“Mugby Junction” is the 1866 Charles Dickens Christmas story, or actually three stories, or in some sense seven. The “extra Christmas number of All the Year Round” included four otherstories by other authors all in the same railroad junction setting. One of the contributors was a popular writer of children’s books calling herself Hesba Stretton. I am just noting the name “Hesba.”
I didn’t read those, just the Dickens, more good ones: a decent ghost story featuring a haunted signalman, a hilarious sort of boast from “the boy at what is called The Refreshment Room at Mugby Junction… what’s proudest boast is, that it never yet refreshed a mortal being”; and a longer story about a sad man adrift in the world but who finds meaning through the usual Dickensian stuff.
It would be easy to become distracted by the Refreshment boy (“It’s only in the Isle of the Brave and Land of the Free (by which of course I mean to say Britannia) that Refreshmenting is so effective, so ’olesome, so constitutional a check upon the public”), clearly the author’s carefully nursed revenge upon a life of railway station indignities. But the long story, that is the interesting one.
The sad man is Barbox Brothers, the label on his luggage, his only souvenir from his business, “some offshoot or public branch of the Public Notary and bill-broking tree,” successful enough but meaningless. We meet him soon after he has given it up. Earlier in his life, “the only woman he had ever loved” deceived him with “the only friend he had ever made.” Purposeless, he takes a random train, exits at a random station, and finds renewed meaning by encountering random people. including the young daughter of the woman who dumped him.
Now, what is interesting about this business is that it is an exploration of one of the greatest weaknesses of Dickens, the temptation to have a wealthy, benevolent bachelor solve the problems of his plots. The device goes back to the beginning, to The Pickwick Papers, or at least to Nicholas Nickleby. In “Mugby Junction” Dickens creates a plausible psychology for the bachelor’s benevolence based on a life of personal trauma. Dickens had worked on the problem before, in A Christmas Carol and Bleak House and Little Dorrit – with a great deal of irony in the latter two – but never in such a low key, or on such a small canvas, or some other metaphor borrowed from some other art.
The other interesting thing about the story is of course the prose. Much of the best stuff is about the railroad:
Mysterious goods trains, covered with palls and gliding on like vast weird funerals, conveying themselves guiltily away from the presence of the few lighted lamps, as if their freight had come to a secret and unlawful end. Half miles of coal pursuing in a Detective manner, following when they lead, stopping when they stop, backing when they back. Red hot embers showering out upon the ground, down this dark avenue, and down the other, as if torturing fires were being raked clear; concurrently, shrieks and groans and grinds invading the ear, as if the tortured were at the height of their suffering.
Etc. Plenty more of this. And when it is over, there is that monstrous boy in the Refreshment Room.