Two recent anniversaries, within a few weeks of each other, brought home to me in a very vivid way that the Industrial Revolution in Britain was a time of frantic change, an era when enormous social and technological change happened in the blink of a historical eye.
January 2013 marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, as well as the 150th anniversary of the first journey on the London Underground. I am, in different ways, exceedingly fond of both the Tube and the writings of Austen, and this juxtaposition of anniversaries was an interesting reminder of how different these worlds were. Two human generations – less than a lifetime – are all that separate the fictional Mr Darcy’s bowling up to Netherfield in a horse-drawn carriage from the real possibility of a steamy, coal-choked trawl through the newly-excavated tunnels from Paddington to King’s Cross. On the first day alone, forty thousand people were intrigued enough by the novelty of this new-fangled form of transportation to plonk down their coppers and brave the journey underground, and this would rise to over forty million in 1880, just seventeen years later. Technology was inexorably on the rise.
But draw back to the cozy worlds of Netherfield and Pemberly, and you’d be hard pressed to find any hint of this. Austen’s writing contains little premonition of the changes to come. Technology of the sort that was to transform Britain beyond recognition gets no mention in Pride and Prejudice, and there is not even a passing note of the fact that a flood of new money was already sweeping away the chokehold of the landed aristocracy and would forever change the make-up of British society. Austen’s world is driven by horse power – carriages are mentioned over sixty times during the book, horses turn up fourteen times. Trains? Never.
Railway travel, of course, predates the Tube by some time. It even – only just – predates Pride and Prejudice; the first commercially successfully steam locomotive, Salamanca, was built in 1812, and the famous Puffing Billy followed a year later, the same year that Elizabeth Bennett first appeared in print. It’s a tiny little historical coincidence that is strangely appropriate. On the one hand, we have Austen sitting at her writing desk in Hampshire, putting the finishing touches on a book that would go on to become one of the best-loved and most famous in history, chronicling the lives of fictional figures in an era that was inevitably drawing to a close. Meanwhile in Newcastle the engineer (in both senses of the word, of course) William Hedley tinkers with his strange iron contraption, the first herald of the new age of travel technology – or one of the horsemen of the coming apocalypse, depending on your point of view.
We cannot know, of course, whether this lack of technology in her novels was intentional, or whether Austen was merely ignorant of the change happening all around her. I like to think, however, that she deliberately left us a snapshot of a world she knew was passing away, a faded velvet portrait to be treasured, read and re-read. And the last time I read this marvellous book, as Elizabeth Bennett rode through the Derbyshire hills with her aunt and uncle in a carriage, I was being whisked through a tunnel deep under London, just another anonymous commuter on the Tube.