‘In a literary lay-by’: Mobility in the English Novel

It is no accident that the arrival of the novel, the literary form that uses life-as-a-journey as a master trope, is roughly co-terminous with the revolution of internal transport in Britain. Chris Ewers discusses his new book, Mobility in the English Novel from Defoe to Austen, a lively exploration into the relation between the arrival of the novel and the revolution of travel in eighteenth-century Britain, and how ‘Mobility in the English Novel…’ came to be. 

It always seems strange to me that a book about speed and communications in the eighteenth century was born out of a modern-day information vacuum, and my own sense of being stuck in a literary cul-de-sac. I grew up in the twentieth-century moment before the internet, when it was so much harder to find out about books and culture. I remember how random a visit to a record store would be, that you never quite knew what kind of album you would end up with when you got home (The Incredible String Band was perhaps a low point).

As a result, my interest in speed and mobility has a rather slow and pedestrian history.

Thomas Rowlandson, Flying Breakfast, or, The Contents of a Night Coach (1792). Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. Call number: 792.03.15.01

In the summer before I went to university to study English in the late 1980s, the only information I had about what was worth reading was an entry in an old Pears’ Cyclopaedia on the history of the novel. One of the books it recommended, Robert Bage’s Hermsprong, sounded fascinating, but it never appeared in the bookshop. While studying at Exeter, one of my favourite tutors, Peter Faulkner, was the world authority on Bage, but of this I was blissfully unaware.

After graduating, I worked as a sports journalist, but carried on reading as if I was still a student. However, I began to find that my reading experience was changing, that picking up Pride and Prejudice for the fifth time was more like meeting an old friend, rather than finding anything new. In the 2000s, at least it was easy to find a way to remedy this, and I took a wonderful MA course with the Open University. I chose to focus on the eighteenth-century novel because that was the one period of English literature I had always avoided; as a student, it would be fair to say I did not do Pamela or Tom Jones justice (as in not going beyond the front cover).

It did not prove much of a penance, as I loved the period, and when it came to my dissertation, I chose to do it on Hermsprong. Hermsprong has perhaps two claims to fame; he has the strangest surname for a hero of an English novel, and he is the most impressive pedestrian in the canon, continually bounding out of sight in a moment. The text sets the fact he likes to walk and talk in opposition to a series of reactionary figures (the book is from the revolutionary 1790s), who all shut themselves away in coaches, and race past the local villages without seeing anyone.

Henry William Bunbury, Richmond Hill (1782). Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. Call number: Bunbury 803.03.01.01

So, after 20-odd years stuck in a literary lay-by, I was finally set along the route to thinking about mobility. A PhD on roads and the eighteenth-century novel followed, where I was lucky to be tutored by Clare Brant at King’s College London. I was also lucky to come across a remarkable book from the 1970s, called Transport and Economy by Eric Pawson. It included diagrams of the turnpike roads, which revolutionised transport in the period, and this really mapped out for me how the novel develops alongside changes in communication.

Having at this point paid my debt to the eighteenth-century novel, many things that were puzzling started to make sense; I could see why Robinson Crusoe travelled from Hull to London by ship, rather than by road, and why Tom Jones became becalmed in the foothills of Somerset and Gloucestershire before racing to London.

A Lesson Westward, or, A Morning Visit to Betsy Cole, attributed to Robert Dighton (1782). Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. Call number: 782.01.02.01

This is what the book is about; it looks at the way communications, modes of transport, and a new sense of speed pattern both society, and the novel. It is in this period that Britain becomes a two-speed nation, with pockets of slowness existing alongside the grooves of power and speed created by the postal networks, the turnpikes, and the coaches, and this shapes the novel in profound ways. I hope that the book provides some fresh readings of texts such as Robinson Crusoe, Tom Jones, Humphry Clinker, Tristram Shandy, and even Jane Austen – once you read her in terms of mobility, it is remarkable how undomestic the supposed ‘domestic’ novel really is.

I also really hope the book speaks to today; in a period where communications are in overdrive, and it is increasingly hard to disconnect, to slow down, it is useful to see how an earlier period responded to their own speed-up in communications.

After writing the book, I have changed professions, and now work as an academic (at Exeter, where I studied, to complete the sense of coming full circle). I wonder sometimes what might have changed if I had read Hermsprong when I was there. Probably nothing; as mobility shows, the journey is often a lot more important than the destination.

This guest post was written by Chris Ewers, a lecturer in Eighteenth Century Literature at the University of Exeter. For more, check out Chris Ewers’ fascinating new book Mobility in the English Novel from Defoe to Austen (Boydell Press) 978 1 78327 296 9, £60/$99

Clare Brant is author of last year’s bestselling novel: Balloon Madness: Flights of Imagination in Britain, 1783-1786 (Boydell Press) 978 1 78327 253 2, £25/$39.95

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