Handbook of British Travel Writing
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Handbook of British Travel Writing

Barbara Schaff, Barbara Schaff

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eBook - ePub

Handbook of British Travel Writing

Barbara Schaff, Barbara Schaff

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About This Book

This handbook offers a systematic exploration of current key topics in travel writing studies. It addresses the history, impact, and unique discursive variety of British travel writing by covering some of the most celebrated and canonical authors of the genre as well as lesser known ones in more than thirty close-reading chapters. Combining theoretically informed, astute literary criticism of single texts with the analysis of the circumstances of their production and reception, these chapters offer excellent possibilities for understanding the complexity and cultural relevance of British travel writing.

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De Gruyter

Part I: Systematic Questions

1 Periods of Travel Writing

Barbara Schaff


Perhaps no other nation has been as formative of the genre of travel writing as the British. A nation of seafarers, explorers and traders whose expansionist politics transformed it into a world power from the early modern period onwards, the British have left ample literary testimonies of their experience of the world. This chapter will give a historical survey of British travel writing from the early modern period to the present, looking at the changes in motivation for travel and putting it into its historical context.
Key Terms: Mobility, colonial expansion, discovery, exploration, self-exploration, modernism, post-modernism, exile, nomad,

1 Travel as a Metaphor

Mobility is fundamental to human life. From their very beginnings onward, peoples have migrated and travelled, voluntarily and involuntarily, for their spiritual and physical well-being, out of economic necessity or simply out of curiosity. At the same time, many have told stories about their travels. Mankind’s myths and oldest narratives frequently centre around the motif of travel: emigration marks the beginning of mankind in the Bible, and the plots of the Odyssey and the Aeneid are structured around travels, as are iconic texts in British literature such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) or Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719, ↗ 9 Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe and Tour Thro’ The Whole Island of Great Britain). If settlement is generally regarded as the phase in human history which indicates the development of the social in communities and civilisation, then travel has been connected with the endeavour of individuals to traverse literal, mental and spiritual boundaries. The elementary urge to travel is born of a desire to reach the limits of one’s physical and mental capacity by venturing into the unknown, in the face of dangers and hardships. In Anglo-Saxon poems, such as The Wanderer or The Seafarer, the motif of sea travel corresponds with mystical progress, experience, and redemption. In The Seafarer, the speaker distinguishes himself from the spatial and mental narrowness and complacency of city-dwellers, preferring the harsh and miserable sea journey as a path to spiritual fulfilment.
A man of comfort,
Proud and prosperous, never knows
What seafarers endure on the exile-road.
So my thoughts sail out of my unstill mind,
My heart heaves from my breast-hoard.
Seeking the sea – my spirit soars
Over the whale’s home, twists and soars
Over the earth’s surfaces, rolls and returns,
Greedy and ravenous. The solitary flier screams,
Rousing the quickened heart on the whale-road
Over the stretch of sea.
(Anon., transl. Williamson 2017, 469, ll. 55–64)
The poem epitomises what travelling – and travel writing – has long been about, and in particular in the tradition of the sea-faring British nation of explorers: sailing out of one’s “unstill mind” and travelling on “the whale-road.” Long before a tradition of travel writing in the form of a documented journey began to establish itself in British literature, travel has served as a metaphor for the exploration of identity and progress of life itself.
Given this universal cultural appeal of travel and travel narratives, the particular history and phases of British travel writing deserve some specific explanation. Many scholars generally place the beginning of British travel writing in the Early Modern period and support this claim with the observation of a discursive shift between the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Whereas travellers’ tales in the former were prone to describe an enchanted world shaped by miracles and the supernatural, the Early Modern period distinguished itself by a perception of the world which began to rely more and more on what could be seen, experienced, testified and, as Stephen Greenblatt has argued, possessed (see 2003, 28). Sir John Mandeville’s mid-fourteenth-century Travels, the story of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land but also more distant Eastern lands such as India or China, and some fictional destinations such as the walls of Paradise, is often cited as an example of the early history of travel writing which had not yet come to abide by the rules of mimetic representation. While Mandeville’s true identity remains unknown, the narrator is a knight from St Albans in the South of England who sets out in 1322 and returns in 1356. The Travels, a compilation of many different earlier medieval sources, is far from homogenous: fantastic elements such as wool-growing trees, cyclops, griffins, headless men and two-headed animals are interspersed with hard geographical information. For Greenblatt, however, the distinctive difference between Mandeville’s travel text and early modern ones such as Ralegh’s Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana (1596, ↗ 8 Walter Ralegh, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana) is not the shift from fictional to factual travel writing, because wonder is still “an almost inevitable component of the discourse of discovery” (2003, 20). Wonder – which finds its rhetorical expression often in the forms of allegories, metaphors and similes –, Greenblatt further claims, suspends the skepticism of European travellers and makes them “revise their sense of what is possible and what is only fabulous” (2003, 21). The encounter with the hitherto unheard of and unknown, argues Greenblatt, makes it difficult to order the experiences within the already established epistemological categories. Thus, Miranda’s exclamation “Oh wonder! […] Oh brave new world!” (Shakespeare, The Tempest, V/1) mirrors the experience of travellers who found themselves confronted with scenes they had thought only to exist in the world of fantasy. The boundaries between the real and the imagined are sometimes blurred, and, not unlike a sixteenth-century cabinet of wonder, early modern travel writing positions factual descriptions alongside stories located in the fantastic. If the mode of representation is often still similar to the one in medieval texts, however, the objectives of travel writing change.

