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The ghost of injuries present in

Dickens's The Signalman
David Ellison
Griffith University
Published online: 03 Aug 2012.

To cite this article: David Ellison (2012) The ghost of injuries present in Dickens's The
Signalman , Textual Practice, 26:4, 649-665, DOI: 10.1080/0950236X.2012.696488

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0950236X.2012.696488


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Textual Practice 26(4), 2012, 649 665

David Ellison
The ghost of injuries present in Dickenss The Signalman
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Written in the aftermath of the Staplehurst rail disaster, Dickenss ghost

story The Signalman is often read for its uncanny insights into what
would later come to be known as trauma theory. This paper revisits that
text in its focus on retrospection, belatedness, repetition and the disarti-
culation of event from consciousness to consider the role of other, argu-
ably less intense, but still traumatising experiences. For example, Dickenss
fraught editorial relationship with Elizabeth Gaskell; specifically his
decision to remove a reference to himself from Cranford that suggested
his readers might suffer injury from writing that found its origins in an
industrial process of steam and gear train. The Signalman anachronisti-
cally unites two distinct events Staplehurst and Gaskells wounding
characterisation within a frame that is recursively haunted by material
common to both: rail catastrophe, mortal threats to the public and
private self, and fraught miscommunication.

Charles Dickens; The Signalman; Elizabeth Gaskell; Cranford; Ana-
chronism; Trauma theory; Rail Disaster; Hallucination; Ghost story

Textual Practice ISSN 0950-236X print/ISSN 1470-1308 online # 2012 Taylor & Francis
Textual Practice

There is something profoundly anachronistic about Dickens. I am not

thinking here of his recent appearance in an episode of Doctor Who, or
the dwindling fortunes of the Dickens World theme park in Kent, or
the collectible epoxy resin miniaturised streetscapes that bear his name,
or the fact that he was once on the Ten-Pound note collectively these
speak to his cultural and, at least until recently, his literal currency consist-
ent with his iconicity and capacity to expressively embody a version of
eccentric waistcoated English liberality.1 The specific instance of anachron-
ism I am thinking of does not originate in our present, but rather in his.
Among the many paintings, drawings, and photographs depicting
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Dickens at home, abroad, in his private family moments and feted

public readings, there is a particular subset that dwells on a reiterated
scene of the author seated, and often unconscious, where he is wreathed
by the fruits of his literary imagination.2 Individual characters or vignettes
mass around him, anachronistically uniting and combining decades of
intellectual labour into a single pictorial plane. The effect is summative
and, in that regard, resembles the familiar frontispieces that appeared in
some of his published works that similarly compress and temporally
flatten the linear narrative they announced. But there are salient differences
here. The frontispiece, for the most part, proleptically announces the
experience the reader will undergo, it relates to the reading to come
(much like a tableau or an overture), rather than as an account of authorial
production. Secondly, the frontispieces were the result of collaboration
between author and illustrator, whereas the images of Dickens with his
characters were produced in his total absence; they are posthumous rep-
resentations. This essay is not about those images per se; rather I am inter-
ested in the model of composition they articulate and how the spontaneous
expression of anachronistically unified material might relate to the experi-
ence of traumatic wounding.
In her lucid gloss on Freuds account of trauma, Cathy Caruth shows
how consciousness protects the organism by placing the stimulus within
an ordered experience of time; allowing us to prepare for the blow to
come.3 Trauma occurs in the absence of such preparedness; it is a breach
in the minds experience of time. Because it is not experienced in time,
it is not yet fully known. The absence of direct experience triggers the rep-
etition of the nightmare, a dream-state that, as Freud has it, is endeavour-
ing to master the stimulus retrospectively, by developing the anxiety whose
omission was the cause of the traumatic neurosis.4 The traumatised subject
lives not just in the shadow of the ungrasped experience, but is restlessly
trapped within its temporality, in recurrent dreams, but also in embodied
behaviours recognised as traumatic symptoms: tremor, aversion, distrac-
tion. Possessed by a past event, the traumatised consciousness is entombed

David Ellison The ghost of injuries

in an amber that colours everything seen in the present; that is, trauma ana-
chronistically unites periods that should be recognised as separate in time.
Paradoxically, the eventfulness of trauma is without the relative
closure that nominally gives discrete shape to events. It is an event that
remains insistently active in the present, an inherently anachronistic affec-
tive experience that depends on the holding together of a previous event
with a present feeling. As such trauma offers an alternate (pathological)
explanatory model of eventfulness that does not so much register the
claims the past may make upon the present, as fuse them into the same dis-
continuous temporal plane. In this way it creates the possibility of pro-
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foundly subjectivised and creative forms of history.

