Mobility in the Victorian Novel: Placing the Nation by Charlotte Mathieson

Review by Lena Wånggren


For those of us who enjoyed Charlotte Mathieson’s chapter in the recent collection Transport in British Fiction: Technologies of Movement, 1840-1940 (2015, ed. Adrienne Gavin & Andrew Humphries), her full-length monograph Mobility in the Victorian Novel: Placing the Nation comes as a treat. Presenting an examination of embodied mobility and nation space in the Victorian novel (1840s-1860s), it is a welcome contribution to researchers working on issues such as gender, space, nationhood, imperialism, technology, and transport in nineteenth-century literature and culture.

In a conceptually engaging and historically focused introduction, Mathieson outlines the main theoretical insights of the book while mapping historical changes brought on by the ‘transport revolution’ which involved new technologies of communication and transport. She demonstrates clearly the ways in which events such as the building of roads and the introduction of the railway fostered changes in the British postal system as well as British print culture, explaining how these changes brought about a new perception of the place of the body in the nation-space. The experience and process of travel, she argues, brings into being a new set of ideas concerning the connection between the individual and the nation-state. Mathieson moves from the rather narrow concepts of ‘travel’ and ‘journeys’ to the concept of ‘mobility’, in order to more accurately hone in on the ‘embodied phenomenology of travel’ emerging in the mid-nineteenth century. Situating her research in this book within the theoretical turn to space, materiality and embodiment in the Humanities in the past decades, Mathieson also nods to the fields of actor-network theories (although without explicit mention) in her focus on ‘networked communities’ within Victorian Britain as it becomes a more ‘connected nation’ (p. 57).

Focusing on travel within Britain in chapters one and two, with a focus on travel by foot in the first chapter and on railway travel in the second, Mathieson moves on to explore travel in continental Europe in chapter three, and finally in chapter four to examine imperialism and the place of the British nation in a global context. Exploring literary narratives of travel and movement in the era in novels by Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and – in the conclusion – Wilkie Collins, Mathieson pays fine attention to historical details while providing consistently excellent readings of the works in question. I am particularly impressed by the attention given to the intersections of class and gender, and to an extent race, in the readings of the novels. This focus becomes especially apparent in chapter four, where Mathieson explores Britain’s ‘changing consciousness of global space’ (p. 120) through readings of Dickens’s Dombey and Son and David Copperfield and Gaskell’s Cranford. Focusing on the embodied experiences of characters in these novels, particularly concerns with bodily fragility in areas outside of Britain, these novels speak to the increasing uneasiness in the mid-nineteenth century about the relationship between national and global boundaries and spaces, and national and imperial identities. In Mathieson’s reading, these literary bodies on the move thus become ‘sites through which issues of modern mobility are negotiated’ (p. 153) and through which ideas of nationhood are formulated. Especially captivating is the exploration of the role of skin (specifically skin colour) in Cranford, where discourses of nationhood, gender, race, capitalism, and imperialism are read through a focus on embodiment.

Mathieson’s main argument regarding embodiment and travel in the creation of a new national consciousness is very exciting, and she carries out a feat when managing to cover successfully both intra- and inter-national discourses on nationhood and space through the specific mode of the Victorian novel, in the space of a monograph. Perhaps because of this impressive coverage of these various topics, the book is forced to be very specific in its literary source material. As someone who works partly on Scottish literature, I was disappointed by the English-centred focus of the first two chapters: all the literary works examined are set in England, indeed Mathieson only mentions Scotland once, and the same goes for Wales. This is not a fault per se, but since the main argument of the book concerns British (not English) nation-building, and a specifically British national consciousness, the neglect of Wales and Scotland is jarring. Even though the main scholarly focus on the mid-Victorian novel has been focused on English rather than English-speaking literature, a brief discussion of this problematic would be welcome. This is only a minor point, however; the book presents a very fruitful conceptual framework of nationhood and empire despite the noted omission. Mobility in the Victorian Novel: Placing the Nation is a much recommended read for feminist and nineteenth-century literary scholars, especially for those of us with an interest in embodiment, space, and/or British imperialism. The book is moreover a great resource for teaching – I have already recommended chapters to my students.

This review was provided by Lena Wånggren, a Research Fellow in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, where she also teaches. Her research concerns questions of gender in late nineteenth-century literature and culture, as well as feminist theory, pedagogy, and the medical humanities.