‘We travellers are in very hard circumstances,’ said Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. ‘If we tell anything new we are laughed at as fabulous.’ This mistrust of the footloose is endorsed by the trenchant definition of ‘traveller’s tale’ in Chambers’ Dictionary: ‘an astounding lie about what one professes to have seen abroad’. To be sure, this batch of 19th-century travellers’ tales features some astounding liars, but there are also some reasonably honest witnesses. These include the stiff-backed statesman whom Max Beerbohm called ‘Britannia’s butler’, two twin widows on a Gospel quest, a get-rich-quick bride in Amazonia, a caustic spinster in India, a writer of fairy-tales, a future poet laureate teamed with a leading delineator of bosoms and bums, and a respected novelist earning his crust in Ireland. ‘No one expects literature in a work of travel,’ said Mary Kingsley (she who was saved from the spikes of the leopard pit by her thick, sensible skirt), but many Victorian travellers had an eye on the popular magazines and lecture platforms. The sheer profusion of outlets, at the century’s end, probably tempted fabulists.
To generalise about these books would be rash: however, they contain many minor echoes and parallels which both tease and please. Thus the famous subcutaneous worms which permeate the population of Bokhara are matched by the long intestinal worms displayed, coiled in bottles, in London chemists’ windows. The domestic slaphappiness of the monks in Sinai is more than balanced by that of the filthy students at Maynooth College, in Ireland. It is hard not to marvel at the expense of spirit shown in tracing the source of rivers, or in ensuring that Englishwomen, wherever they are, do not fall below their station; and no one could fail to be impressed by the ubiquity of champagne, even on the high Amazon. The jacket of Travels with a Superior Person shows the young Curzon, resembling a more soigné young Churchill, standing proprietorially before the Pyramids. This is the man who postponed marriage to an heiress for four years in order to travel the world, which he could not ask a wife to do. Elizabeth Longford, in her introduction, describes this as a characteristic blend of ‘cold calculation and sensitive consideration’. The book consists of extracts from Curzon’s Tales of Travel, Russia in Central Asia and Leaves from a Viceroy’s Notebook (a title to put the reader in his place). ‘No traveller of the period had a prose style to match that of Curzon,’ proclaim the publishers, but the great man unbending to amuse with his travel anecdotes (some of them mere worked-up footnotes) is painfully formal and stilted. Fortunately the writing greatly improves when he crosses the Caspian, where Elizabeth Longford finds his purple passages’ alluring. Certainly he can bring the ‘shameless uniformity’ of Kara Kum alive by his account of sand-columns giddily revolving away into a land of mirage. He delights in describing natural effects and three times he invokes Wordsworth’s ‘the light that never was on sea or land’. But his account of Mount Athos seen from afar is highly resistible: ‘a girdle of amethysts encircled its waist; the breath of beauty fanned its radiant shoulders; its head was crowned with a diadem of rubies and pearls.’ (What, no chalcedon? No chrysoprase?)
Curzon did his stint of quiet spying, but his curiosity extended everywhere. He met many rulers, a number of whom were later shot, knifed, blown up or deposed. Among his hosts was a redoubtable Afghan amir who, if only he had lived earlier, and not been ground between Britain and Russia, ‘might have founded an Empire, and swept in a tornado of blood over Asia and beyond it’. Curzon is fascinated by the campaigns of another frustrated Tamerlane, General Skobeleff (‘Bloody Eyes’) who exclaimed, after wiping out 20,000 Turkomans for the Czar: ‘How unutterably bored I am, there is nothing left to do.’ On a different level Skobeleff had a rival in the sportsman Littledale, who sighted an ovis poli in the high Pamir. ‘I record with pleasure’, says Curzon, the fact that Littledale was ‘the first Englishman who has ever shot a male specimen of this famous and inaccessible animal’. Perhaps, afterwards, Littledale was unutterably bored too.
And the dread worms of Bokhara? We are told that these parasites, between two and three feet long, were extracted by slitting the victim’s toe and winding them out an inch or so at a time, taking care not to snap them, which could spread lethal poison. An illustration of this feat would have been more fun than subfusc studies of deserts. To offset those, there are some engaging pictures of potentates, not all trustworthy-looking. But do we need a portrait of Edward VII just because he sat on the platform at a Curzon lecture?
The Ladies of Castlebrae is a saga of learned frumps triumphant. It describes how wealthy twin sisters from Ayrshire, blue-stockings who in fact wore white stockings, travelled to St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai and discovered an early version of the Gospels, which was being used, a page at a time, to serve pats of butter. Not every well-bred Scots lady can identify a greasy Syriac palimpsest at breakfast, but Agnes Lewis had no doubts. In 1894 the rescued document created much excitement, not least because it seemed to show Joseph as the natural father of Jesus. Agnes tried to explain this away, but was not too embarrassed; like her sister, Maggie Gibson, she was enjoying her new-found fame in a man’s world. Speaking as a true scholar, she said: ‘Isn’t it fun when you can quote from something no one else has access to?’
