Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"Mugby Junction" - shrieks and groans and grinds invading the ear - a Dickens railroad Christmas

“Mugby Junction” is the 1866 Charles Dickens Christmas story, or actually three stories, or in some sense seven.  The “extra Christmas number of All the Year Round” included four otherstories by other authors all in the same railroad junction setting.  One of the contributors was a popular writer of children’s books calling herself Hesba Stretton.  I am just noting the name “Hesba.”

I didn’t read those, just the Dickens, more good ones:  a decent ghost story featuring a haunted signalman, a hilarious sort of boast from “the boy at what is called The Refreshment Room at Mugby Junction…  what’s proudest boast is, that it never yet refreshed a mortal being”; and a longer story about a sad man adrift in the world but who finds meaning through the usual Dickensian stuff.

It would be easy to become distracted by the Refreshment boy (“It’s only in the Isle of the Brave and Land of the Free (by which of course I mean to say Britannia) that Refreshmenting is so effective, so ’olesome, so constitutional a check upon the public”), clearly the author’s carefully nursed revenge upon a life of railway station indignities.  But the long story, that is the interesting one.

The sad man is Barbox Brothers, the label on his luggage, his only souvenir from his business, “some offshoot or public branch of the Public Notary and bill-broking tree,” successful enough but meaningless.  We meet him soon after he has given it up.  Earlier in his life, “the only woman he had ever loved” deceived him with “the only friend he had ever made.”  Purposeless, he takes a random train, exits at a random station, and finds renewed meaning by encountering random people. including the young daughter of the woman who dumped him.

Now, what is interesting about this business is that it is an exploration of one of the greatest weaknesses of Dickens, the temptation to have a wealthy, benevolent bachelor solve the problems of his plots.  The device goes back to the beginning, to The Pickwick Papers, or at least to Nicholas Nickleby.  In “Mugby Junction” Dickens creates a plausible psychology for the bachelor’s benevolence based on a life of personal trauma.  Dickens had worked on the problem before, in A Christmas Carol and Bleak House and Little Dorrit – with a great deal of irony in the latter two – but never in such a low key, or on such a small canvas, or some other metaphor borrowed from some other art.

The other interesting thing about the story is of course the prose.  Much of the best stuff is about the railroad:

Mysterious goods trains, covered with palls and gliding on like vast weird funerals, conveying themselves guiltily away from the presence of the few lighted lamps, as if their freight had come to a secret and unlawful end.  Half miles of coal pursuing in a Detective manner, following when they lead, stopping when they stop, backing when they back.  Red hot embers showering out upon the ground, down this dark avenue, and down the other, as if torturing fires were being raked clear; concurrently, shrieks and groans and grinds invading the ear, as if the tortured were at the height of their suffering.

Etc.  Plenty more of this.  And when it is over, there is that monstrous boy in the Refreshment Room.


  1. Yes, the prose is always remarkable with Dickens. In the last quoted paragraph, the "as if" clauses would be annoying with anyone else, but Dickens' similes are startling and fresh. "as if their freight had come to a secret and unlawful end" is delightful stuff. Who else would ever write that line?

    1. Then you have the conglomerate energy of the passage, which I think comes less from individual phrases than from the mounting vision of violence, suspicion, and disaster to which those phrases contribute. He's developing, expanding and loosening a machinery of horror. His bachelors are the urban English version of the lonely figure who appears in stories about frontiers and apocalypses. They have financial security instead of a gun but it takes you to the same place.

    2. It's a fine use of the ambiguities of the omniscient narrator. The bachelor does not appear to be that disturbed or depressed, but his true state of mind is revealed through these metaphors.

    3. He's got his imagery backwards, though. The guilt/criminal/detective image is stronger--because more surprising, or less of a cliche I suppose--than the Hell image, at least for me. The train cars following each other is the best thing in this, really fabulous. But yes, it's the cumulative effect of the images, all piled up like this. I'm a big fan and shameless abuser of this technique.

    4. I will also note that the detective novel would not be invented for 2 more years, or else was invented 13 years earlier by Dickens. That was an especially striking and original metaphor.

  2. It's just the trick of picking something (a railroad junction) and riffing on it, but when it is this good it is no longer a trick.

    There is also a surprisingly fine scene in which the hero buys a little girl a doll.

  3. One essay about a police inspector and whoosh, away he goes, all detectives and suspicions and crimes after that. I like shameless abuse of "this technique" better than slight abuse or stunted abuse: I watched a writer read one of his short stories earlier this week and once or twice he hit one of those I'm-saying-this-in-a-clever-way somewhat-Dickensian lines that want to open into a riff but it never lasted longer than just one sentence. Then he went back to his usual style, which was plain, plain, plain. ("The mother ate her steak." "The boy looked at the waitress"). It was like watching a runner spot a hurdle and stop in the middle of the track.

  4. It's like the writer thinks there a shortage, like he has a ration card for his chocolate.

  5. Dickens really did have quite an extraordinary ear for the rhythms of prose, didn't he? No matter how long and serpentine the sentence, he never loses control, never allows it to meander aimlessly. That passage you quoted really could not be by anyone other than by Dickens.

    Of the stories you mention, I have only read "The Signalman", which appears in just about every anthology of ghost stories. I really must catch up on Dickens' more occasional writings.

  6. The ghost story is fine, but it is not as Dickensian as some of the accompanying material. Its first person narration restrains it, as perhaps does the necessity to maintain a mood. in the "Mugby Junction" story, Dickens can cut loose, and does.