Mr. Stephenson’s Regret
The hallmark of any historical novel must surely be that, primarily, it tells an entertaining story whilst at the same time arousing an interest in the period or subject matter so that the reader may be encouraged to carry out some later research. With this novel about the pioneers of the railway age, George and Robert Stephenson, David Williams has succeeded admirably on both counts.
My personal knowledge of the Stephensons was very basic, but after reading this I have now got an insight into their background, their early education and working lives, their relationships with family, friends and colleagues, and crucially how they developed the engines for which they would become famous, such as “The Rocket”, and the role they played in the Stockton-Darlington and Liverpool-Manchester lines. You don’t have to be a railway buff to enjoy the story, because it is told in an engaging manner with lots of incidents and episodes described, most of which will be unfamiliar to the general reader. Williams obviously knows his stuff, having come from a similar mining background and area to George Stephenson, and he frequently uses local slang and idioms in his dialogue which at first can be strange until you get used to them. I found the episodes describing Robert’s early education particularly entertaining.
Whilst concentrating on the often complex relationship between father and son, Williams has also painted a broad canvas of society with many famous historical figures appearing such as Wellington, Peel, Queen Victoria, William Huskisson and Dickens. One or two of these passages appear slightly contrived but do not really detract from the overall effect.
Williams must be congratulated for bringing to life what is challenging subject matter in an interesting and thought provoking way.