Travel literature

This is a talk I gave to the Harvard eighteenth-century seminar.  Its very much in the rough – a series of musings with a rather unsatisfactory ending.


Tonight I want to offer you a rather opinionated survey of English language travel literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. My approach will be synthetic and systemic – I will be dealing with the dynamics of a body of writing rather than attending to close reading, though I want to reassure you that, given that I don’t have a factory of graduate students, I am not going to bore you, Stanford style, with a series of graphs, maps and trees. (Just one graph). I still think that close reading is one of the best ways in which to understand the nature and appeal of particular works of travel literature in the period.


In 1811 the British Review prefaced an account of Zebelon Pike’s Exploratory Travels through the Western Territories with a deft summation of the different types of travel literature available to its readers, identifying six classes of travel writers. The first were those who had discovered countries ‘before unknown to the European public’, like Marco Polo on China and Philip Johan von Strahlenberg the eighteenth-century Swedish cartographer of Siberia; second were those who delivered more accurate information on countries ‘before imperfectly known’, such as Michael Symes in his account of the mission to Burma in 1795; third were travels distinguished by the superior knowledge of the traveller, such as those of the French artist and Egyptologist, Vivant Denon; fourth were travellers who had “distinguished themselves by skill in any particular department”, a category that included Arthur Young and his Tours examining agriculture, as well as mineralogical tours and those “describing the pictures of Italy for the advantage of artists and amateurs”.   Fifth were travels “which were not so remarkable for the information they convey, as from their originality or singularity, or from some uncommon circumstances relative to the author” – inevitably invoking Laurence Sterne. Finally there were the “one half, or perhaps two thirds” of books of voyages and travels, which the reviewer dismissed as “falling under no definite description” and affording “neither instruction nor amusement”.


There are a number of interesting features to this account. First, its appearance in a journal, the British Review, reminds us of the tremendous importance of the periodical press, especially from the first decade of the nineteenth century, in disseminating travel literature, not just through the publication of extended extracts from expensive travel books, but also in shaping perceptions of them. As Robin Jarvis has shown for North America, and Janice Cavell for Arctic exploration, travel accounts were largely mediated through the Reviews and magazines.   Travel writing was never confined to travel books. Its also striking how easily the reviewer refers to foreign authors of travel literature. The bibliographical evidence of translations shows how international the genre always was, though the direction of translation was predominantly towards rather than away from the English language. And the reviewer clearly imagines a readership drawn to all types of travel literature which she treats as a variegated whole, albeit one mostly composed of literary dross. In this, like many other commentators, the author finds the amplitude and ubiquity of travel literature, its disconcerting capaciousness, as troubling – there is just too much bad writing – just as it has troubled and perplexed modern critics.


What little we know bears out this sense of radical expansion.   As contemporaries often remarked, the period saw a huge increase in travel, whether voluntary or coerced, in which Europeans reached lands and oceans that were relatively unexplored, and many more (including slaves like Olaudah Equiano) travelled along what were referred to as “beaten tracks”, whether the horrendous middle passage or the genteel Grand Tour: more travels begat more travel literature, just as more travel literature begat more travelling. There are no precise numbers here. William St Clair’s figures in his The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period are extremely unsatisfactory on travel literature; the University of Wolverhampton data base on travel writing between 1780 and 1840 contains more than 5,000 entries of which 204 were written to women. A Google ngram shows certain signs of change, but the general point I want to make is about the widespread belief that there was an unprecedented amount of bad travel writing, chiefly in the form of European tours.