In this discussion I consider a specific historical event, its hold upon a
traumatised imagination, and the anachronistic unification of disparate
periods, as its subject. The event is the Staplehurst train derailment of
1865, the imagination is Dickenss and the time periods are variously
those of the accident, the subsequent publication of a telling short story,
and a much longer stretch of the authors life. I propose that Dickenss
short story The Signalman, first published as part of the Mugby Junction
collection in the 1866 Christmas edition of All The Year Round, offers a
challenge to the way we think about literature written in the apparent
shadow of a traumatic event. Rather than understanding the story as pro-
voked symptomatically, or even as a more complex and nuanced meditation
on an unassimilable experience, I read the anachronism of traumas persist-
ent hold upon the present as an opening to a time of continuous injury. This
is a temporality beyond the immediate source of stimulus that reveals a sur-
prisingly creative space for the reshaping of authorial identity.

Railways and accident time

From its inception, the railways various impositions on the landscape,

the urban fabric, the mind and the senses, have been fertile ground for
thinking about time. The railway demanded a dedicated and centralised
time system, disturbing and displacing local and variable forms of chron-
ology that had previously been measured in cycles of depleting and
replenishing organic energy, the skyward glance of estimation, or the idio-
syncratic claims of the town clock.5 The train delivered modern time as
an anachronistic incursion into the landscape; a scene given specific shape
in literary accounts of field labourers among others who, fearing
obsolescence, violently resisted the construction and extension of train
lines into new areas.6 As networks spread from centre to periphery, the
arrival of the train from beyond the horizon joined villages and surround-
ing agriculture to metropolitan modernity, as well as displacing local

Textual Practice

time. Long-distance train travel depended upon standardised time

initially called railway time and later by the name we know it now:
Greenwich Mean Time.7
Railway time, the newly modern time, was mathematical, precise, and
territorialising except when it was not. Sometimes timetables disagreed,
signals confused, wheels juddered, and engines skipped the tracks. The
phenomenon of sudden accident, of a lethal gap opening in the smoothly
predictable running of the machine, has a history as long as technology
itself in many ways it is that history but the origins of modern
trauma lie in the rupture of linear time as experienced in the mangled after-
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math of the train carriage.8 As early as 1850, the readers of the Household
Narrative of Current Events, a monthly digest published as an adjunct to
Dickenss Household Words could follow the course of railway-line expan-
sion (in miles of newly laid track as well as aggregate passenger numbers)
and the fatal accidents that followed. The latter deaths resulting from
collision, derailment and explosion were recorded in great detail
under the regular heading, Narrative of Accident and Disaster.9
For writers with an interest in this emergence of modern trauma two
obvious sources of material present themselves. The first gathers accounts
of rail accidents (such as technical reports, medical opinion, legal moves
towards recognising a right to compensation) and traces the rise of a
new class of injury that mysteriously left no physical sign. The second com-
prises fiction that dwells, more or less, on the same thing. One text stands
out. It is a ghost story, one of Dickenss last and arguably his finest: The
Signalman. This story is rather beautifully adapted to any number of pre-
occupations in Victorian studies: the aesthetic experience of the unwieldy
humantechnology interface; supernaturalism; and, as suggested above,
the representation of acute psychological states anticipating modern
trauma theory. In terms of the last, the story is enriched by its apparent
symptomatic proximity to a dreadful event in Dickenss life: the Staple-
hurst rail accident of June 9, 1865, an event that Norris Pope pronounces
the most traumatic experience of the final decade of his life.10
The accident occurred during repairs to the Beult viaduct on the main
line of the South Eastern Railway between Staplehurst and Headcorn. To
avoid inconveniencing line closures, the works were carried out in the
intervals between the scheduled train services. Working swiftly, the rails
could be removed, repaired and re-attached in sufficient time for the
train to pass securely. The safety of the works was compromised by the
foreman, John Benge who, in contravention of company policy, neglected
to lay fog detonators that would have warned oncoming trains of danger on
the line ahead. Also, and more devastatingly, Benge had misread the line
timetable, mixing up the 9th and 10th of June. Assuming the tracks to
be clear of traffic, Benges team removed two of the rails. Meanwhile, a

