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Ruth Livesey . Writing the Stage Coach Nation: Locality on the Move in Nineteenth-Century British Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. 246. $80.00 (cloth).

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 January 2018

Dominic Rainsford*
Aarhus University
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Book Reviews
Copyright © The North American Conference on British Studies 2018 

Ruth Livesey's opening insight in Writing the Stage Coach Nation: Locality on the Move in Nineteenth-Century British Literature is that central Victorian novels such as Bleak House and Middlemarch are “historical” (1), set in a “‘just’ past” (2), that is critically different from the present but intimately entangled with it. For Dickens, Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, and their contemporaries, the recent past was cut off from the present by a specific development: the demise of stage- and mail coaches, overtaken by railways in the 1840s. According to Livesey, the stagecoach provided a special dynamic (in the reality of transportation, but also metaphorically, and in fiction) for “a communicative nation,” involving eventual connection, but also, just as importantly, the experience of being “interrupted and overset” (2)—with new connections formed along the way.

Livesey addresses a nineteenth-century nostalgia in which place and time are bound together. It is not just that an earlier age has been left behind: the very idea of time changes. In the mail coach system, clocks were set to run fast or slow, adjusting to local time; in the coming world of railways, time would be centrally standardized. Livesey's novelists are aware of the nonlinear ways in which the world changes, and of the tremendous influence of time- and space-managing technologies. They do not take refuge in a recent past that was somehow more congenial—and that can be restored intact, in fiction—but imagine versions of the past in relation to the present, so as to register “a world on the move” (5). They intervene in this process through the technology of their own prose, with its figurations of sequential or parallel, more or less real, communities, and of the ways in which their readers might map these communities and envisage the links between them. All of this labor is socially and politically charged.

The chapters progress chronologically, centering respectively on Scott (especially The Antiquary [1816] and Heart of Midlothian [1818]); essays by Hazlitt and Cobbett; The Pickwick Papers (1837); Martin Chuzzlewit (1843); Jane Eyre (1847); and Felix Holt (1866); before Livesey turns to Hardy, and then back to the Dickens of the 1860s, in her conclusion. These are all big names, but the approach generates an unusual canon, including perhaps Dickens's and Eliot's least popular novels. These texts are thematically apt for Livesey's approach (there is a stagecoach in Phiz's title-page vignette for Chuzzlewit), but this is a book about novels as such, as well as novels with coaches in them; it encourages us to value a different set of ways in which nineteenth-century fiction functions.

Livesey contributes to the ongoing rediscovery of Scott, showing how his characters' arrivals in off-center localities provide a set of challenges to the reader's understanding of the nation. The ways in which Scott deals with geography, exploring how transport technology arranges place within the body politic, are then developed through variations: with Brontë, for example, expressing a “Tory … regionalism” (25); Eliot constructing strategic, sophisticated, self-consciously literary versions of past rural communities; and Hardy, finally, linking local and national communities together with his own artificial “Wessex” to create a complex system of the real and the imaginary. These variations are in turn supported by a broader account of how print culture addresses technological change, reacting and contributing to the ideologies that accompany it, for example in Cobbett's cataloguing of localities off the coach routes, Hazlitt's embracing of the coach-born dissemination of “Cockney” radicalism (73), or the satirical prints of the 1820s, in which images of coaches, their crews, and their passengers both celebrate national and royal authority and expose its vulnerability.

Livesey's argument is formidably coherent, tied together by a set of key concepts: “nineteenth-century nostalgia,” “the world on the move,” “prosthetic memory,” “mobile affect,” “radical conservatism.” Her continual use of “the ‘just’ past” could be wearing, but it serves a good cause. This book offers a great deal, much more than can be registered here: a strong theoretical tool-kit; a pervasive sense of political relevance; well-developed readings of major texts; a broader cultural context of journalism, visual culture, and legislation; and, of course, the history of technology. This combination of materials and approaches might have proved unwieldy, but Livesey knows how to load her textual coach securely, and it does not break down. Nothing and nobody, of consequence, falls off.

At the end, Livesey turns to the development, first in Household Words, then in Bradshaw's Guide, of “network” as a term applied to communication by rail (218). The network concept takes us towards significantly different understandings of connection and place. But Livesey's work has powerful resonances for later developments, including our own present. While she refrains from lengthy extrapolations towards the twentieth- or twenty-first centuries (having enough to do already), she sends out hints that will set many readers thinking. In the case of Dickens, for example, she economically brings out the afterlife of Dingley Del, including its perversion into Noel Edmonds's “Crinkly Bottom” (113)—How England got from Mr. Pickwick to Mr. Blobby would surely make a significant book in itself!—and then develops an account of the different perceptions of place and time in England and America, in Chuzzlewit, which clearly resonates in transatlantic differences, conflicts, and mutual frustrations, to this day.

Livesey does an exceptionally good job of projecting the relevance of humanities research for contemporary social and political debates, and in particular for the understanding of technology and its cultural and economic impact. Most importantly, she does this not only through thematic readings, but also in ways that take account of narrativity, metaphor, and other formal and aesthetic properties of literature, so that the payoff requires not just mining literature for content but understanding how it works. The most powerful idea is that realist prose is a socially and politically significant technology that works, in some respects, similarly to systems of physical transportation, and is equally consequential. This is a way of looking at literature that has built up over the last thirty years or so (as Livesey makes clear in many generous references to other critics and theorists), but this book takes it significantly further, and therefore it deserves to be read well beyond the specific field of nineteenth-century studies.