Like our nineteenth-century reviewer, scholars of travel literature have tended to recognize its heterogeneity, what Steve Clark, calls its “mixed and middle brow form”. It is a commonplace that travel writing can take many different forms – Paul Smethurst mentions “the memoir, scenic tour journal, topographical essay, romantic narrative, exploration journal and guide book” to which we might add biography, autobiography, a substantial body of verse, as well as various forms of fiction. On the other hand, critics have long been mindful of differences within travel literature. Tzvetan Todorov has drawn a distinction between two sorts of travel narrative: the Allegorical, which, “submits the travellers observations to a pre-conceived design that they are used to illustrate”, and the Impressionistic, which “neglects the world and concentrates on the self, recounting the successive impressions of that self”.   I would say that all travel literature contains three major components: observations about ‘the out there’, the environment the traveller represents; particularities about the experience of travel – its processes, fortunes and vicissitudes; and finally the relation of the traveller to the travels. These are what Henry Brougham in the Edinburgh Review identified as “a description of the countries [the traveller] sees, with the narrative of his own adventures, and the delineation of his feelings”. All of these very readily bleed into one another; how they are configured and what relative weight they are given largely shape the form that the travel account assumes. We are dealing here with a spectrum rather than a marked polarity.


What did not vex the British Review though it did trouble some contemporaries and has certainly troubled literary scholars is the generic relation between the putatively factual travel account and fiction. I’m inclined to think that this issue has been exaggerated, especially when it comes to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (too much Crusofication.) The issue of veracity in travel narratives, of course, never went away, and was often a problem in particular cases, as the unfortunate African explorer, James Bruce was to discover in the response to his stories of Abyssinians eating live (horse) flesh reported in his Travels to Discover the source of the Nile (1790). But the notion that illuminating travel literature could assume fictional forms was something of a commonplace by the early nineteenth century. When the West Country gentlewoman, Marianne Colston, in her rather plodding Journal of a Tour in France, Switzerland and Italy of 1822, remarked that “The immortal Corinna of Madame de Stael, and the 4th Canto of Childe Harold, are, after all that has been written, the best guides and companions of the visitor to Rome. Here are found ideas sublime as their objects, and immortal as the recollections of the city which gave them birth”, she was merely reiterating what had become a cliché. The early nineteenth century was littered with fictions larded with travel information, with verses accompanied by detailed factual annotations, and by travels, like Anna Jameson’s Diary of an Ennuie, that used fictional devices to conceal the identity of the author. Was it not Mary Shelley who wrote that touring was “acting a novel”?


This blend was more often considered a benefit than seen as a problem. Similarly, the boundaries of the category usually defined as Travels and Voyages in periodicals and reviews always remained porous: the borders between fiction and fact, memoir, biography and travel narrative were often crossed.   As Stephen Bending in his study of the periodical reviews puts it, “In practice, the definition of novel, romance, memoir or sentimental travel [was] constantly shifting with the categorization of the monthly catalogues, and [was] redefined with each new issue of the reviews. (1993: xvii)  Travel literature had a tendency to wander. It was precisely this capacious mutability that gave the genre its strength and staying power.


What mattered to readers and to critics in this period was less veracity than the capacity of authors to shape their accounts in such a way as to engage and convince the reader of the plausibility and interest of their narratives. Work on reader reception of travel literature – I’m thinking especially of the work of Robin Jarvis, of David Allan on Commonplace Books, and of the findings coming out of the Open University Reading Experience database project run by Stephen Colclough – demonstrates the importance to readers of the notion of transport, of the ability of the author to move the reader alongside him or herself, as a key indicator of a successful travel narrative. The assertion that the author was present – ‘on the spot’ was the usual phrase – was immediately witnessing (and also immediately recording an occurrence in their journal) had long been a necessary condition of truth claims, but “on the spot” was also where the author wished to place the reader. Of course transport comes in different forms and levels of intensity. It could refer, in the manner of Longinus, to the sublime but it could also, in somewhat more prosaic fashion, refer to mental or imaginative displacement in which the reader was not simply lifted out of herself, but moved to a specific spot. Thus the poet William Cowper’s response to reading accounts of James Cook’s Pacific voyages: “My imagination is so captivated upon these occasions, that I seem to partake with the navigators, in all the dangers they encountered. I lose my anchor; my main-sail is rent to shreds; I kill a shark, and by signs converse with a Patagonian, and all this without moving from my fireside.” By the 1820s John Galt, the Scottish novelist and speculator, biographer and friend of Byron, could mock such attitudes in the character of Mr. Duffle, the protagonist of his travel novel The Steamboat. Listening to the tales of his fellow passengers, Duffle remarks, “I was so taken up, not only with the matter, but the manner of the different narrations, ….that I was transported, as it were, out of my own natural body, and put into the minds of the narrators, so as to think with their thoughts and to speak with their words.” This is more like the sympathy of Adam Smith than the sublime of Edmund Burke. In fact it is much more like Lord Kames’s account in the Elements of Criticism of how literary representations could create what he called “ideal presence”, where the reader is “thrown into a kind of reverie; in which state, losing the consciousness of self, and of reading, his present occupation, he conceives every incident as passing in his presence, precisely as if he were an eye-witness”. And, as Kames goes on to say, “ it makes no difference whether the subject be a fable or a true history: when ideal presence is complete, we perceive every object as in our sight;…history stands upon the same footing as fable: what effect either may have, depends on the vivacity of the ideas they raise; and with respect to that circumstance, fable is generally more successful than history”.


