, 1983.

    Famous for its account of modernity as “a mode of vital experience” (p. 15), this much-cited (and much-critiqued) study of modernism is in fact mostly devoted to 19th-century writers of modernity, such as Marx and Baudelaire. Berman contends that mobility, upheaval, and turbulent movement were defining features of modernization in Europe in this period.

  • Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

    Despite the title, this book made a significant contribution to the study of pre-20th-century mobility and modernity through Harvey’s elaboration of the concept of “time-space compression” derived from new technologies of transport and communication in the 19th century.

  • Keep, Christopher. “Technology and Information: Accelerating Developments.” In A Companion to the Victorian Novel. Edited by Patrick Brantlinger and William B. Thesing, 137–154. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

    A pithy overview of the impact of new technologies of transport and communication on literature and culture. Includes reference to a wide range of literary examples as well as recent relevant scholarly literature. An excellent starting point for this topic.

  • Kern, Stephen. The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

    Rich in historical and cultural examples drawn from a range of European contexts, Kern’s study illuminates the changing experience of time and space as a result of new technologies. Of particular relevance to the topic of mobility are chapters on speed, distance, and direction.

  • Michie, Helena, and Ronald R. Thomas, eds. Nineteenth-Century Geographies: The Transformation of Space from the Victorian Age to the American Century. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

    A diverse and relevant collection which includes chapters on Mary Kingsley’s travels; Victorian honeymoon tourism; Dickens, trauma, and railway disaster; and gender and mass transportation in urban culture.

  • Stein, Jeremy. “Reflections on Time, Time-Space Compression and Technology in the Nineteenth Century.” In Timespace: Geographies of Temporality. Edited by Jon May and Nigel Thrift, 106–119. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

    A good example of recent critiques of the dominant account of modern mobility. Stein stresses the uneven experience of acceleration across different classes, genders, and locations and refuses the technological determinism of some earlier scholarship on the topic.

  • Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.

    Williams’s classic study is of particular relevance here for his discussion of the changing representations of the city—and the city-dweller—in 19th-century literature (chapters 19 and 20). The “scrambling and ambiguous mobility” of the “internal migrant” in Gissing and Hardy (p. 224), for instance, created in turn a new way of seeing the city, very different from that of the privileged flâneur.

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