Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Nancy E. Henry

Committee Members

Amy C. Billone, Harry F. Dahms, W. Martin Griffin


Since 1979 when Wolfgang Schivelbusch applied Marx’s phrase “annihilation of time and space” to the nineteenth-century railways, the idea that locomotives revolutionized mobility and restructured life has undergirded historical analysis. Recent scholarship challenges this long-standing assumption, countering that transportation networks expanded through evolutionary change and that cultural adaptation occurred by resisting the imposing forces of modernity. My study joins this critical departure but proposes a new conceptual model defined by regret and revision. This dissertation argues that fiction written between 1857-1891 illustrates railway growth as a recursive and participatory process. I show through the writing of Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Riddell, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Charles Dickens, and Margaret Oliphant that expansion was neither radically disruptive nor seamless but occurred through a series of fits and starts, re-assessments and alterations. Additionally, this body of fiction illuminates how Victorians actively negotiated the challenges the railways introduced, rather than merely adapting their lives to technological modernization or turning away from the present to recuperate part of a lost past.

As the railways transformed from invention to commodity to industry, popular nineteenth-century engineering biographies shaped the story of the railway and its inventors, engineers, and investors into inflated myths of personal success and smooth progress. Valorizing self-interest over government interference, these narratives reinforced the laissez-faire arrangement between Parliament and railway companies. However, by mid-century redundant and abandoned lines, accidents, financial mania, and social immobility sparked debates about the detriment of lax regulation on public welfare. Along with newspapers and journals, fiction contributed to this debate. Works by Dickens, Gaskell, Riddell, Oliphant and others addressed these regrets by revising the story of the railways, correcting the strategic selection, erasure, and exaggeration of those early myths. In chapters focused on the expansion of lines, traveler safety, financial investment, and social mobility, this dissertation showcases authors who amplified the voice of public opinion in their fiction during a time when Parliament and boards of directors dominated the conversation. Demonstrating that to regret the past is also to envision a better future, such fiction provided the space within which Victorians could imagine balance between corporate, state, and public interests.

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