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In chapter VII of Sons and Lovers, the Morel family are about to go on holiday, and a tin box is mentioned:

He [Paul Morel] was master of the party; his father was no good. And great tortures he suffered lest the tin box should be put out at Firsby instead of at Mablethorpe. And he wasn’t equal to getting a carriage. His bold little mother did that.

What does "tin box" mean in this context and what is it for?

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A “tin box” was a kind of trunk, which a family might use to transport their clothes and other personal items when travelling:

Tin-box, Tin-case, a strong iron box tinned† and japanned,‡ for holding papers, dress articles, &c.

Peter Lund Simmonds (1858). The Dictionary of Trade Products, Manufacturing, and Technical Terms, p. 380. London: Routledge.

† Covered with a thin deposit of tin. ‡ Lacquered or varnished.

The Morel family were travelling to Mablethorpe by train (“They were to go on Saturday morning by the seven train”). In the period when the novel is set (the late 19th century), large items of luggage were not carried onto the train by passengers (as we do today), but were entrusted to porters for loading into the train’s luggage van. Each item of luggage was supposed to be tagged with a label naming the destination station, but of course mistakes happen, so when the narration says that Paul suffered “tortures lest the tin box should be put out at Firsby instead of at Mablethorpe” it means that he was worrying throughout the journey that the family’s luggage would be unloaded at the wrong station and they would lose it, or at least have to begin the holiday without it.

Note that the narrative moves directly from the party at the Morels’ house the night before the journey, to Paul’s worries on the train, with no indication that there is a change of scene. This is a modernist technique whereby the narrative is structured like a recollection, which skips from one event to the next.

Here’s an example of the kind of mistake that Paul was worrying about, from the judgment in a legal case, Gogarty v. Great South and West Rail Company (1874), in which the railway company had lost the plaintiff’s luggage:

The facts of the case are few and by no means complicated. Colonel and Mrs. Cooper, and the Plaintiff, Miss Gogarty, were travelling by the Defendants’ line from Cork to Tullamore. The luggage of the party, including this tin box, was put into the Defendants’ luggage van in Cork, and I have no doubt was labelled for Tullamore in the usual way. There was no other luggage for Tullamore. This particular box was directed by the Plaintiff herself, “Miss Gogarty, Mullingar, via Tullamore.” The luggage travelled safely to Portarlington. There the passengers for Tullamore have to change trains, and the evidence is that they did so change trains. They got into the train for Tullamore. The tin box was seen on the back of one of the Defendants’ porters being carried across the line from the Cork train to the train for Tullamore. There is no evidence how the luggage was removed from the Cork train to the Tullamore train beyond this, that it was carried across the line from the one train to the other.

John William Carleton, ed. (1876). The Irish Reports, volume 9, p. 235. Dublin: Edward Ponsonby.

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