David Ellison The ghost of injuries

13-car train travelled towards the viaduct at a speed of 50 miles per hour.
The flagman stationed 500 yards up the line was able to warn the driver,
but the intervening span of track was simply too short to halt a train of
that length. Surprisingly, the engine, tender and leading brake actually
jumped the gap before swerving off the track. The first carriage, carrying
second-class passengers, remained on the viaduct, while the next, a first-
class carriage where Dickens was seated, remained attached at one end
while the opposite end pitched into the stream. All of the remaining
seven cars left the tracks and tumbled into the muddy water below.11
Ten passengers were killed and a further 40 injured.
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Dickenss effort on behalf of the injured and the dying was illustrated
in a woodcut that appeared in the Penny Illustrated Paper of June 24, 1865.
Amidst a scene of utter chaos, Dickens is seen offering water to a gravely
injured woman. What does not appear here, nor in any of the other
press accounts of the accident, is any reference to his travelling companions
his mistress, Ellen Ternan, and her mother. Claire Tomalin has revealed
how Dickenss knowledge of train timetables, together with houses rented
under assumed names, was part of an elaborate system of misdirection that
concealed his private activities with Ternan, whilst preserving his public
reputation.12 This may account for some of his reticence to testify at the
inquest, as well as being a salient reminder of the necessarily over-
determined nature of this particular traumatic event. Staplehurst, then,
mingled brute shock with the prospect of sexual shame stirred by the possi-
bility of public exposure.
The Staplehurst accident was an undeniably shocking event that
occurred to an author who was, under certain circumstances, prepared to
acknowledge the centrality of traumatic experience as a formative influence
on his life and work. Dickens closes his (posthumously published) autobio-
graphical fragment that detailed the torment of his childhood experiences
in Warrens Blacking House with the words: For I know how all these
things have worked together to make me what I am[. . .]13 And critics
from Edmund Wilson onwards have been reluctant to disagree, finding
in trauma a skeleton key to unlock Dickens. In this light, The Signalman
offers a rich opportunity to think about the relationship between the
text and an avowedly traumatic experience.
Four days after the crash Dickens wrote to Thomas Mitton describing
the scene as he left the carriage:

No imagination can conceive the ruin of the carriages, or the extra-

ordinary weights under which the people were lying, or the compli-
cations into which they were twisted up among iron and wood, and
mud and water. I dont want to be examined at the Inquests and I
dont want to write about it. It could do no good either way, and I

Textual Practice

could only seem to speak about myself, which, of course, I would

rather not do. I am keeping very quiet here. I have a I dont
know what to call it constitutional (I suppose) presence of mind,
and was not in the least flustered at the time. I instantly remembered
that I had the MS of a Novel with me, [Our Mutual Friend] and
clambered back into the carriage for it. But in writing these scanty
words of recollection, I feel the shake and am obliged to stop.14

Dickenss letter already acknowledges two distinct but coincident tempor-

alities; narrative time (which permits memory, reflection, and mediation),
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and trauma time the time of permanent injury that obliges him to stop.
In her essay, Trauma, Memory, and Railway Disaster, Jill Matus
suggests that Dickenss experience of this accident provoked some of the
symptoms we now associate with trauma tremor, loss of voice, dis-
sociation, and terrors.15 While she is understandably reluctant to claim
that The Signalman was provoked by the accident, she argues instead
for the existence of an integral connection between Dickenss experience
and The Signalman, which, she suggests, uncannily apprehends the heart
of traumatic experience in its focus on the uncoupling of event and cogni-
tion, on belatedness, repetitive and intrusive return, and on a sense of
powerlessness at impending disaster.16 For Matus, Dickenss experience
on the train, coupled with his sensitivity to the possibilities presented by
the ghost tale, and his sympathetic attitude towards unconscious knowl-
edges mesmerism, for example allowed him to give shape to that
which contemporary medical theory was not yet in a position to describe.
The text is read with an eye for latency, for signs that the story cannot move
past an experience glimpsed obliquely and fitfully. Matus notices the way
that both the ghost story and trauma narrative share a sense of being recur-
sively haunted or possessed by an image or event that, in turn, is not pos-
sessed. The Signalman, then, permits a return of sorts to the gap opened in
the tracks. It is a means of articulating the experience of railway shock; an
attempt to master a stimulus that resists mastery.17
Matuss reading reveals The Signalman as a haunted and haunting
meditation on the dislocating effects of shock that emerge in the restive
aftermath of a terrible accident but I pause over the apparent self-evidence
of the Staplehurst accident as the telling blow. That any connection can be
drawn between Dickenss ghost story and the abrupt derailment rests on the
particular claims of that moment of experiential intensity, relative to other
moments (including the countless low-level irruptions that deform every-
day life), and the proximate duration of time elapsed. Thus, part of the
unstated argument for considering Staplehurst in relation to The Signalman
is that the latter shadowed the brute shock of the former by a period of
months, as opposed to, say, the period of years after the anguish provoked

David Ellison The ghost of injuries

by Dickenss first disastrous tour of America of 1842, or the decades

following his intense humiliation in the window of Warrens Blacking
House. The most persuasive argument, though, must be the common
pool of thematic content; both the historic derailment and the short story
present a man haunted by the experience of witnessing accidental death
that occurred within a network of obscure and devastatingly incomplete
By isolating the single and singular experience of the Staplehurst acci-
dent, however, we effectively foreclose on the significance of earlier wounds.
The vivid incursions of trauma into the flow of lived time, through night-
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mare and hallucination, anachronistically anchor the victim to a specific

