Steamboats in Our Mutual Friend

In Charles Dickens’s Networks (2012), Jonathan Grossman apologises for neglecting to draw upon one of the most famous Dickensian encounters with modern public transport infrastructure, the Staplehurst train crash the novelist directly experienced in 1865, while he was writing the latter parts of Our Mutual Friend. A number of scholars including Sean Grass & Juliet John (2014) have written about the incident in relation to the novel’s production, as in fact did Dickens himself, in its postscript, which tried to make light of what seems to have been in reality a highly traumatic experience. (As Jill Matus (2001) has argued, Dickens’s feelings about his closeness to death that day may well have found their fullest expression in that haunting ghost story of his from a couple of years later, ‘The Signalman’ (1866)).

While, unlike Dombey and Son, Our Mutual Friend does not choose to focus explicitly upon the dark side of railway mania, this last completed of Dickens’s novels is nonetheless unusually interested in traffic accidents, both (notionally) on the road (Jenny Wren and her father each fear being run over on the busy streets) and, with greater prominence, (actually) on the water. Amongst the various fatal or near-fatal experiences various characters meet with in negotiating the Thames, one of the most interesting is the collision of Rogue Riderhood’s little vessel with a large steamboat, the mode of transport Dickens, Ellen Ternan and her mother had made use of for the earlier part of their journey back from France on the day of the Staplehurst crash. Grossman helpfully unpacks how Little Dorrit plays with the global simultaneity enabled by steam-boat travel, but I would argue that this mode of transport performs an even more significant and complex function in Our Mutual Friend. 

Rogue Riderhood's Recovery

For Jerry White, the steamers in Our Mutual Friend are ‘bullying representatives of modernity’ and a ‘malevolent and destructive force’ (‘Victorian Bloomsbury’, Times Literary Supplement 12 Dec 2012), and this is certainly part of the story. In his description of the accident in which ‘a foreign steamer…runs down a wherry’, Dickens implicitly uses the incident in order to point to the class-differentiation of risk on the river, and to allow it to stand in for the way that the larger mechanistic forces of modern capital bear down relentlessly on whatever falls in their path, regardless of the human cost of collision. The voices watching helpless watching the accident and its fallout form a kind of democratic chorus of resistance to the indomitable strong ship and solidarity with the vulnerable weak boat:

Boats were putting off, torches were lighting up, people were rushing tumultuously to the water’s edge. Some man fell in with a splash, and was pulled out again with a roar of laughter. The drags were called for. A cry for the life-buoy passed from mouth to mouth. It was impossible to make out what was going on upon the river, for every boat that put off sculled into the fog and was lost to view at a boat’s length. Nothing was clear but that the unpopular steamer was assailed with reproaches on all sides. She was the Murderer, bound for Gallows Bay; she was the Manslaughterer, bound for Penal Settlement; her captain ought to be tried for his life; her crew ran down men in row-boats with a relish; she mashed up Thames lightermen with her paddles; she fired property with her funnels; she always was, and she always would be, wreaking destruction upon somebody or something, after the manner of all her kind. The whole bulk of the fog teemed with such taunts, uttered in tones of universal hoarseness. All the while, the steamer’s lights moved spectrally a very little, as she lay-to, waiting the upshot of whatever accident had happened. Now, she began burning blue-lights. These made a luminous patch about her, as if she had set the fog on fire, and in the patch—the cries changing their note, and becoming more fitful and more excited—shadows of men and boats could be seen moving, while voices shouted: ‘There!’ ‘There again!’ ‘A couple more strokes a-head!’ ‘Hurrah!’ ‘Look out!’ ‘Hold on!’ ‘Haul in!’ and the like. Lastly, with a few tumbling clots of blue fire, the night closed in dark again, the wheels of the steamer were heard revolving, and her lights glided smoothly away in the direction of the sea. (436-7)

In The Victorian City (2012), Judith Flanders has written eloquently about the ubiquitousness of steamboat accidents in this period.  As she points out, the way that in Our Mutual Friend the crash is initially apprehended by bystanders suggests the horribly predictable, everyday quality of such occurrences:

‘Does anybody down there know what has happened?’ demanded Miss Abbey, in her voice of authority.

‘It’s a steamer, Miss Abbey,’ cried one blurred figure in the fog.

‘It always is a steamer, Miss Abbey,’ cried another. (436)

The large boat that glides smoothly away from the scene of the crime isn’t, however, just ‘a steamer’, being delineated by the angry-yet-jaded spectators with more particularity as a ‘foreign’ ship. Not a Margate packet, transporting Cockney revellers to the seaside nearby, this steamboat that almost kills Rogue is part of the world outside London this novel rarely represents but to which its metropolitan narratives in various ways relate. The stretch of the water by Limehouse that Riderhood and the Hexams know as a kind of local commons is also a global gateway, a place of international transit between London, the empire and the wider world of commerce. For, like Dombey and SonOur Mutual Friend is a coastal novel as much as it is an urban one, and the novel is repeatedly interested in depicting London as a global port – a capital city that is also the central node for the whole world’s capital.

