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  • Fanny Kemble’s Train Trip

    Posted by David Foster on June 22nd, 2010 (All posts by )

    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.”

    The whole Project Gutenberg file of this memoir is here. There’s also a Wikipedia article on Kemble, of course.

    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.


    7 Responses to “Fanny Kemble’s Train Trip”

    1. dearieme Says:

      The USA seems now to be run by her Alvanleys rather than her Stephensons, and someone from showbiz is extremely unlikely to point that out.

    2. david foster Says:

      Dearieme…far too many of our Stephensons seem to be supporting what I might call the rule of the Avanleys (were it not for the fact that Kemble identifies Avanley as a man with considerable wit, not common among our own political classes)…pretty sure that Steve Jobs was as Obama supporter, as were quite a few Silicon Valley VCs, many if not most of whom were entrepreneurs before becoming VCs.

    3. dearieme Says:

      David, your point about wit is beyond argument.

    4. dearieme Says:

      David, so is your other point which is, I suppose, that you’re not run by Avanleys but by the hirelings of Stephensons. Still, I think my sneer at showbiz types stands (excepting the late, great Ronnie, of course).

    5. david foster Says:

      I think VCs and CEOs who are supporting or going along with the Obama policies are either kidding themselves, or pursuing very short-term gain, rather than making economically rational decisions for their investors. For example, it doesn’t matter how many wind turbines and “smart meters” GE gets to sell as a result of environmental programs if these same programs destroy the long-term growth potential of the economy.

      A certain amount of sucking up to those in political power, and of bowing to the currently-accepted green gods, is inevitable, but most companies are carrying it way too far.

    6. onparkstreet Says:

      This post reminds me of Cranford, which I read last year and thoroughly enjoyed. Reminds me I should read more Elizabeth Gaskell.

      David Foster – your posts are the absolute worst for adding to my antilibrary! :) I always want to read everything you talk about.

      – Madhu

    7. david foster Says:

      Madhu….I watched the Cranford video and then read the book…they were very different. The screenwriter took quite a few liberties with the story, but in this case I actually thought the video was better than the book.

      Also watched & read Gaskell’s “North and South” (which is not about the American Civil War)…in this case I thought the video was excellent and the book was even better.

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