moment of time from which they cannot advance, even as the moment
of injury grows ever more distant. But what if another, related, experience,
separate in time, but consistent in other ways, shadows the presumed source
of shock? Can the permanent present of trauma draw in, and temporally
flatten out, other related materials? By way of speculating about other
earlier sources of injury, let me note that five months after Dickenss car-
riage tipped off the aqueduct; Elizabeth Gaskell suffered a heart attack
and died at the age of 55.
The passage of time between the accident and the publication of The
Signalman story must also, then, properly recognise and encompass Gas-
kells death, not simply as another entry into the log of shocks of variable
intensity that mark life, nor because of any special claims that might be
made in the face of the sudden termination of what was a long and very
complex relationship marked by both collaboration and dispute. I argue
that Gaskell should be acknowledged among the list of passenger fatalities,
not as a figure to be grieved over, but as a constituent component of the
persecuting and recursive material of traumatic perception; the stuff of
nightmare, or at least of a ghost story. Her presence, as registered in The
Signalman, allows us to trace the time of injurys perpetual present that col-
lapses the temporal distinction between the rail accident 1865 and, as I will
argue, another earlier death by train from 1851. The Signalman anachro-
nistically unites these two separate periods within the one frame that is
recursively haunted by material common to both experiences: rail cata-
strophe, mortal threats to the public and private self, and fraught

Cranford and trauma

The accident occurs in the opening chapters of Elizabeth Gaskells Cran-

ford, a novel written between her two great industrial fictions, Mary
Barton and North and South. Cranford, a middling market town presided

Textual Practice

over by a clique of impoverished but genteel older women, is situated on

the verges of modernity it lies within the ambit of a fictionalised Man-
chester translated into an industrial acoustic trace: Drumble. Early in the
novel the narrator relates the terms of a literary debate, of sorts, between
Miss Matty Jenkyns, one of the ruling Amazons, and Captain Brown, a
retired military man associated with the obnoxious railroad.18 The
former is unswervingly faithful to Dr Johnson, while the latter, a man of
suspiciously reformist attitudes, prefers Dickenss Pickwick. This debate,
which allows Gaskell to satirise both conservative nostalgia and Dickenss
modern populism including his innovative publishing methods is
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brought to a startling conclusion in Chapter 2, when the Captain is

killed in a terrible accident. An eyewitness recounts the scene:
The Captain was a-reading some new book as he was deep in, a-
waiting for the down train; and there was a little lass as wanted to
come to its mammy, and gave its sister the slip, and came toddling
across the line. And he looked up sudden, at the sound of the train
coming, and seed the child, and he darted on the line and cotched
it up, and his foot slipped, and the train came over him in no time.
O Lord, Lord! Mum, its quite true, and theyve come over to tell
his daughters. The childs safe, though, with only a bang on its
shoulder as he threw it to its mammy. Poor Captain would be glad
of that, mum, wouldnt he? God bless him! (C 48)
The following day an account of the accident appears in the local paper
where the narrator Mary Smith reads it to Miss Jenkyns:
When I came to the gallant gentleman was deeply engaged in the
perusal of a number of Pickwick, which he had just received,
Miss Jenkyns shook her head long and solemnly, and then sighed
out, Poor, dear, infatuated man! (C 57)

Cranford began its run in Household Words under Dickenss editorship in

1851. On receiving the manuscript of the first number, Dickens intervened
in the passage detailing the Captains death, replacing the number of Pick-
wick with a volume of Hoods poems. This substitution affects many
changes. For one, a dead author replaces a living one Hood having
finally succumbed to a protracted illness in 1845. More broadly, the
switch marks a retrenchment from the explicit modernity of serialised pub-
lication, in favour of older and more conventional forms of book trade.
Hood was intermittently popular, but he commanded nothing like
Dickenss audience, and his work did not circulate through comparable
channels.19 Gaskells response to Dickenss actions was uncompromising;
she moved to withdraw her story from Household Words. In reply,

David Ellison The ghost of injuries

Dickens explained that it was too late the story was already with the prin-
ters. He also offered something of a conciliatory defence:

I am truly concerned for this, but I hope you will not blame me for
what I have done in perfect good faith. Any recollection of me from
your pen, cannot (as I think you know) be otherwise than truly grat-
ifying to me; but with my name on every page of Household
Words, there would be or at least I should feel an impropriety
in so mentioning myself. I was particular, in changing the author, to
make it Hoods Poems in the most important place I mean where
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the captain is killed and I hope and trust that the substitution will
not be any serious drawback to the paper in any eyes but yours. I
would do anything rather than cause you a minutes vexation
arising out of what has given me so much pleasure, and I sincerely
beseech you to think better of it, and not to fancy that any shade
has been thrown on your charming writing, by the unfortunate
but innocent, Charles Dickens. (Letter from Dickens to Gaskell,
December 5, 1851)20