The preferred solution (one that readers came to expect) of travel literature was to employ what Nigel Leask calls “affective realism”, a mode of presentation he traces back to the German naturalist George Forster in his Voyage Round the World published in 1777, and which later flourished with the writings of Alexander von Humboldt. Seen from this point of view, the effect of the real, what James Buzard has called “the authenticity effect”, was not purely a matter of detailed empirical description, but of placing the narrator in the account as an affective and aesthetic respondent, so that narratives of suffering, of elevated consciousness and of feeling were both desirable (as techniques to move the reader) and not seen as incompatible with the desire for facticity. Rather they were a way of consolidating truth claims – as demonstrating presence “on the spot” – and of exciting the sympathy of the reader, leading them into a more complete appreciation of what was described.   When Arthur Young planned to publish his Travels in France during the Years 1787, 1788, 1789, he first sketched it in two parts, one conveying the results of his investigations into French agriculture, the other being a version of his travel journal with most of the personal material edited out. But he was persuaded by a friend, shocked that he had “absolutely spoiled my diary, by expunging the very passages that would best please the mass of common readers”, that he should let his journal “go as it was written. – To treat the public like a friend, let them see all, and trust to their candour for forgiving trifles.”


Though Young followed his friend’s advice, he found it hard to adopt “a careless and easy mode of thinking and writing” most likely to please the public, and was deeply anxious about the “trifling” nature of many of his comments. The issue of how much subjectivity, of how much “I” to place in a travel narrative, remained a fraught one – think for example of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Advertisement to Letters written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796), where the author both asserts and apologizes for her first person narrative (a claim complicated by her gender), but which, as Ingrid Horrocks has shown, was part of Wollstonecraft’s view that travel writings should have an “insinuating interest” or “connecting thread”, which would transport stationary readers with them on their journey.” Jarvis’s work on reception shows that readers were little concerned with, and sometimes actively hostile to too much staging of the authorial self. Perhaps that was because, what remains a tour de force in the hands of Wollstonecraft, regrettably became one justification for the avalanche of travel writing about Europe that followed the Peace of Paris in 1815. Though narrators were often forced to concede that the places they visited and described were familiar stations on the “beaten track” of European tourism, they frequently justified their accounts as revelatory of the traveller rather than the travels. Thus Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Shelley’s friend and biographer, responded to “the usual reproof, ‘How can you think of publishing another book of travels, when there are already so many”, in his tart and ironic Two Hundred and Nine Days; or, the journal of a Traveller on the Continent (1827), by maintaining that “I do not believe that an individual, however . . . humble, ever existed, whose life, written by himself with candour and simplicity, would not be interesting, and in some points, even instructive: the Journal of a Traveller is his life during the period of his travel; it is consequently amusing, not only on account of the countries of which he treats, but as a piece of autobiography”.


