Progress, expansion, mobility – these keynotes of Victorian history and culture evoke in their different ways a society keenly attuned to and preoccupied with transformations in nearly every arena of daily life. ‘Your railroad starts the new era’, Thackeray wrote in The Roundabout Papers (1863), and, indeed, the opening of railway lines from 1830 onwards and their rapid spread throughout Britain captures the period's ethos of energetic pursuit, advancement, growth and diffusion. The evolution of industrial society, the rise of great towns and cities, and dramatic increases in population enabled, maybe even forced, government activities to expand exponentially; literacy rates increased, print culture proliferated, information abounded, the circulating library took hold, and a mass reading public was born; the franchise was extended through a series of key parliamentary reform measures; technological developments broadened and quickened opportunities for travel and communication; uncharted lands were explored and mapped, and, for much of the century, Britain enjoyed an expansion of commerce with the wider world – all this outreach making for what Robin Gilmour has described as ‘a dynamo hum in the background of Victorian literature’ (The Victorian Period, p. 2 [B]).
These transformations and the optimistic embrace of progress upon which they depended inevitably wrought their fair share of anxious response. The central metaphors of Dickens's fiction – fog, contagion, the prison – evoke the capacity of disease, both literal and figurative, to spread throughout modern society, eventually to immobilise it. Moreover, if fundamentally outward-looking, the trademark Victorian emphases on progress, expansion and mobility (and the celebratory display of their fruits) also helped to produce a corollary preoccupation with interiority, what the poet Matthew Arnold called ‘the dialogue of the mind with itself’. Victorians were nothing if not inquisitive – one can find everything from ‘The Irish Question’ to ‘The Oyster Question’ discussed in the press – and curiosity itself is arguably the premise of major works as different as Jane Eyre, Little Dorrit and Alice in Wonderland. Preoccupation with the idea and ideal of transformation is no less central to the Victorian study of self than of society.