2 The Early Modern Period

In the Early Modern period the great sea voyages and discoveries of Christopher Columbus (1492) and Vasco da Gama (1498) enabled Europeans to pursue extensive overseas explorations, territorial appropriations, and establish wide-ranging trade systems. The English participation in this Age of Discovery set in relatively late: it was only after Francis Drake’s three-year voyage round the world, the first English circumnavigation of the globe (1577–1580), that England began seriously competing with Spain and Portugal as rivals for geopolitical supremacy (see Sherman 2002, 18). Consequently, in the early sixteenth century English travel publications were mostly translations of foreign works (see Sherman 2002, 19) but this changed with a work that might be said to indicate the beginning of English travel writing: Richard Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, And Discoveries of the English Nation (1589) and its second, expanded edition published between 1598–1600. Hakluyt, whom G. B. Parks refers to as “the midwife of English travel writing” (qtd. in Fuller 1995, 142) was a well-connected London clergyman and geographer but no traveller himself. His lasting influence lies in his achievements as the compiler of the first anthology of English travel writing. The narratives included covered various parts of the globe; the Americas, the Levant, Russia, Persia, the East Indies and Africa. They were told by merchants, diplomats, or navigators, who were not distant observers, but in every respect participants in their own journeys, providing their readers with a plethora of eye-witness accounts of distant lands based on empirical observations. Equally important was Hakluyt’s enormous political and ideological impact. His interest in travel writing was not simply fed by geographical curiosity but by distinct geopolitical, religious and mercantile interests. Hakluyt supported the colonial expansion of the English protestant nation, and his focus on English voyages established the nation as a maritime power in print when in reality it was just about to emerge as such following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. His Principall Navigations were thus formative in the process of English identity- and nation-building, performing, as Margaret Fuller has observed, “a substitutive function, standing in for the success which England did not yet enjoy in the field of colonization” (1995, 148).
Similarly, Walter Ralegh’s Discoverie (↗ 8 Walter Ralegh, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana) continued this mode of travel writing marked by a national and expansionist agenda. But whereas the emphasis in Hakluyt’s anthology was placed on mercantile travel, Ralegh focussed on the mode of discovery as the guiding textual strategy (despite the fact that, as Johannes Schlegel remarks in this volume, Guiana had by the time already been discovered by the Spanish). His geographical and ethnographical descriptions emphasised detailed empirical observations and truthful rendition which would set the tone for future narratives of discovery. However, Ralegh’s account was far from innocent. Faced with the problem of presenting a radically foreign territory and alien people as a lucrative opportunity for investment to the English, and what is more, kindle interest in a mythical place – Manoa, the legendary city El Dorado – Ralegh had to turn a largely failed enterprise into a heroic story of success. Accumulating what Stephen Greenblatt has called “mimetic capital” (2003, 6), he created images of abundance, translated the unfamiliar indigenous flora and fauna into familiar tropes of an Edenic setting, referring in many places to alleged findings of gold. In a colonialist vein, he presented the native Americans as possible loyal subjects of Elizabeth I who could be liberated by the protestant and civilised nation of England from the yoke of (Spanish) darkness and Catholicism. The initially not quite successful narrative of the English latecomers in the geopolitical race was here transformed into a narrative of moral success: the Spanish may have discovered Guiana, but the British brought freedom and civilisation. This gesture of moral supremacy would resonate in much of the imperialist and colonial travel writing in later centuries.
With the establishment of the “Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge” in 1660, an institution was founded that would advance knowledge production for the next three centuries. William Dampier, buccaneer-scientist and according to Sherman “the most celebrated seaman between Drake and Cook” (2002, 29), had circumnavigated the globe three times. Back in London in 1691, he was prompted by the Royal Society to transform his detailed notes on the nature of the regions and the customs of the people he had visited into a travel account (see Thompson 2011, 46). His lively A New Voyage Round the World combined detailed observations of people, animals and plants with an unembellished prose style that quickly became one of the most popular travel accounts of the age.
Popular as such accounts and their reliance on exoticism were with conte...

Table of contents

  1. Title Page
  2. Copyright
  3. Contents
  4. 0 Introduction
  5. Part I: Systematic Questions
  6. Part II: Close Readings
  7. Index of Names and Works
  8. Index of Subjects and Places
Citation styles for Handbook of British Travel Writing

APA 6 Citation

[author missing]. (2020). Handbook of British Travel Writing (1st ed.). De Gruyter. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/2107370/handbook-of-british-travel-writing-pdf (Original work published 2020)

Chicago Citation

[author missing]. (2020) 2020. Handbook of British Travel Writing. 1st ed. De Gruyter. https://www.perlego.com/book/2107370/handbook-of-british-travel-writing-pdf.

Harvard Citation

[author missing] (2020) Handbook of British Travel Writing. 1st edn. De Gruyter. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2107370/handbook-of-british-travel-writing-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

[author missing]. Handbook of British Travel Writing. 1st ed. De Gruyter, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.