Transnational Infrastructure and National Identity in the Nineteenth-Century Novel
This panel responds to a recent groundswell of ‘infrastructuralist’ criticism, a way of reading that demonstrates how literary form mediates perceptions and understandings of infrastructures that often remain invisible (Rubinstein, Robbins, Beal 2015). It brings together three twenty-minute papers exploring how nineteenth-century novelists use images of communication and transport infrastructure to interrogate conceptions of national identity and transnational connection. These novels, we argue, resonate urgently in the present moment, as Britain’s shape and international place is undergoing reconfiguration.
‘I was not know for sure what be the Queen, Evan; was you?’: Infrastructure and Identity in Amy Dillwyn’s The Rebecca Rioter (1880) (Karin Koehler (Lecturer, Bangor University))
This paper reads Amy Dillwyn novel The Rebecca Rioter (1880) against the background of infrastructural development in Victorian Wales. Set in 1840s South Wales, the novel portrays the Rebecca Riots, protests during which toll-gates were destroyed as symbols of excessive taxation on agricultural communities. Dillwyn’s text constantly, albeit subtly, evokes the broader infrastructural significance of toll-gates, used to fund the upkeep of Britain’s roads and, by extension, facilitate the circulation of people, goods, and mail. For Dillwyn, exclusion from this network signifies economic, intellectual, and moral backwardness. And yet, her novel modulates between advocacy for infrastructural development and sympathy for its Welsh narrator’s resistance to being incorporated into – and exploited by – national networks. Thus, Dillwyn’s novel allows us to trace resonances between Victorian past and twenty-first-century present, as infrastructure continues to emerge as a site of conflict between competing conceptions of collective and national identity.
Shared European Infrastructures: the Channel Railway and Thomas Hardy’s A Laodicean (1881) (Nicola Kirkby (Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, Royal Holloway University))
This paper couples debates about building a Channel Railway between Britain and France in the 1880s with Thomas Hardy’s novel A Laodicean (1881), to investigate how fiction interrogated the material and imagined limits of Britain’s link with mainland Europe. By examining ‘reverberation’, that is the unintended and noisy oscillation of the tracks, it teases out subtle yet significant links between technology, interpretation, and control that underpin Hardy’s novel, and the Channel Railway project more broadly. It argues that imaginative writing provided a testing ground for exploring political and practical risks raised by the prospect of a railway connection between Britain and France, and shows how fiction exacerbated fears about what (other than trains, passengers, and freight) such a line might carry. The Channel Railway debates parallel British isolationist attitudes that continue to resonate through present-day Brexit.
‘These twelve hours saved by the post from America’: Imagining ‘British’ global travel postally in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1872) (Eleanor Shipton (South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership Candidate, University of Exeter and University of Southampton))
This paper outlines the infrastructural developments of nineteenth-century steam-packet routes, arguing that Jules Verne’s imagining of Phileas Fogg’s ‘British’, global travel was made possible by these imperial mail routes. From their inception in the late 1830s, long-distance steam-packet lines would come to transport news, letters, freight and passengers globally with unprecedented speed and reliability. By putting Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days into conversation with contemporary descriptions of global travel, I show that mail steam-packet routes, in particular, worked to circulate conceptions of British imperialism and link the world to the ‘mother-land’. However, I also demonstrate that, as his ‘British’ protagonist circulates—quite literally— the globe, Verne’s text explores how these routes work to problematize boundaries between nations. As letters marked with the British monarch’s head circulated the world, steam-packet infrastructures complicated the boundaries between national identities, which remain as contested and controversial today.