Frances Anne Kemble was a British actress who achieved considerable fame subsequent to her 1829 appearance in a production of Romeo and Juliet. I recently ran across her description of an experience she had in 1830, when she became one of the first people to ride on the newly-constructed London & Manchester railway line. Railway travel was then as exotic as space travel is now…arguably more so. Fannie’s escort for the trip was none other than George Stephenson, the self-taught engineer who had been the driving force behind the line’s construction.
She was impressed with the experience of railroad travel (“You can’t imagine how strange it seemed to be journeying on thus, without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace, between these rocky walls, which are already clothed with moss and ferns and grasses”) and with Stephenson (“the master of all these marvels, with whom I am most horribly in love”) She offers an interesting analysis of the roles of government vs the private sector in the creation of this railroad (“The Liverpool merchants, whose far-sighted self-interest prompted them to wise liberality, had accepted the risk of George Stephenson’s magnificent experiment, which the committee of inquiry of the House of Commons had rejected for the government. These men, of less intellectual culture than the Parliament members, had the adventurous imagination proper to great speculators, which is the poetry of the counting-house and wharf, and were better able to receive the enthusiastic infection of the great projector’s sanguine hope than the Westminster committee.”) The relevant section of her memoir is here.
Here’s another interesting passage in which she contrasts Stephenson with an aristocrat called Lord Alvanley and the class of which he was an outstanding representative: “I would rather pass a day with Stephenson than with Lord Alvanley, though the one is a coal-digger by birth, who occasionally murders the king’s English, and the other is the keenest wit and one of the finest gentlemen about town…if you knew how, long after I have passed it, the color of a tuft of heather, or the smell of a branch of honeysuckle by the roadside, haunts my imagination, and how many suggestions of beauty and sensations of pleasure flow from this small spring of memory, even after the lapse of weeks and months, you would understand what I am going to say, which perhaps may appear rather absurd without such a knowledge of my impressions. I think I like fine places better than “fine people;” but then one accepts, as it were, the latter for the former, and the effect of the one, to a certain degree, affects one’s impressions of the other.”
Kemble had many interesting experiences, including marriage to an American who inherited a Georgia cotton plantation, resulting in her becoming a fervent anti-slavery advocate. She seems like an interesting and thoughtful person, well worth knowing better…maybe I’ll go ahead and get a Kindle and apply it initially to reading her memoirs, several of which are here.