It is telling that the chorus of unidentified voices watching the scene from the shore condemn the amoral carelessness of the captain by re-orienting the steamer’s destination to places of deportation in the colonies, for this underlines the way that the accident represents not only class-collision but also the friction of global and local: ‘She was the Murderer, bound for Gallows Bay; she was the Manslaughterer, bound for Penal Settlement…’ Deportation hovers in the background of this novel, the first Dickens had written since Great Expectations (1860-1), which had foregrounded the practice through the character of Magwitch. Jenny Wren threatens her father with transportation at one point, while, at another, Eugene Wrayburn predicts Rogue Riderhood will be transported or hung. But another crucial transportation within Our Mutual Friend may also be shadowed by the sudden appearance and disappearance of the errant steamer that treats Riderhood to a close brush with a watery grave: that of John Harmon Jr, in his infancy. When the Boffins remember their parting scene with the boy, they inform us that a steamboat was the conveyance that bore little John Harmon away to a ‘foreign school’ in the text’s back-story: this kind of ship had been the fading object on the horizon upon which the kindly servants fixed their tearful gaze, they having carried the child to the landing place themselves, his miserly father having forbidden the expense of ‘sixpence coach-money.’ We don’t know precisely where Harmon is educated for the same reason that readers are often left in the dark about the precise whereabouts of penal settlements in other Victorian fiction: his ejection from London and England is punitive rather than educational in purpose, and his destination is chosen on account of its being far away from what is interesting or comfortable, far away from home, rather than having any distinct or attractive properties of its own.

Like the utilitarian political economy that justified such crude means of exerting control over an unruly population as transportation for life, steamboats become invested in the cultural imagination with a sense of the indomitable. They often mean strength verging on stubbornness; unwavering commitment to one’s chosen trajectory. One of the most admirably determined characters in the novel, Lizzie Hexam’s obstinate allegiance to her father is described early on in the novel by Miss Abbey Potter, landlady at the Limehouse pub ‘The Six Jolly Porters’, by way of reference to the industrial-era oceanic vessels that pass by the locality on their way out of the Thames estuary:

‘Lizzie Hexam, Lizzie Hexam,’ then began Miss Potterson, ‘how often have I held out to you the opportunity of getting clear of your father, and doing well?’

‘Very often, Miss.’

‘Very often? Yes! And I might as well have spoken to the iron funnel of the strongest sea-going steamer that passes the Fellowship Porters.’ (73)

While steamboats serve at times for metaphors of sticking to a pre-determined path, elsewhere they seem to set the imagination free, allowing characters to dream of multiple futures yet unwritten. In their day-trip to Greenwich, Bella and her father sit watching the busy river there: steamboats tugging themselves off to sea are among the ships clustering before them that inspire the mercenary daughter to project onto them alternative fates:

And then, as they sat looking at the ships and steamboats making their way to the sea with the tide that was running down, the lovely woman imagined all sorts of voyages for herself and Pa. Now, Pa, in the character of owner of a lumbering square-sailed collier, was tacking away to Newcastle, to fetch black diamonds to make his fortune with; now, Pa was going to China in that handsome threemasted ship, to bring home opium, with which he would for ever cut out Chicksey Veneering and Stobbles, and to bring home silks and shawls without end for the decoration of his charming daughter. (315)

Note the global quality here. Steamboats cannot fail to remind Bella of the valuable foreign product addressed to her that had recently arrived irreparably damaged in transit: the (apparently) deceased John Harmon Jr. himself. But what also strikes me about this other passage about encountering steamboats is how it suggests that there is something exciting and stimulating about the modernity and indomitable power of this mode of transport, which runs entirely against the negativity threading the collision passage Jerry White (rightly) picks up upon.

And then again: you saw that ship being towed out by a steam-tug? Well! where did you suppose she was going to? She was going among the coral reefs and cocoa-nuts and all that sort of thing, and she was chartered for a fortunate individual of the name of Pa (himself on board, and much respected by all hands), and she was going, for his sole profit and advantage, to fetch a cargo of sweet-smelling woods, the most beautiful that ever were seen, and the most profitable that ever were heard of; and her cargo would be a great fortune, as indeed it ought to be: the lovely woman who had purchased her and fitted her expressly for this voyage, being married to an Indian Prince, who was a Something-or-Other, and who wore Cashmere shawls all over himself and diamonds and emeralds blazing in his turban, and was beautifully coffee-coloured and excessively devoted, though a little too jealous. Thus Bella ran on merrily, in a manner perfectly enchanting to Pa, who was as willing to put his head into the Sultan’s tub of water as the beggar-boys below the window were to put their heads in the mud. (316)

The polar range of tonality of the different passages about steamboats within the novel does not, necessarily, imply a contradiction within Dickens’s take upon this form of mobility, however. Indeed, we may be able to see the frictionless and solipsistic imperial takeover Bella imagines through the steamboats as, in fact, the occluded perspective of those passengers on the ‘foreign steamer’ who may have witnessed unfazed the collision with Riderhood’s wherry before continuing on their tourist or trade itinerary. At this stage in the novel, Bella is unredeemed, and her imagination is doubtless mediated by a love of Mammon of global proportions, which links her, subtly, with the murderous callousness of the steamers upon which she speculates. (See Murray Baumgarten’s essay ‘The Imperial Child, Bella, Our Mutual Friend, and the Victorian Picturesque’, in Dickens and the Children of Empire ed. Jacobson (2000) 54-66, for more about the imperial connotations of Bella Wilfer’s gaze.)

What is rather fascinating about Dickens’s novel is how both heroines, the good Lizzie and the less-than-good Bella, come to be associated with the figure of the steamer, a figure of determination, positive or negative, in rough and unpredictable waters. How can we connect up ideas of gender to our discussion of the cultural representation of modes of transports? Questions, questions…

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend first published 1864-5 (Penguin, 1977).

3 thoughts on “Steamboats in Our Mutual Friend

  1. This was absolutely fascinating.

    On the point about where John Harmon is sent away (by steamboat) to school, isn’t this Brussels? In Book 2 Chapter 13 where JH recalls his meeting with George Radfoot, he says that one of the ways Radfoot struck up an acquaintance with him aboard ship was by telling him that he also had been to school there – “his first school had been at Brussels as mine had been”.


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