Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Bang-Up! Theatricality and the "Diphrelatic Art" in De Quincey's English Mail-Coach

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Bang-Up! Theatricality and the "Diphrelatic Art" in De Quincey's English Mail-Coach

Article excerpt

This article examines implicit connections between Thomas De Quincey's The English Mail-Coach and the English popular stage during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. At this time, London included among its entertainments equestrian spectacles, re-creations of historical and contemporary warfare, and farcical commentary on the so-called "Four-in-Hand" or "Driving" mania that seized the city early in 1809. From February to July of that year De Quincey was in town seeing Wordsworth's Convention of Cintra pamphlet through the press, a task that left him well-schooled in the campaigns of the Peninsular War that figure prominently in the section of his essay called "Going Down with Victory." Given the long-standing preference of De Quincey and his college-age peers for riding "on the box," which he describes in the first part of The English Mail-Coach, he is unlikely to have overlooked this new frenzy for coach-driving in the nation's capital. In fact, the fundamental crisis that shapes the entire Mail-Coach essay concerns skill in driving coaches, not just in sitting atop them. Moreover, the "diphrelatic" or "charioteering art," as De Quincey calls it, links three contemporary arenas or "theaters" for the testing and evaluation of equestrian skill in the pages of his essay: the London popular stage, the streets and highways of England, and the "theater" of war.

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In the century and a half since 1849 when Thomas De Quincey's The English Mail-Coach first appeared in print, no one has examined the essay's possible connections to the English popular stage, which included among its offerings equestrian spectacles, re-creations of historical and contemporary warfare, and farcical commentary on the so-called "Four-in-Hand" or "Driving" mania that seized London early in 1809. From February to July of that year De Quincey was in town seeing Wordsworth's Convention of Cintra pamphlet through the press, a task that left him well-schooled in the campaigns of the Peninsular War that figure prominently in the section of his essay called "Going Down with Victory." (1) Given the long-standing preference of De Quincey and his college-age peers for riding "on the box," which he describes in the first part of his essay, he is unlikely to have overlooked this new frenzy for coach-driving in the nation's capital. In fact, the fundamental crisis that shapes the entire Mail-Coach essay concerns skill in driving coaches, not just in sitting atop them. Moreover, the "diphrelatic" or "charioteering art," as De Quincey calls it (215), (2) links three contemporary arenas or "theaters" for the testing and evaluation of equestrian skill in the pages of his essay: the London popular stage, the streets and highways of England, and the "theater" of war.

The English Mail-Coach is divided into three prelusive narratives--"The Glory of Motion," (3) "Going Down with Victory," and "The Vision of Sudden Death"--followed by a "Dream-Fugue" incorporating themes, events, and images from all three sections of this "prelude." Each preliminary narrative corresponds to a different period in the history of the author's life-long infatuation with coach-travel.

In 1804, De Quincey matriculated at Oxford and began riding atop public coaches, along with the rest of "young Oxford" (188). This was the period when, as he says, he was first introduced to the lovely "Fanny of the Bath road," whose grandfather--later metamorphosed into a "crocodile" in De Quincey's oneiric imagination--drove the Royal Mail on the Bath-to-Bristol run. Stopping regularly along the route to greet his granddaughter, this "crocodile" coachman remained ever "vigilant over her deportment in any case where young Oxford might happen to be concerned" (195)--De Quincey included. In July of 1809, soon after De Quincey's stay in London, Wellesley achieved his hard-won victory at Talavera. In "Going Down with Victory," De Quincey conveys the excitement and prestige of being an outside passenger on the Royal Mail from 1805 to 1815, as the coaches carried news of victories like Talavera, Badajoz, and Salamanca throughout the kingdom. …

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