“Mugby, Junction, sir.”
“A windy place!”
“Yes, it mostly is, sir.”
“And looks comfortless indeed!”
“Yes, it generally does, sir.”
“Is it a rainy night still?”
“Open the door. I’ll get out.”
Right from that opening exchange, you know that Dickens is having fun with this work. Not one of the big books, but a serial launched in the Christamas edition of All The Year Round in 1866.
Interesting though that Dickens should choose to make trains his theme less than two years after the Staplehurst Disaster, when the train he was travelling in fell from a viaduct into a river. He and his party escaped injury, and he made efforts to assist the many who were injured and dying. The incident clearly left mental scars.
But Dickens, of necessity, continued to travel. And, of course, trains and the possibilities that they opened up were still relatively new.
The story opens at with an unnamed traveller descending onto an empty, dark platform at Mugby Junction. He took the train to try to escape from his old life and with the intention of alighting at a random station and leaving his future open to chance.
He first strikes up a relationship with Lamps, the station porter, and then with his invalid daughter Phoebe. And he decides to stay in the are a few days, talking to the inhabitants of Mugby about how they came to be there and where they hope to go, as he attempts to reach a decision about which of the seven lines in and out of Mugby Junction he might travell down. Ultimately though, he decides to stay in Mugby.
This framing story is told by Dickens. The small community centred on the station is comes to life, and the prose is peppered with railway rhythms and and expressions. A simple tale packed full of details, and so cleverly executed.
Six short tales follow – two from Dickens and four from other writers – testimonies from the people of Mugby representing the possibilities of the six other routes out of Mugby.
The stories are quite a mixture, covering a wide range of themes but drawn together by the ever-present theme of the railways. The quality is variable, but there is one gem among them – Dickens’ own The Signalman.
The signalman of tells of a ghost that has been haunting him. He receives ghostly signals that nobody else can hear. They foreshadow deaths on the railway, ultimately the signalman’s own. A simple concept but it is perfectly constructed, brilliantly executed and oh so spooky. I read it twice, picking up new things on the second reading, and would be more than happy to go back for a third reading.
Definitely the highlight of an intriguing period-piece.