This explanation that the change was made to avoid what might
appear as gratuitous self-promotion does not ring true for a number
of reasons, not least of which is the evidence of a lifetime devoted to gra-
tuitous self-promotion. Dickens self-hooding and worry about the draw-
back in any eyes but yours suggests that Dickens (the unfortunate but
innocent), cannot tolerate looking at his own name (and by extension,
his work), in this context where his writing contributes directly to the
death of a reader. Tellingly, this refusal is echoed in variant form in his
1865 letter to Mitton following the Staplehurst derailment: I could only
seem to speak about myself, which, of course, I would rather not do.
The Captains death, while arresting, fails to disturb the novels wry
and genial tone. If anything, it is a peculiarly weightless plot development
that occurs outside of conventional narrative sequence that would other-
wise frame the death in pathos or revelatory possibility. Instead, it presents
a hollowed-out version of Carkers death in Dombey and Son. While the
train, identified in Dombey as the triumphant monster, Death, mows
down both Carker and Brown, it is only in the former case that the
engine is in the service of the novels judicial mechanism. In fact,
Dombey was praised for its novel approach to the problem of purging vil-
lains from the text. When Carkers mutilated fragments are thrown in the
air, he is destroyed because he is beyond redemption. The Captain, by con-
trast, is not punished for his moral actions he is killed because he
happens to read Dickens dangerously.21

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When he collects the latest number of Pickwick from the station,

Captain Brown engages in an activity that links contemporary readers to
a network of systemic change in terms of the form, marketing and distri-
bution of the literary commodity text the industrialisation of writing.
As he dies, Brown is wholly and mortally implicated in a machine
process. In other words, his death is literally occasioned by those industrial
changes to literary production that can no longer be adequately shielded
from the reader who, in turn, succumbs to the industrialisation of
reading itself. This development is registered in the violent destruction
of the Pickwick readers body, chewed up by the very machine ensemble
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(the steam press that printed the number, the steam train that delivered
it across a vast and rapid distribution network) that is the hallmark of Dick-
enss vigorous literary modernity, recast as the triumphant monster, Death.
This is something of a hyperbolic rendering of Thomas Carlyles familiar
objection to the commercialisation of the literary marketplace from Signs
of the Times (1829): Literature, too, has its Paternoster-row mechanism,
its Trade-dinners, its Editorial conclaves, and huge subterranean, puffing
bellows, so that books are not only printed, but, in a great measure,
written and sold, by machinery.22 Or, as here, written, sold and read.
Is it unfair to suggest that Pickwick directly occasions Browns death?
After all, he actually dies in the protective service of a child. But, that rescue
bid and his subsequent fall under the wheels occur in a moment of dis-
torted temporality a literal collision between the subjective experience
of time as unfolding narrative action (the Captains experience of
reading Pickwick) and the objective, pitiless dictates of rail time (affording
the Captains access to Pickwick). Within this distortion, the narrative
description of Browns activities exists in an anterior and obscure relation
to the event described. Although roused from his number of Pickwick,
Brown never properly suspends his immersion in Dickenss text; his
heroic, self-sacrificing action on behalf of an imperilled child is recognisa-
bly the subject of continual fictive re-enactment in the Dickens canon (a
list that must include, but is in not limited to, Oliver, Pip, Little Nell,
Little Dorrit, Smike, Jo, David Copperfield, and so on at some length),
although here it is utterly devoid of context. In other words, the gruff
and idiomatic Captain, the death-threatened innocent child, the number
of Pickwick, and the steam train combine in an activated field that is
thoroughly, even emphatically Dickensian, albeit revealed in an unwonted,
machine-like, and ruthlessly destructive light; a Dickensian field of pro-
duction. Cranford forces the discursive and nostalgic Pickwick to avow
its industrial underpinnings. By Hood-ing Pickwick, Dickens attempts to
neutralise and dismiss the terms of Gaskells misreading. As he, and
others devoted to celebrating his virtues never ceased to remind, Dickens

David Ellison The ghost of injuries

was fantastically industrious not, as Gaskell appears mischievously to

suggest, blatantly industrial.
It is reasonable to say that this conflict was something of a representative
crux in Dickens and Gaskells professional relationship. Their disagreements
emerged from essentially different methods of composition and production.
According to Shirley Foster, Dickens wanted the regularity of episodic struc-
ture in order to fit into his pattern of serialisation; Gaskell worked much less
methodically and could not mechanically subdivide her writing this way.23
Gaskell continued to collaborate with Dickens and also to provide writing
that was serialised for the journal. When, following its successful run in House-
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hold Words, Gaskell finally published Cranford in volume form in 1853, the
disputed references to Dickens and Pickwick were reinstated.
If, as I suggest, the Staplehurst derailment (an experience linking
Dickens with the train, death, the serialised literary commodity text, and
a threat to identity) recalled an intensified version of Gaskells contested
section of Cranford, The Signalman should, above all, be understood as a
corrective intervention of the original, injurious, misreading. The Signal-
man draws together distinct narratives, but also distinct times within one
anachronistic frame: Cranford, Dombey, Staplehurst, and the time of The
Signalman itself, as well as the inaccessible, haunted present of the trau-
matic experience; this is time that is a discontinuous opening to history,
an open wound.