The injunction for the travel writer to transport the reader was at bottom a preoccupation of the period after the 1760s, but instructions about how to travel and what to relate were, of course, much older.   A long-standing literature, the ars opodemica, had sought to establish the protocols and comportment of the ‘good’ European traveller.   Justin Stagl, has identified about three hundred such works published between the late sixteenth and the late eighteenth centuries. Along with instructions to ambassadors, political surveys and questionnaires from scientific institutions like the London Royal Society, these were intended to render travel and travellers useful to savants, to states and to members of ruling elites. A typical, if rather late example would be An Essay to Extend and Direct the Inquiries of Patriotic Travellers, written by Arthur Young’s friend and global traveller, Count Leopold Berchtold, and published in English, French and German in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.   Such works addressed almost every aspect of travel in order to ensure that it was accurate, instructive and productive. They dealt with the appropriate preparations for travel – reading and language instruction for example; with comportment – how the traveller should behave when meeting ‘others’; with the proper objects of inquiry; the means of obtaining information; and with the ways in which it should be recorded and organized, using instruments, notes, journals, and diaries, as well as gathering specimens (whether natural or man-made) in order to constitute collections.   From the early eighteenth century this literature became more and more specialized, catering for the botanist, the antiquary and the mineralogist – Linneaus’s instructions on plants, Saussure’s on geology for example – the British Critics category 4 of skills in a particular department – but its broader agenda shifted during the Enlightenment towards a schema that reflected the categories of conjectural history, placing different cultures and peoples, their manners, customs and character, within a chronology of human development, and identifying natural phenomena as part of an ever-lengthening natural history. This can be seen as early as Josiah Tucker’s pamphlet of 1757, Instructions for Travellers, but was to become a common feature of much Enlightenment travel writing.


One area which had not been addressed in the ars opodemica literature was precisely the question of how to present what was discovered through travel to the reader. But most of these earlier works were not intended for the general reader or the reading public at large, but rather for a readership that was primarily scholarly and male – much of this literature appeared in Latin rather than the vernacular languages. The situation changed substantially from the 1760s onward, when travel literature proliferated, became fashionable, and reached a much larger reading public. In this context manner became every bit as important and matter.


At the same time, the rigor and system of conjectural and natural history were hailed by many commentators as a sign of how the modern travel narrative had improved. William Fordyce Mavor, the Scottish educationalist and editor of General Collection of Voyages and Travels, published in 1800 in 28 duodecimo volumes, writing about older travel books spoke of how “The most monstrous fables disfigured their accounts, and credulity received, with undistinguished eagerness, truth and fable, wisdom and error. It was reserved for modern times to create, as it were, a new region in the world of knowledge; it was reserved for modern times to enlarge our acquaintance with human nature, by carrying our researches into modes of life original and distinct, and separated in all their characteristics from all the systems of civilized Europe.” “Few countries can be named”, claimed the antiquarian John Pinkerton, editor of another large – 17 volume – collection of edited travels, “that have not, within the last fifty years, been described in a manner so superior to the former weak narratives, that very few of them retain any other interest, than that of amusement. The old catalogues of pictures and statues, with trifling adventures by sea and land, which were called books of travels, have sunk into obscurity before the new and important works, which illustrate the phenomena of nature, and display the politics and ethics, the agriculture and commerce, the state of the arts and sciences.” This travel literature constructed what Johannes Fabian describes as “a system of coordinates (emanating of course from a real center – the Western metropolis) in which given societies of all times and places may be plotted in terms of relative distance from the present”.


This ‘imperial’ and ‘global’ view, very much grist to the post-colonialist’s mill, saw that the task of the travel narrative was to see through appearances and uncover the hidden structures and system that lay beneath. As Tucker put it in his tract, the modern traveler “should constantly bear in mind the grand Maxim, That the face of every Country through which he passes, the Looks, Numbers, and Behaviour of the People, their general Clothing, Food, and Dwelling, their attainments in Agriculture, Manufactures, Arts and Sciences, are the Effects and Consequences of some certain Causes.”   Because of this, the traveler, says Tucker, “must dedicate his principal studies towards tracing such secret, though powerful Effects and Consequences, as they are produced by the various Systems of Religion, Government, and Commerce in the World”. He needs to learn “whether and how far the said Effects may be ascribed to the natural Soil and Situation of the Country. – To the peculiar Genius and singular Inventions of the Inhabitants. – To the Public Spirit and Tenor of their Constitution, – or to the Religious Principles established, or tolerated among them”.   Particularities were vitally important, but only as signs of larger, more profound historical processes.


