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—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.


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.

8 thoughts 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.


  2. This is definitely an interesting approach to the idea of railroad mania in Lady Audley’s Secret, especially your use of imagery concerning a nexus and synapses in the brain of a maniac. The notion of acceleration and enhancement of connection makes me wonder if there is ever a condition where the monomania of the world will suddenly collapse upon itself. On one hand, the railroad mania is what allows for the modern world to function, as it brings order within the whole of society, yet it takes its toll on each individual in a way that causes one’s life to be ordered within this mania. One’s thoughts and actions are shaped and constrained by the strict order of time in the modern world, wherein even attempts to escape and break free from this outwardly ordered world will inevitably be framed within the very mania that we attempt to avoid. In this sense, it seems that we all have the potential to become maniacs in our connection to this underlying necessity for order.


  3. This is an interesting take on the advent of the railway system and how it caused deep and entrenched impacts in the lives of people.

    My following criticisms have nothing to do with your explanation here, which I found engaging and thorough, but with the term “Railway Mania” in general.

    There exists a tendency in our society to employ terms referring to physical and cognitive disabilities and mental illness to create metaphors or similes. These comparisons are often negative. For instance, blind is frequently used to mean obtuse, unaware, or unthinking (society is blind to racism etc.). These negative associations between words that describe actual people and negative experiences, emotions, actions, impacts etc. assists in the creation and maintenance of stigmas and ableism. They leave out the humanity of those living with the condition/disability and turn that condition/disability into something negative. There is a lot that goes into my identity as a person who is blind, and to have my disability turned into a negative metaphor diminishes my identity and contributes to society’s devaluation of my existence. Therefore, the term “railway mania,” which plays on an actual condition to create a metaphor, is a term fraught with ableist thought and overtones.

    Again, I would like to emphasise that I am not criticizing your explanation here, just the term in general. I believe your explanation was thoroughly researched and the topic of how the railway had such an enormous impact on Victorians is intriguing.

    Thanks for your insights.


    • Great point, Melissa. I like how careful you are not to sound critical of the student’s use of this term, which was quite prevalent in the period. Your broader critique is important. The Victorians were especially drawn rhetorically to consider major cultural events and phenomena as various “manias” or “crazes” — this is definitely a problem from a disability studies point of view. It speaks to how entrenched the very idea of “modern” culture is in the language and rhetoric of the aberrant and the disabled, as if there is some location in the past that was once formerly “normal,” balanced, and sane.


  4. The analysis here is intriguing and thoughtful — plus the formatting is cool, and putting caboose at the end is clever and punny.

    Prior to English 353, train stations were not at all eerie or oppressive to me. Now — I’m a little embarrassed to say — they’re both. I have a noise-maker app on my phone that lets me layer different sounds to sleep to. The railway is one of them, and the thought of sleeping to the sound of the engine chugging and the tracks grinding gave me a serious case of the creeps. Why, all of the sudden?

    This blog posts section titled “Euphoric or Choleric Mood” captures it perfectly. Railways were kind of like modern day jet lag, or maybe even screen time. We feel unwell after a long flight — our insides are shaken up, our sleep schedules are shot, and sometimes we just feel disoriented in general. The same goes for too much television — our eyes feel strained, the passage of time feels off kilter, and we might even feel a bit out of touch from reality. We also revolve our existence around fight schedules, and TV show time slots. Adhering to these arbitrary, rigid, pre-ordained feeling timelines is weirdly off-putting.

    The most startling sensation after either long flights or movie marathons is standing up after sitting still for a number of hours. You know what feelings of not being familiar with your own body anymore, and so you become hyper-aware of your body? It’s so unsettling.

    The “Euphoric or Choleric Mood” section sounds a lot like this, except with train travel. The vibrating bolts, the general feeling of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, unsettledness. The necessity of abiding by arbitrary, pointless schedules. It’s weird, unplaceable bodily intimacies like post-flight, post-television, post-train sensations that close the gap between between our time and the Victorian era, at least for me.

    This blog post is a pleasure to read, as are the comments from my peers.


  5. Fascinating! The de-humanization of the passengers by “Psychic Exaltation” remind me of other modern images of Ghost Trains. While the riders are not explicitly dead, they certainly don’t seem alive either. As the land becomes “phantom-like,” it sounds as if the passengers are transported between worlds, not alive or dead for the duration of the trip. When I travel for periods of an hour or more, time feels irrelevant. While the train is held to such a strict schedule, the individuals lack of control over that schedule renders time meaningless while travelling, yet so important during any surrounding time. I wonder if the emergence of these ghostly myths is linked in some way to the unsettling effect trains and the sudden realization of fast travel had on the general populace.

    Similar to MacKenzie, I’ve also been more aware of my methods of transportation. Riding the LRT feels a little less relaxing when you become aware of every little agitation of the car.


  6. I really love how you have formatted your analysis. The “Caboose” header at the end filled me up with so much glee.

    Like my other peers, I found idea of one being “robbed of body and subjecthood” intriguing, but I view this from a different angle from the other comments so far. Personally, unlike the Victorians, I don’t experience “railway mania” in the way that Braddon has exemplified in her novel. Though, it’s more accurate to say I don’t experience this altered state on railway systems; I find if anything, the closest I come to experiencing a state like this is when I’m driving. I’ve always found the LRT, and in the one instance I was able to experience it, a true railway, far more relaxing and comfortable than driving. Even if I’m uncomfortable around certain people on the LRT, I can at least see them, and watch their expressions and body language to warn myself if they’re going to cause me any trouble. Driving, on the other-hand, is so impersonal. I barely see the other people around me, only through glimpses in mirrors, and yet I have to trust that they know what they’re doing so that no one experiences an accident. When driving, a person’s not a person, but the car. On the LRT, everyone is sharing the space, and so everyone is still a person that is defined by their own body.

    This analysis makes me wonder if this agitated and irritated state has evolved, and if it’s not specifically a symptom of the railway system, but of any modern transportation system. It also makes me wonder about how much the definition of “mania” has evolved since Foucault’s, and the time period in which “railway mania” was termed. Again, this is me building upon personal experience, but the idea of “railway mania” does not read as mania to myself, but as an anxiety stemming from a form of transportation, like how many people today experience driver’s anxiety.


  7. I also really enjoyed “The Caboose” so clever!

    I wanted to ask if you had thought about applying this analysis to the characters in the novel regarding “railway mania”? Because I would say that representing Lady Audley through those descriptors would be a great idea!
    Motor Agitation: Lady Audley uplifted her entire life and transported it to a new location, stirring up her actual personhood, her representation of self, etc.
    Euphoric or Choleric: Lady Audley oscillates between these two moods, being either euphoric in the transport of her life or choleric in fear of George/Robert removing her new luxuries
    Psychic Exaltations: One could argue Lady Audley is viewed in this way? And she also lives both in fear of the new railway system as well as secretly manipulating it to save her fate.
    Verbigeration: Lady Audley is just a repetition, a mirroring of her mother. She replicated the details of her mother’s life to become the madness that she had held. As well, her life is a constant reference as “doll” “child-like” and various other tics and beauty comments that are repeated throughout the text.
    Rapidity of Associations: See above; the ties between Lady Audley and her mother and the way (on a second reading) she is constantly relying on those definitions of self and identity
    Flight of Ideas: You could argue that Phoebe and Luke taking Lady Audley’s secret and running away with it could be a “flight” of ideas…get it? Flight as in flee… nevermind


    super cool argument!


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