Signalman time

For all its complexity, the plot of The Signalman is reasonably straightfor-
ward. Out on an evening stroll, the narrator looks down into a deep cutting
where he sees a signal box standing at the mouth of a tunnel. The Signal-
man in attendance appears to react strangely to the narrators appearance at
the top of the ridge. In conversation the following night, the Signalman
reveals that he has been haunted by a spectre and had initially mistaken
the narrator for the apparition that had previously delivered urgent, but
non-specific, warnings. Shortly after the first of these appearances, a
crash occurs within the tunnel, resulting in many deaths. Some months
later, the messenger reappears with another imperative, but hopelessly
vague warning. Later, a young woman dies at the very moment her carriage
passes by the Signalman. Now the messenger has returned, and the
Signalman is tormented by overwhelming anxiety and a sense of helpless-
ness. Fearful that the Signalmans fixation on these spectral messages may
endanger public safety, the narrator plans to convey him to a doctor the
following evening. On his return to the cutting, though, he discovers
that the Signalman has been struck by a locomotive.

Textual Practice

The story begins in confusion where the time of speech and the direc-
tion it issues from are strangely out of joint:

Halloa! Below there!

When he heard the voice thus calling to him, he was standing at
the door of his box, with a flag in his hand . . . One would have
thought, considering the nature of the ground, that he could not
have doubted from what quarter the voice came, but instead of
looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly
over his head, he turned himself about, and looked down the Line.24
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The Signalman, it is subsequently revealed, has already heard the narrators

words from the apparition where they form the content of the unspecified
warning. In other words, the story begins with a decoupling of speech from
its conventional temporal (and directional) moorings, a gap opened in time
that is, of necessity, particularly distressing for the Signalman, whose
metier is exactitude. On his second visit, the narrator observes the Signal-
man at work making entries into a book that record the past by way of
securing a non-eventful future. To that end, he also monitors the
warning bell; however, unlike the book, the bell possesses two distinct
tones that separately denote mortal communication from the station,
and the arrival of the spectre.
The narrator, who moves between prosecutorial and pastoral
modes, tries to convince the Signalman that what he has seen and heard
is baseless. When, for example, the Signalman describes observing the
spectre by the red light of the tunnel, the narrator, drawing on contempor-
ary theory around the problem of perception without object, argues from
the well-established position that the senses are deceived due to some
disease of the nerves that minister to the eye.25 In his 1885 survey of theor-
etical models of hallucinatory perception, Edmund Gurney counters the
argument for the role of peripheral excitation where the diseased
condition of the eye or ear is causative with the view that the excitation
originates in the mind, from the seats of ideation and memory.26 In
this case, the senses follow a set of instructions imposed upon them
executively by the creative mind. Gurney finds strong evidence for this
particular model among people who can summon hallucinatory experience
at will,27 a group that, unsurprisingly, includes visual artists. It should
also admit Dickens, who, according to G.H. Lewes, declared every
word said by his characters was distinctly heard by him.28 Lewes
seizes on this claim to make a larger point about the vivid power of Dick-
enss imagination as compensation for his manifest weaknesses as a

David Ellison The ghost of injuries

I was at first a little puzzled to account for the fact that he could hear
language so utterly unlike the language of real feeling, and not be
aware of its preposterousness; but the surprise vanished when I
thought of the phenomena of hallucination. [. . .] His peculiarity is
not the incorrectness of the drawing, but the vividness of the imagin-
ation which while rendering their incorrectness insensible to him, also
renders it potent with multitudes of his fellowmen. (See Note 28)

Lewess rather sour assessment of Dickenss powers is useful here because it

identifies the centrality of hallucination, not just to the production of his
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written work, but crucially, also to its distinctive reception as form of sus-
tained, collaborative hallucination. Dickens thus overcomes the habitual
crisis of the hallucinatory the harrowing isolation of the unshared
percept. This, of course, brings us back to The Signalman, a story that
turns on the reality, or otherwise, of the hallucinations that seem to orig-
inate in a single consciousness, and then oddly, if not supernaturally, spill
their boundaries, and are vividly perceived elsewhere.
The Signalman cannot recognise himself as subject to hallucinations
because the spectral warnings he receives belatedly assume proleptic
shape in relation to disastrous events. His tragedy is that he is the recipient
of information that is not actionable. Each catastrophe is preceded by
scraps of incomplete communication: he is held in thrall by a ringing
bell, a waving arm, a cry of alarm, none of which is sufficient to authorise
some new course. The form of the Signalmans haunting is striking those
maddening fragments of narrative the way it rehearses Gaskells galling
account of Browns violent death by bits of deracinated Dickens. Brown
enters the disjunctive time of the Dickensian field, where narrative sits in
an obscure relation to the event it describes. The Signalman suffers the
anguish of urgent language tied to, but temporally disconnected from,
the industrial death of which it warns.
Those fruitless warnings from the ringing bell and the spectre who
slips in and out of visibility at the tunnel mouth may originate from an
unknown source, but they are perceived within the real frames of the
cutting, the box, the house. Gurney suggests that the external space at or
near the seat of the imagined object plays a real part in the phenomena.
He employs Binets term point de repe`re to signify a nucleus of sen-
sation to which the hallucination accretes itself.29 Under conditions of vis-
itation, the bell and the tunnel fall out of sonic and visual synchronisation,
they cease to signify directly. The orality of the tunnel, in particular,
described by the Signalman as abhorrent, wet, and stained, is markedly
abject. The same is not true of the narrators mouth that is sought out
by the Signalman, yet similarly subject to supernatural visitation. Thus,
in addition to the phrase he unwittingly quotes Halloa! Below

