Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Darcys, the Railways, and the Modern Era

by Mary Lydon Simonsen

"From hence (Warrington), on the road to Manchester, we pass'd the great bog or waste call’d Chatmos... The surface, at a distance, looks black and dirty, and is indeed frightful to think of, for it will bear neither horse or man, unless in an exceeding dry season, and then not so as to be passable, or that any one should travel over them." Daniel Defoe, A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, Divided into Circuits or Journies (1724)

In my novel, Becoming Elizabeth Darcy, Beth Hannigan travels from modern-day New Jersey to the Regency Era in 1826 where she meets the master of Pemberley, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Because she comes to Derbyshire from 2010, Beth is able to provide Mr. Darcy with a glimpse of the future:

"One final purchase [in the town of Lambton] was a copy of a London newspapers containing an article about the building of a possible railway tunnel between Liverpool and Manchester.

"'It will never happen,' Darcy assured her. 'It would require crossing Chat Moss, a vast peat bog that lies between the two cities.'

“'You are wrong, Will. The railway will be built… Any town of any size in Great Britain will have a railway station in it. It will change everything.'”

The Euston Station, 1837

As Beth Hannigan knew, a few years distant, railways would begin to crisscross the land. However, such modern marvels required great leaps in technology, including overcoming the difficulties in crossing Chat Moss, a vast peat bog lying north of the River Irwell and across the direct route between Manchester and the port city of Liverpool. Initially, all proposed routes between the two cities detoured around Chat Moss, but chief engineer, George Stephenson, believed it was possible to cross the bog.

“John Dixon was recruited [by Stephenson] as resident engineer. He believed it would be possible to use a floating raft to support the four-mile track bed across the bog. Over 200 men were employed to lay drains on each side of the track area. Although this worked in the shallower parts, it made no impact on the deeper areas of the bog… One of the men on the site, Robert Stannard, suggested laying timber in a herring-bone fashion. Although progress was slow, the track across Chat Moss was finished in December, 1829. On 1st January 1830, the Rocket successfully hauled a one-ton carriage train across the four-mile section.” (Excerpted from Wikipedia and The Birth of the Modern, Paul Johnson, Harper Collins, 1991.)

As Beth Hannigan had predicted in Becoming Elizabeth Darcy, the railway would change everything. Before Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy celebrated their golden anniversary, England would be in the midst of “railway mania,” and people would be on the move. Travel that once took weeks might now take only hours. A long weekend excursion from Pemberley to London for some shopping was now possible. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy could take their children to popular seaside resorts or visit Bath and Dover Castle on a whim. In Darcy’s old age, there would be a railway completed in 1850 between London and Aberdeen, opening the formerly inaccessible Highlands of Scotland.

During the Railway Era, fortunes were made and lost; boom and bust cycles were common. But I imagine that the serious and intelligent Mr. Darcy would be able to avoid the pitfalls, thus providing him with a handsome income and the ability to maintain the great estate of Pemberley as well as a house in London. The Darcys had married on the cusp on the modern era and would reap the benefits.


  1. Yes, the railways definitely changed so many things- faster and easier travel, but also commerce.
    Loved the Jane Austen tie and and think the book of time travel sounds interesting.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Was that book made into a TV series? Because I have seen one about a modern woman who finds herself transported back (through her bathroom I believe) to Pride and Prejudice, and her being there mucks up the story - for example, Jane ends up marrying Mr. Collins.

    By the way, it's just "Euston Station" not "The Euston Station". No station, airport, etc. takes the definite article.

  3. The coming of the railways had a huger impact than just making travel and commerce easier. It regulated Time throughout the country. Before the railways a place like Manchester could be at least a half hour to an hour behind or ahead of say London. Linking places with the railways meant that they had to take up London Time (GMT) as standard.

  4. Anna, thanks for the last comment. I always notice when a British commentator on the news is talking, he/she will say: "He went to hospital," where we would say, "He went to the hospital." After some years of it becoming a small world, I now hear American anchors say it without the.

  5. Hi Sophia Rose. Thank you for stopping by.

    Anna, Yes, there was a TV series, Lost in Austen. Thank you for your comment.

    Karen, Yes, the railroads regulated time in the US as well. It was also a necessary evil in the factory system. You were going to work 12 hours a day whether it was winter or summer, light or dark.

    Hi Debra. Thank you for inviting me to guest post on English History Authors.

  6. Lovely post, Mary! I love learning about railways. I guess it goes back to American History in high school. One of the only things I paid attention to in that class was the lesson on the railway and how it expanded and the boom that came along with it. Very interesting stuff!
    Thanks so much for sharing this as well as all of your other history tidbits! :)

  7. Wow.another great book to add to my list. I have just read Pride and Prejudice so I am ready for this book!!

  8. So interesting the effect of the railway on time keeping -- thanks! Financial chicanery in railway funding was rife in the 19th century. "Uncle Dan's Financial Tips" is a hysterical one-man comedy on Daniel Drew's fiscal misdeeds in railway building in the US.

  9. Hi Jakki. You know I love history.

    Hi bcrocks. Isn't P&P the best book? Well, in my opinion, it is. Thanks for your comments.

    Hi Katherine. I'll have to look up Uncle Dan's Financial Tips. That's new to me.

  10. I know the railroads are coming, but it's still a jolt when you say that the Darcys would ride on a train. I guess that in my imagination, they live on in the Regency forever, never entering the world of Dickens.

  11. I agree with Abigail. The coming of technology shattered the calm peaceful world (peaceful where there was not war or other disasters) with its grating noises and pollution. I love the Regency stories for that reason.

  12. Hi Abigail. I think it's wonderful that Darcy and Elizabeth were able to get around and see the country. Fitzwilliam could easily go grouse shooting in the Highlands. But I take your point.

    Debra, London was loud and dirty in the Regency Era. Most people heated their homes with coal, and the air was actually filthy, thus accounting for the rise of the use of black umbrellas. But in our imagination, we can have quiet streets and pure air. Again, thank you for the invitation.

  13. Thanks for this very interesting blogpost!
    Recently I had to look some things up and ended up being totally absorbed by a book on Queen Victoria's travels through Europe.
    The trips to the south of France were, according to her daughter Beatrice and a lady-in-waiting whose name escapes me, absolute horror as well as the travels to Coburg (Germany) were equally unpleasant.
    Last year I visited an exhibition on old railway carriages and as much as I loved seeing the dining arrangements (...) there was much left to desire in the sleeping compartments. Very cramped and looking extremely unconfortable.
    Guess trains were better used for day trips to the seaside and such :)

    So, thanks again, for this very enjoyable read!!


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  15. Hi Marianne. I agree. Train travel could get your there quicker and spared you a night at a roadside inn, but they were dirty and cramped. It always looks better in the film adaptations!


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