Causes, system, moving beyond and beneath surfaces and in depth: these were the preoccupations of such critics as they fought what they (rightly) saw as a loosing battle against the plethora of superficial narratives. Though, as we shall see, the chief site of this struggle was in the reviews and journals, the most sustained attempt to shape travel writing in the period came in the form of a series of best-selling travel books (though largely neglected by modern scholarship) by the Scottish physician and Edinburgh literary figure, Dr. John Moore. In his A View of Society and Manners in France, Germany and Switzerland (1779), and A View of Society and Manners in Italy published two years later Moore made clear that good travel writing involved both a sympathetic narrator and a capacity to discern the hidden workings of large historical forces.   This was precisely the view of figures like Jeffries and Brougham in the Edinburgh Review, and, as Horrocks has shown, of Mary Wollstonecraft in the Analytical Review. What Wollstonecraft wanted was a narrative that “assigned causes” and ensured that “effects [were] traced up to their parent cause”.   Something she achieved, with a clear feminist twist, in her own Letters written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. She was scathing about superficial accounts which she dismissed as “trivial”, “puerile” and “vacant” and, in the case of Mrs. Piozzi’s Observations and Reflections – a work that, despite its modern reputation, was a critical and commercial failure – as “childish”, “desultory”, “lax” and “thin”. The metaphor Wollstonecraft uses, as Horrocks highlights, is one about depth: “Those who can readily gather flowers, will not laboriously turn up the earth for the most valuable minerals”.


But like John Moore, and Arthur Young’s anonymous adviser, Wollstonecraft saw a concern with depth, structure and causes, as entirely compatible with the sort of self-staging that James Buzard has seen as Lord Byron’s special contribution to travel writing. She found Alexander Jardin’s Letters from Barbary, France, Spain, Portugal, etc. (1788) overworked and excessively polished. “This kind of leisurely revision”, she wrote, “often breaks the connecting thread, and renders the descriptions less interesting, by lowering the spirit of the first composition.”   Effective travel literature required an actor as well as an author, a sentient presence conveyed through a spontaneous text. As she herself put it, “I perceived I could not give a just description of what I saw, but by relating the effect different objects had produced on my mind and my feelings, whilst the impression was still fresh”.


So, one major consequence of the proliferation of travel narratives was an attempt to rein in and discipline them; to argue for quality and depth. We can think of this in terms of Nigel Leask’s discussion of the ambiguous or conflicting meanings of curiosity. On the one hand the term was sometimes used pejoratively as a sense of wonder and desire to possess a singular object, a superficial attachment to the exotic. On the other, it also was understood positively to mean an inclination to knowledge expressed as a rational, philosophical articulation of foreign singularities. Not flowers – decorative, immediately attractive, easily picked – but minerals, concealed, useful, discovered only by hard-working excavation.


It is not, of course, my claim that many or indeed most travel narratives followed these injunctions and, though reviewers were much exercised about the ability of authors to produce “affective realism”, many ordinary readers of the sort examined by Jarvis, Allan and Colclough, derived a great deal of pleasure simply from learning new and exotic facts about unfamiliar places, and showed little propensity to pursue deep or hidden meaning. Thus what most struck Matthew (Monk) Lewis in reading Pierre Marie Francois de Pages, Travels Round the World (1791-2) was the author’s description of how “In Madagascar, the ceremony of the circumcision concludes by firing from a musket the fore-skin of the Patient”.


