Great leap forward

Issue 1/1998 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

The popular Finnish children’s author Zachris Topelius (1818–1898) was also a brilliant chronicler of the coming of the industrial revolution to Finland. ‘A road made of iron?’ That is the reaction of Matti, farmer and crofter, when his local vicar tells him about the wonder of railway travel. Familiarity may have dulled the astonishment and excitement of the celebrated short story Rautatie (‘The railway’, 1884) by the classic writer Juhani Aho (1861–1941) – but that is an occupational hazard for classics. [The first English translation 2012, The Railroad, by Owen Witesman]

Even in remote areas of Finland the railway, this new industrial mode of transport, spread, at first as an almost incredible piece of news. ‘Thought he could trick me!’ snorts Matti on his way home from the vicarage.

When, in the autumn of 1996, the Finnish translation of Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s critically acclaimed A history of railway travel was published, there was something very familiar about it for Finnish readers. Its task was to cast light upon ‘the nature of the industrial consciousness’, and the writer seeks the origin of this consciousness in 19th-century reactions to an unparalleled technical revolution – the railway.

‘And now it was moving … the whole room … doors and windows and floor. … Good lord, I hope it doesn’t fall to bits!’

In this form Finnish schoolchildren have, from generation to generation, experienced the entire emotional range of the power of steam on the railways: disbelief and fear, enchantment and the embarrassment of over-enthusiasm.

The same pattern of reception has accompanied many subsequent technological innovations, from television to home pages on the Internet. Who knows where the next revolution in familiar life and experience lurks? Will the network economy, the Internet, remove shops from the roadsides and money as an object – and make them at the same time the subject of nostalgic memory?

The nostalgia for steam-engines nevertheless conceals the shock which was perhaps one of the most shattering ever experienced by humankind. When the ‘iron horse’ first appeared on people’s retinas, it was seen as a monster, a creature that went against nature. The sight was comparable to the giant spaceship and the terror it inspired in the recent Hollywood blockbuster Independence Day.

But Aho was not the first to describe the railway. It is strange that no attention has been given to the fact that Aho’s short story is in fact a skilful pastiche of another, equally brilliant, description of a rail journey a generation earlier. Or perhaps this oblivion is psychologically all too understandable. For in the earlier story the subjects who come under the amused scrutiny of the writer are not rough country folk but a respectable family from the capital. ‘Mirabeau-täti’ (‘Aunt Mirabeau’), a story written in 1863 by Zachris Topelius (1818–1898), records a rail journey as the as yet unfaded ‘leap in development’ in which form it had appeared on the event horizon of the Finnish capital on a spring day a year earlier.

‘On that day almost the slowest people on earth, who need centuries to wake up fully, were shoved in the twinkling of an eye from months of wondering to the exactitude of a minute,’ Topelius writes. ‘On that day, distances vanished,’ he continues, and the rest of the story is, for anyone who has read Schivelbusch, familiar.

For example, the mother in Topelius’s story ‘predicted the most dreadful accidents in a new mode of transport like that’. There have been such strange stories in the papers. ‘Listen … now they’re screeching again … and going slower … something is broken. Perhaps a bridge is down! Perhaps an embankment has collapsed?’

A major horror of rail travel was, however, a presentiment, which had already struck them at home, ‘the obsession that we would be late for the train’. So that night they hardly slept: they woke up ridiculously early, and presented themselves at the station more than two hours before time.

Happily, Topelius’s family was admitted by the cleaning woman to the waiting room. There they sat, patiently preparing themselves for an experience in which their familiar habits and the limits of their good taste and selfhood would be tested. Even simply buying the tickets threatens to set off a panic attack, and the mother finds it difficult to accept that there will be other passengers in the carriage. She had believed that ‘every family would have their own carriage and that it would be a particular act of goodwill if they were to admit strangers.’

At a station on the journey Topelius’s narrator makes an observation. ‘For the first time in my life I observed the rapid eating of lunch: maggots on a cabbage leaf or two dozen hens around a pile of grain do not compete for food more greedily than the travellers at that table.’ The ‘acceleration’ of eating, smoking, dressing, of ordinary activities in general is indeed one of the main trends of industrialisation. ‘Perhaps it is the conception of modern life in general,’ Schivelbusch suggests.

Of Topelius’s rail travellers, the most awkward was a noisy, scruffy tinsmith who, without ceremony, pushed his way into the gentlemen’s accommodation. As the journey progressed, however, he proved himself to be a ‘respectable man’, who may have had ‘some kind of an education’. Openly he expressed opinions shocking to the world view of the gentry about the beauty of nature and freedom of occupation. Thus, through the new, industrial mode of transport, anew, industrial profession, that of engineer, was gradually taking shape.

It was in observations of this kind that Topelius was at his strongest. Of his large-scale oeuvre, written in Swedish, his multi-volume Fältskärens berättelser (‘Tales of a barber-surgeon’, 1851–58) and Läsning för barn (‘Reading for children’, 1865–96) were favourites in Finland and Sweden for many generations.

Topelius interpreted the struggle for power of his own time between the aristocracy and the middle classes, which to him meant, above all, a social and moral discourse. In it, Topelius wanted to play the part of a go-between. He took the part of the middle-class work ethic and universal, individual ‘morality’. ‘The only truly lasting principles which legal, constitutional monarchy accepts,’ he has a young architect argue with an old, respectable baron, ‘are each person’s individual merits.’

Topelius did not, however, trust completely in the development of the middle classes, but also wished to capture the codes of aristocratic ‘honour’ for the modernisation of civil society, to extend them to ‘all social layers ‘. Severing the aristocratic tradition would be a mistake. ‘Pride in family is, even when one is forced to call it prejudice, more noble than bragging pride in money or the arrogance of officialdom,’ cautioned Topelius, ever the critical moralist.

It is not for nothing that the 180th anniversary of Topelius’s birth, and the centenary of his death, are to be celebrated with impressive facsimile editions and many new studies. As a describer of the topography and worlds of observation and meaning of Finland as it progressed from a feudal society to a bourgeois one, Topelius created a base from which the more realist literary generation that followed could make its start.

Both Topelius and the slightly younger Aho were successful in recording entire sequences of the changes in homely attitudes and modes of speech which the first wave of industrialisation brought to forelock-tugging, half-grown Finland in the late 19th century – a couple of decades later than to western Europe, but all the same with the unrepeatable richness of first exposure. In their writing, they are comparable with Charles Dickens in recording industrialisation or Honore de Balzac in depicting the early, harsh features of capitalism.

Published in a slightly more internationally familiar language, they would furnish excellent source material for the increasingly numerous historians who, like Schivelbusch, have turned their attention, not to grand and ideological narratives but to the everyday lives and sensations of ordinary people.

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