A Student Response to Lady Audley’s Secret

[Dr. Martin’s note: this student blog post is in response to conversation we had in class about the material influence of the railway in Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. For those interested, please check out a post on the railway I wrote a few years ago for The Floating Academy.]

Railway Mania

‘Railway Mania’ usually refers to the speculative frenzy that took place in Britain during the 1840s. Fewer than ten years after the start of this over-optimistic time, the industry crashed, inevitably. What intrigues me, however, is the name—‘Railway Mania’—because it implies so much more about the railroad system itself. In what other ways, I wonder, does the word ‘mania’ apply to the railroad system?

Mania by definition “involves motor agitation, a euphoric or choleric mood, a psychic exaltation characterized by verbigeration, rapidity of the associations, and the flight of ideas” (Foucault 4). Leaning on Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s railway-heavy novel Lady Audley’s Secret, let’s go through these definitions one by one to see the ways in which they apply to the railway.

Motor Agitation

This one’s quite obvious. Motor agitation is the entire premise of a train system. A Railway allows the contents of one location to be lifted up and delivered to other locations. A Railway prompts movement, it gets in the culture—people start to move more. Peoples start to move more. People start taking trips that, before the train, they would never have taken. And they don’t just move because they can—it’s necessitated by modern culture and industry, it becomes who we are to always be moving—and there is no will involved in this movement, necessarily.

Euphoric or Choleric Mood

The moneyman’s over-optimistic speculation on the railway market is a pure example of the ‘euphoric mood’ in mania. Meanwhile, conjecture had it that the many agitations felt in the body of the rider of a train (due to the innumerable vibrating bolts, etc.) caused an irritable unsettled-ness that stuck with the rider after their train ride. Braddon describes the ride as “dreary” (259), the noise of the engine as “furious,” “shrieking,” “tearing,” and “grinding” (77, 259). Many complained about this noise, and about having to watch the natural landscape of Britain marred by the new proliferation of rails, tourists, and markets. No one was indifferent to the rhizomatic rails that were suddenly intersecting and inter-connecting everything to everything else.

Psychic Exaltation

Along with the railway comes the commoditization of travel, the fetishization of location, a transcendental value superimposed on the act of traveling itself. The spiritual effects of the railway became all important—the value of the stock, the confidence of the bank, the toll of the schedule, the allure of the unseen, the birth of the vacation. Robert Audley is robbed of his body and subjecthood while riding the train, is said to be more like a “perambulating mass of . . . goods” than an actual “living member of a learned profession” (186). The land itself becomes “phantom-like” for passengers (186).

Verbigeration

Verbigeration—the regular reiteration of standard phrases—is obvious in the ramifications of the railway system. As things become regimented they become standardized, repetitious, repetitive, redundant. Robert stops a moment to get “his thoughts in proper train” and then lists off an early to-do list of his, numbered one through fifteen (134). A train itself is a list—a train proceeds in linear fashion, there is order in the monotony of the train, in its schedules, in the logistics of the railway system. One cart after another, after another, after another. Things must run on time—not that they do, but the intent is foundational.

Rapidity of Associations

Perhaps the most interesting side of mania, Rapidity of Associations, allows the maniac to think—to create connections between the things held in their memory with the other things held in their memory—at an increased rate. The railway system has the same trait—enhanced, accelerated connections between things with other things. Between cities with other cities, cultures with other cultures, markets with other markets.

Flight of Ideas

With all this connection, ideas are more than merely agitated onto different locales. A fine nexus of railroad is laid over Britain that fires in all directions, a net sparkling in effervescence like the synapses of a maniac. In Lady Audley, Robert finds a box that is said to “have been battered upon a great many different lines of railway, and had evidently traveled considerably” (256). It bears the marks of its travel, it bears marks from all over the nexus—shows us how railways, at the time, expedited the accumulation and exponentiation of the ideas that rode their rails.

Caboose

So there we have it. Railway Mania. Aside mania’s counterpart depression (“motor inertia against the background of a mood of sadness, accompanied by a psychic slowing down”), there are other reactions to the repetitive, sometimes oppressive verbigeration of mania and the railway (5). One reaction is a schizophrenic one—one that interrupts connection. Schizophrenia is “an illness generally characterized by a disorder in the normal coherence of the association—as in a breaking up of the flow of thought—and, on the other hand, by a breakdown of affective contact with the environment” (Foucault, 5-6). There is a particularly schizophrenic train of thought on the part of the narrator in Lady Audley’s Secret, and we’ll end with it.

Who has not felt . . . an unreasoning rage against the mute propriety of chairs and tables, the stiff squareness of . . . carpets, the unbending obstinacy of the outward apparatus of existence? . . . how many helpless wretches must beat their brains against this hopeless persistency of the orderly outward world? (226)

Please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question.

One thought on “A Student Response to Lady Audley’s Secret

  1. I love the reference to Foucault’s characteristics of mania in this post. This is a unique, and compelling, way of thinking about literary analysis within the context of taxonomy. A related way of thinking about the material problem of railway travel (as the Victorians understood it) would be to focus on the passage ways of the railway terminal and railway compartment. For example, check out the chapter on railway incarceration in Michel de Certeau’s book, The Practice of Everyday Life. Additionally, I’m drawn to thinking about how Marc Auge’s work on supermodernity relates to the Victorian experience of moving through (or being moved through) railway spaces. Auge’s emphasis on transit terminals, malls, arcades, and similar passageways as “non-places” is reminiscent of Victorian anxieties about the psychic effects that railway terminals have on communities.

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