Nevertheless there was a horizon of expectations, a sense of what constituted good travel writing, that encompassed all six of the British Critics types of travel writing, and was shared by reviewers and by readers who, even when titillated by exotic detail, often commented on the literary and presentational weaknesses of the text. We might see that horizon as defined by the long-standing expectation of utile et dulce, the Horatian twins that had often been invoked as the desiderata of travel literature. But I think more is at stake here. Some modern commentators have argued that travel literature was deemed safe – the purveyor of unthreatening curiosities, a suitable literature for women and children.   But this, I think, fails to see that from the 1770s if not earlier, travel literature was heavily entangled with a whole panoply of issues to do with human nature, sensibility, national character, history, nature, individual psychology and the sense of the self. It was clearly perceived as weighty. In this sense the post-colonial critics are right about the centrality of travel literature to the so-called “Enlightenment project”, even if they exaggerate its uniformity, fail to analyse its contentiousness, and neglect its reception.

At the same time the publication of the accounts of Cook’s voyages – the point at which the compiler John Pinkerton fixed the beginnings of ‘modern’ travel writing – was also the moment when issues of presentation, the importance of the sensible direct witness, and the questioning of the role of editors and compilers really took off.   Such issues made clear that, though complex, the relations between sensibility and science were far from invariably hostile. Sterne may have been rejected as a model by some travel writers – “I am writing the account of a real Tour, and not in imitation of Sterne’s Sentimental Journey”, protested Henry Swinburne in his Travels in the Two Sicilies (1783) – but the techniques that Sterne satirized and Yorick used to engage the reader can be found everywhere in more ‘scientific’ narratives. As Paul Smethurst concludes: “scientific realism did not define itself against the practices of the picturesque or romanticism, but instead adapted and incorporated these into their representational technique.”



What, then, finally, about the unruly child of travel literature, the European tour, an area of travel literature that grew most rapidly in the early nineteenth century, was most complained about, and was least likely to end up in large compendia of travels.   Here the problem of what James Buzard and others have emphasized as the issue of belatedness was most acute. – of following beaten tracks and arriving at the place that is already known and well described. (Of course there was one genre of travel writing that thrived upon and celebrated repetition – the formal travel guide, those manuals that culminated in Murray and Baedeker, and that explicitly claimed authority by incorporating the findings of their predecessors). But for most others it was a problem famously defined by Yogi Berra’s line, ‘its déjà vu all over again’.


What were the responses to this problem? I would point to at least three strategies of displacement. One, of course, was simply to journey further afield, to explore territories that were either underexplored or almost unknown to the more general reader. Hence Joseph Banks’ dismissal of the convention the Grand Tour, “every blockhead does that… “my Grand Tour shall be one round the whole globe” and Byron’s 1807 remark that “I shall not travel over France, & Italy the common turnpike of coxcombs and virtuosos, but into Greece and Turkey in Europe, & Russia & at which parts of our Globe, I have a singular propensity to investigate”. A second, for those who were not able to travel further afield, was, as we have seen, to place even greater emphasis on the singular feelings and sentiments of the author, as a sign of distinction and singularity. The European travel narrative was the site of some the greatest and some of the worst instances of travels as, in Chloe Chard’s words, “the adventure of the self”. In addition it was, as Chard also argues, the space in which the symbiotic distinction between traveller and tourist first emerged, a difference not just between good and bad travellers, but good and bad narrators.


Finally I want to point to a form of displacement that I think has largely gone unnoticed, namely the turn away from the printing and publication of such narratives. There are an increasing number of these that survive in manuscript. These are not diaries or journals – of which many survive from the entire period – but lavishly made up albums, produced not on the spot, but after the journey’s end. They are often pastiche – a mixture of their assembler’s thoughts and reminiscences, extracts from guides, and (more often than not) selected visual souvenirs – prints, gouaches, aquatints.   They were intended to be shared by a readership of family and friends, restricted to intimate acquaintance. Thus Ortho William Hawtrey Hamilton’s three volume Recollections of a Tour through France, Switzerland and Italy in the summer and autumn of 1822 is dedicated to his “beloved son” with the rider that “I should like these three volumes to be regarded as a family heirloom”. I am sure that there are other forms of displacement or relocation that we might suggest, but I leave you with these three: travel towards new places, towards a rich and dynamic interiority, or into the domestic sphere of the family album.

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