Textual Practice

There! the narrator also mentally gives voice to the spectres silent ges-
ticulation as mimed by the Signalman:

I took you for someone else yesterday evening. That troubles me.
That mistake?
No. That some one else.
Who is it?
I dont know.
Like me?
I dont know. I never saw the face. The left arm is across the face, and
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the right arm is waved. This way.

I followed his action with my eyes, and it was the action of an arm
gesticulating, with the utmost passion and vehemence, For Gods
sake, clear the way! (SS 15051)

This curt, chopped dialogue lays the foundations for the storys uncanny
conclusion in which the narrator will hear that hitherto unspoken
phrase, For Gods sake, clear the way!, spoken by another person in the
context of the Signalmans death:

Without prolonging the narrative to dwell on any one of its curious

circumstances more than on any other, I may, in closing it, point out
the coincidence that the warning of the Engine-Driver included, not
only the words which the unfortunate Signalman had repeated to me
as haunting him, but also the words which I myself not he had
attached, and that only in my own mind, to the gesticulation he had
intimated. (SS 159)

The driver who has killed the Signalman gathers up, and localises, the
various temporally disjunctive phrases used in the story, bringing them,
momentarily, into temporal alignment. More importantly, though, the
narrator ceases to be a conduit or interlocutor, and becomes instead a
type of author possessed of a hallucinatory (and not an industrial)
method of composition. The narrators location in the cutting, and proxi-
mity to the scene of the rail line accident is, thus, significantly revealed as
coincidence rather than necessary. Read in the context of Dickenss efforts
to censor Captain Browns reading experience, the conclusion of The Sig-
nalman reverses the sequence in Cranford, decoupling the narrator/writer
from the ruined train.
This story of haunted possession emerging from a context of the per-
manent eventfulness of traumatic injury is a space both to measure that
experience and to correct or recast a misreading, to make an alternate
claim on behalf of the authorial imagination. The moment in which the

David Ellison The ghost of injuries

haunting voices in the Signalman discover, or rather return, to a point of

single origin in the narrator, impinges on Dickenss hallucinatory and con-
tinuous process of composition and reception hearing voices that come
to you, whilst permitting others similarly to experience that form of posses-
sion. The curiously impacted nature of this process, acknowledged in the
fractured narrative temporality of The Signalman, a story written towards
the end of his life, glimpses a process of writing (and hearing/reading)
that pointedly defies representation in terms of the temporality of the
orderly machine. It suggests, instead, recursive and belated transcription,
and the anachronistic unification of periods in time that should otherwise
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be kept distinct.
The narrator of The Signalman becomes an author through myster-
ious eventfulness, not through machine-like production. His is a radically
passive imagination, where the story emerges around him; something heard
in conversation, and made out of sequence in both senses. All of the dis-
continuous times of the story are made present in the narrators final reflec-
tions, an anachronistic flattening out of time around an unconsciously
creative figure. This particular construction is recovered and given visual
form in the depictions of Dickens in his dream state with which this
paper began. I am not suggesting that those posthumous images reflect
specifically on The Signalman, rather that they register the success of
Dickenss capacity to supernaturalise his industry.
Produced following Dickenss death in 1870, these images share a
common origin in two works: Luke Fildess The Empty Chair and
Robert Busss unfinished watercolour Dickenss Dream. In Fildess work
the chair sits pulled back from the desk, not in a scene of abandoned indus-
try, but rather to evoke, and simultaneously mourn, the dreamy, expectant
nature of Dickenss writing process. In this account, the chair is a point de
repe`re, a fixed, physical object party to a now silenced hallucinatory ensem-
ble something grasped and elaborated on by Buss. In his watercolour, a
seated Dickens dozes while scenes from his novels paper the walls, as if in
retrospect. A number of subsequent images cleave to this template, altering
the terms slightly when it comes to the mechanism by which Dickens
encounters his creations. In some he dreams, in others he surveys. Collec-
tively, the lasting impression they leave, and the legacy they promote, is
of the hallucinator, anachronistically and creatively gathering all narrative
time around him, not the deadly machine churning out numbers.

Griffith University

Textual Practice


I wish to thank Holly Furneaux, Helen Groth, and Paul Sheehan for their
advice and assistance in preparing this article.


