‘Tickets, please!’ said the Guard, putting his head in at the window. In a moment everybody was holding out a ticket: they were about the same size as the people, and quite seemed to fill the carriage […] All this time the Guard was looking at her, first through a telescope, then through a microscope, and then through an opera glass. At last he said, ‘You’re travelling the wrong way,’ and shut up the window and went away.
‘So young a child,’ said the gentleman sitting opposite to her (he was dressed in white paper), ‘ought to know which way she’s going, even if she doesn’t know her own name!’
The fact that the ticket inspector, in the above passage from ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’, had to ‘put his head in at the window’ in order to check the passengers’ tickets gives away that the scene is taking place in a ‘compartment coach’ – a coach divided, as the name suggests, into separate compartments, with no means of moving between them other than along running boards fixed to the exterior for use by guards and inspectors. Their jobs must have particularly unpleasant during bad weather.
I imagine that one would, on entering one of these at the start of a journey, discretely contemplate one’s fellow passengers – these strangers with whom one would be sharing an enforced intimacy. I can imagine the excitement and anticipation that might be felt if one saw one was going to share the journey with someone particularly attractive or interesting. Or the sinking feeling if it was clear that the journey would be spent with someone rude, malodorous or dull.
Once the train had set off the passengers would find themselves enclosed together in a peculiar existential situation. Not only were they shut together in a confined space, but all would be sharing a kind of period of suspended time, an interregnum, when the cares and preoccupations of the world outside the carriage became irrelevant, where, even if one were in an anxious hurry to meet a pressing appointment, all agency and power of action had been removed.
Add to this the possibilities for the re-invention of the self, for taking risks, the erotic charge of anonymity.
The normally timid man could be that little more reckless in making eye-contact and flirting with an attractive woman; that woman could feel maybe more at liberty to respond, knowing that the people she shared the compartment with were, and would remain, if she so chose, strangers once the journey was complete.
And then there would be the philosophical thoughts provoked by watching the ever-changing landscape flowing by, the crowds waiting on the platforms, and the dull suburbs of large cities, revealing the teeming ordinariness of life, leaving the passenger feeling maybe restless, dissatisfied, impatient with the narrow circles of the existence he’d briefly left and was returning to.
Both the following poems turn around encounters between men and little girls during a railway journeys.
The first is by the English poet, Roy Fuller (1912 – 1991). It is written in the form known as the Meredithian Sonnet which, rather than using the traditional sonnet’s 14 lines of iambic pentameters, consists instead of 16 lines (the form taking its name from George Meredith who used it for his Victorian, 50-poem sequence ‘Modern Love‘).
Fuller’s ‘Meredithian Sonnets’ reproduces the fevered, neurotic tone of Meredith’s ‘Modern Love’, a tone which seems to foreshadow the discoveries of Freud.
XIII (From ‘Meredithian Sonnets’)
He reads a poem in a railway carriage
But cannot keep his glance upon the tropes,
And asks himself what it is he hopes:
Criminal contact, fatherhood or marriage?
The child’s grey eyes and tiny, dirty nails;
Its other sex; its beauty, unflawed, slim;
Its unembarrassed consciousness of him –
In which, however, he completely fails
To make out any element except
A curiosity sublime: is this
A human commerce far beyond the kiss
Such as awakened goodness where it slept
Inside the hairy capsule, or invented
Incredible ideas of innocence –
Conception lacking flesh and prurience,
And orifices marvellously scented?
Indeed to think of children as anything other than ‘innocent’ is so transgressive in our society that our language is poorly furnished with the vocabulary and concepts which could allow us to clearly formulate and express such thoughts. The clogged syntax of the final question seems to evoke this difficulty.
The next poem was written by Roy Fuller’s son, John Fuller (b. 1937).
In a Railway Compartment
Oxford to London, 1884:
Against the crimson arm-rest leaned a girl
Of ten, holding a muff, twisting a curl,
Drumming her heels in boredom on the floor
Until a white-haired gentleman who saw
She hated travelling produced a case
Of puzzles: ‘Seven Germans run a race…
Unwind this maze, escape the lion’s paw…
The princess must be lowered by her hair…’
The train entered a tunnel, shrieking, all
The lights went out and when he took her hand
She was the princess in the tower and
A lion faced her on the moonlit wall
Who roared and reached and caught and held her there.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832 – 1898), better known as Lewis Carroll, came to Oxford University in 1850 and remained there, in various capacities, till his death.
He’d carry with him a bag filled with gifts, games, and puzzles (as well as such practical items as safety pins: useful for keeping little girls’ dresses dry when paddling at the seaside) with which he would entertain bored little girls on train journeys.
It’s more doubtful if he was ever quite ‘white-haired’: in the late photographs we have of him it’s hard to distinguish whether his hair has gone white in patches, or whether we are just seeing a reflection of the light.
Maybe it doesn’t really matter if John Fuller based the gentleman in the poem on Dodgson. But what are we to make of the poem’s last four or five lines? Is the girl experiencing panic at the touch of the man’s hand? or exhilaration? The panting rhythm of those lines certainly seems to suggest fear, but could there also be an element of the sado-masochistic eroticism so often found in fairy tales?