On holiday recently we travelled on a steam train from Totnes to Buckfastleigh, a really pretty journey. On the way back we had a compartment to ourselves, slid the door closed and enjoyed the privacy.
Travelling in a carriage like that made us think, of course, of travelling on the Hogwarts Express but as we thought a bit more, we remarked on the number of times carriages such as our own featured in children’s literature.
There is this carriage, for instance, where Alice had a most annoying trip with some very confusing fellow-passengers in Through the Looking Glass:
Our carriage (like the Hogwarts ones) was linked with others by a corridor, Alice’s here is one of the earlier types which was completely closed off with a door straight out on to the platform on either side and with no connection to the rest of the train. According to the Bluebell Railway Line (http://www.bluebell-railway.co.uk/bluebell/car_fs1.html) the internal corridor wasn’t introduced until the 1900s mainly so that more passengers could access the toilets. However the individual ‘closed off’ compartments persisted for much longer (I vaguely remember them in use in the 1970s and early 1980s) on shorter commuter routes. This type of compartment was eventually deemed too unsafe- as an individual travelling in one is at the mercy of whoever they are sharing a compartment with without escape until the next station.
In Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner, Emil boards one of the closed-compartment carriages on his trip to Berlin to see his grandmother.
He has an envelope of money to give his Grandmother which he rather nervously keeps fingering. Later in the journey he can’t help himself and falls asleep, only to awake from a terrible nightmare to discover that he has been robbed by the sinister Mr Grundeis, ‘ a low, mean chap who offered you chocolate’. It is a scene neatly echoed in Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke when Sally Lockhart falls asleep in a similar railway carriage and has an important diary about the Ruby of Agrapur stolen by a ‘jauntily dressed’ man in a tweed suit.
Kastner neatly sums up something of the narrative potential of railway carriages in one of his cryptic asides:
A railway carriage is a strange place. Complete strangers sit crowded together in it, and within a few hours they may get to know each other as well as if they had been friends for years. That may be pleasant, or it may not. It depends on what kind of people they are.
Closed railway carriages offer plot opportunities to meet and engage with new characters with whom you would not normally speak and without a good excuse for getting away. Edith Nesbit used them quite frequently for this purpose, such as in The Treasure Seekers when Oswald and Noel meet a ‘lady poet’ on the train who gives them some useful advice and reads them one of her poems.
Once the train gets moving, the carriage becomes its own little environment, cut off from the rest of the world. The sense of isolation features strongly in my favourite carriage example from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken which comes near the beginning of the book. Sylvia has to travel alone on a very long journey by train (a night and a day) to stay with her cousin and gets into a compartment with the apparently friendly Mr Grimshaw. It is freezing cold and snowy. During the night, in a great dramatic scene, starving wolves mass on to the line and halt the train. They begin to fling themselves at the window in an effort to get inside and one manages to break the glass and enter the carriage, where Mr Grimshaw wrestles it to the ground and stabs it. They then both have to move to another carriage by edging along the outside narrow ledge of the train. It is a great story and worth a read if you are unfamiliar with it.
I never really enjoyed the carriage scenes in the Harry Potter books. They seem to bring out the worst in the characters; the cliques, eavesdropping and gossip, rivalries and superiority, but in them J.K. Rowling was drawing upon a long-standing and well-tried plot device. You can probably think of many other examples that I haven’t included.
… and not one mention of Thomas the Tank Engine!