1 Juliet Johns discusses Dickenss diverse afterlives in her Dickens and Mass
Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
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2 George P. Landow has collected some of these images online: http://www.

3 Cathy Caruth, Violence and Time: Traumatic Survivals, Assemblage, 20
(1993), pp. 24 25.
4 Quoted in Caruth, p. 24.
5 Schivelbush, quoting Pitrim Sorokin, discusses the process whereby organic,
local time is displaced by industrial time: If we try to replace socio-cultural
time by a purely quantitative time, time becomes devitalised. It loses its
reality, and we find ourselves in an exceedingly difficult position in our
efforts to orient ourselves in the time process, to find out where we are
and where are the other social phenomena on the bridge of time. Wolfgang
Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in
the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986),
pp. 33 37.
6 See, for example, George Eliots Middlemarch, Chapter LVI London : Every-
man, 1997.
7 See Jonathon H. Grossmans chapter on Transport in Sally Ledger and Holly
Furneaux (eds), Dickens in Context (New York: Cambridge University Press,
2011), pp. 334 342.
8 Ralph Harrington, The Railway Accident: Trains, Trauma, and Technological
Crisis in Nineteenth-Century, in Mark S. Micale and Paul Lerner (eds), Trau-
matic Pasts: History, Psychiatry, and Trauma in the Modern Age, 1870 1930
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 31 56.
9 Household Narrative of Current Events (for the Year 1850,) Being a Monthly
Supplement to Household Words, Conducted by Charles Dickens, (London,
1850), p. 228 ff.
10 Norris Pope, The Signalman and Information Problems in the Railway Age,
Technology and Culture, 42.3 (2001), pp. 436 461.
11 I rely here on Pope, Signalman and Information Problems, pp. 436 461.
12 Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Charles Dickens & Nelly
Ternan (New York: Knopf, 1995), pp. 141 149.
13 Quoted in Richard J. Dunn, A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Charles Dick-
enss David Copperfield (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 21.
14 Graham Storey, Margaret Brown, and Kathleen Tillotson (eds), The Letters of
Charles Dickens: Volume 11: 1865 1867 (New York: Oxford University Press,
2000), pp. 56 57.

David Ellison The ghost of injuries

15 Jill Matus, Trauma, Memory, and Railway Disaster: The Dickensian Connec-
tion, Victorian Studies, 43.3 (2001), pp. 413 436.
16 Ibid., p. 414.
17 Ibid., pp. 443, 446.
18 Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (London: Penguin, 1986), p. 38; hereafter referred
to as C.
19 See Malcolm Andrews on the transformative modernity of Dickenss method
of serial publication. Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves: Dickens and the
Public Readings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 11 12. For a
survey of Hoods relationship with Dickens, see Alvin Whitley and Thomas
Hood, Hood and Dickens: Some New Letters, Huntington Library Quarterly,
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14.4 (1951), pp. 385 413.

20 Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson, and Nina Burgis (eds), The Letters of
Charles Dickens, Volume Six: 1850 1852 (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1988), p. 549. Cited in Annette B. Hopkins, Dickens and Mrs.
Gaskell, Huntington Library Quarterly, 9.4 (1946), pp. 357 385.
21 Such a timely accident was hailed by reviewers as a novel and topical solution to
the perennial problem of how to dispose of villains. A reviewer in Sharpes
London Magazine, wrote that duels are very vulgar in novels, and happily
very much out of fashion in society the railway is new and handy; and Mr
Dickens made a very tolerable use of it, all things considered. Sharpes
London Magazine (May 1848), p. 202; quoted in P. Collins, Dickens and
Industrialism, Studies in English Literature, 1500 1900, 20.4 (1980),
pp. 651 673. For a broader discussion of Dombey and Son and mobility, see
David Ellison, Mobile Homes, Fallen Furniture, and the Dickens Cure,
South Atlantic Quarterly, 108.1 (2009), pp. 87 111.
22 Thomas Carlyle, A Carlyle Reader, ed. G.B. Tennyson (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 36.
23 Shirley Foster, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Literary Life (New York: Palgrave Macmillan,
2002), p. 66.
24 Charles Dickens, No. 1 Branch Line: The Signalman, collected in Michael
Hayes (ed.), The Supernatural Stories of Charles Dickens (London: John
Calder, 1978), p. 144. Hereafter referred to as SS.
25 G.E. Berrios surveys nineteenth-century approaches to hallucination in
Tactile Hallucinations: Conceptual and Historical Aspects, Journal of Neurol-
ogy, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, 45 (1982), pp. 285 293.
26 Edmund Gurney, Hallucinations, Mind, 10.38 (1885), p. 192.
27 Ibid., p. 185.
28 G.H. Lewes, Dickens in Relation to Criticism, Fortnightly Review, 11.62
(1872), pp. 149.
29 Gurney, Hallucinations, pp. 172 173.