Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 48 (2017)
Starting from the observation that so many of the major Victorian novels are set, not in the railway age in which they were written, but in the horse-drawn world of the previous generation, a world that is 'just past', this fine study explores the ways in which novelists from Waiter Scott to Thomas Hardy use the stage coach to connect particular localities, often closely observed and substantially realized, to the larger framework of the nation. This turning back to the past is not, Ruth Livesey insists, a retreat from the complications and dislocations of a modern present into a simpler age, nostalgically recalled; and in resisting the notion of a nostalgic retrospect her argument challenges two important critical works on novels of the mid-century, Kathleen Tillotson's Novels of the Eighteen-Forties and George Lukacs's The Historical Novel. What Tillotson saw as the recreation of an idealized past by writers uncomfortably inhabiting two worlds and Lukacs read as an abandonment of Scott's serious engagement with the process of history for the cultivation of private dramas in historical fancy-dress, Livesey interprets differently, arguing that there is a continuity between Scott and his successors in their concern with the writing of place as a focus of both individual and collective memory. Crucial to her argument is the definition of nostalgia as it was understood in the nineteenth-century, not as a longing for a lost past but rather as a condition of acute homesickness brought about by the displacements involved in modernity and the expansion of empire. The stage coach offers an antidote. Where the development of toll roads, and later railways, could be seen as unifying the nation through a process of homogenization, the motif of the stage coach in the hands of the writers examined here works in a more uneven way to 'weave together a nation out of strongly rendered, disjointed localities' (p. 11), creating a constant interplay between the local and the national.