Both women had been married to savants, sharing each other’s honeymoons, but the husbands had died after a brief span (‘I call this jolly sinister – where is Poirot?’ says Eric Newby, naughtily, in a foreword). Until Sinai beckoned, the twins, almost fifty, had never really known what to do with themselves, and Whigham Price, though a determined delver, is stretched to keep up our interest in them. As well-equipped travellers, with 11 camels, they faced no worse vexations than the usual devious dragomans, who found Agnes a ruthless browbeater; their real discomforts began in the library of the monastery, with unglazed windows, set in a sunless valley. One day, climbing Mount Sinai, Agnes was confronted by a testy Prior and ordered peremptorily to adore his Cross, but she was able to cope with even this imposition. The twins’ second visit to Sinai with a party of scholars, one of whom had a pretty wife, was full of tension. An over-effusive greeting bestowed on Agnes by Father Galakteon was later colourfully described in a book by a disaffected lady member of the expedition, and Agnes went to immense labour to deny publicly that she had been hugged, or fumbled, in the desert by a man of God. The two ladies later atoned for their wealth by endowing an academy for theologians, Westminster College, Cambridge.
The next two books are harvested from old family letters. Lizzie Hessel, subject of Lizzie, was a bride who accompanied her husband up the Amazon in the late 1890s, covering 4000 miles in 13 months, to the settlement of Orton, where they hoped to make a quick fortune in the rubber boom. It was the time of the Putumayo scandals and every refinement of infamy flourished, but Lizzie could take the sufferings of others in her stride. On the ship she was at the top table, with champagne corks for ever popping (‘I have to think of my position’), while the immigrant workers, battened below, roared with hunger. ‘If they come up they will be shot,’ remarks Lizzie calmly. The Amazon natives were ‘just like animals’ and had to be whipped into action; their sulky children ate soil and chewed up their clothes. Trading morality was uncomplicated. At Orton a small planter refused to give up his independence, so ‘our people captured him, kept him drunk and locked him up here for two weeks and he signed papers selling his business to us.’ Like Agnes Lewis, Lizzie had a treasure to which no one else had access: a precious hoard of sugar. The authors conceal till the last moment the fate that befalls this none-too-lovable young matron. But they quote far too much domestic dross from her letters, and the book screams for the blue pencil, which should also be applied to the vertical rules confining the text. Good background information is provided by Tony Morrison, who has himself endured those deep white clouds of insects descending ‘like a hair shirt’.
If Lizzie scratched and sweated, so did Isabella Fane, the Commander-in-Chief’s daughter who followed the Army in India in the 1830s. She was a sharp-tongued young woman, who also had to maintain a suitable style. The letters quoted in Miss Fane in India were written to her aunt in England. She finds the future Julia Margaret Cameron, the photographer, ‘a little, ugly, underbred-looking thing’; the talkative Misses Eden, Emily and Frances, are old and ugly and stink like polecats. There is a long tedious dinner at the Babington Macaulays, but the host escapes personal comment. Children exasperate Miss Fane; she would not wish her sleep disturbed by ‘a fat maggot’ at her side. A ‘stupid blind’ ayah makes as many as 13 attempts to connect a hook with an eye. This is unbuttoned correspondence in every sense: the writer apologises for gloating over the pendulous exposed bosom of the Rajah of Bhurtpore – ‘this machine of his hung down more than the biggest of ladies’.’
So much for the Jewel in the Crown. Perhaps a thoroughly unladylike account by a real lady was just what was needed. An Indian army on the move, measured, glittering and inexorable – rather like Curzon’s prose – has hitherto been thought of as a sight of supreme imperial and logistical splendour, but now we see the Gorgeous East blowing its nose with its fingers. Poor Miss Fane! She was under stress to excel as her father’s hostess and perhaps was nicer than she sounds (as even Lizzie may have been). We should bear in mind that a niece is not on oath to her aunt. Apparently Isabella half-hoped to see her letters published and wondered whether to introduce ‘some bursts of fine writing’, an indulgence best left to Viceroys.
John Keay, the drily witty author of Travellers Extraordinary (and, earlier, Eccentric Travellers), comes as a timely model of concision. His heroes are the coxcombs and humbugs of travel, or pretended travel. The best-known is Louis de Rougemont, alias Henry Green, who fooled the Wide World magazine in 1898 with his nonsense about cannibals in Australia. In much the same class was his contemporary, A. Henry Savage Landor, grandson of the poet. As a boy he half-hanged himself, which, as Keay remarks, was excellent training for being towed by the throat behind Tibetan ponies. Worse things than that supposedly happened to him in the Himalayas, where he ‘took to heart the words of Lord Salisbury about “an Englishman’s right to get his throat cut when and where he likes” ’. His In the Forbidden Land was an unstoppable best-seller. The graduates of the new Board Schools seemed over-eager to be taken in, revelling as they now were in strange seas of indiscriminate communication.
Other Keay characters include the obsessed pedestrian, Captain John Dundas Cochrane, who set out to walk round the world to take his mind off a family disgrace; the ‘epicene waif’, Isabelle Eberhardt, who tried to ‘do a Pierre Loti’ in Algeria; and a self-intoxicated Scot, John ‘Rob Roy’ MacGregor, whose speciality was reaching the source of rivers by canoe, even when the source was a turgid swamp (his lecture called ‘Arma Virumque Canoe’, with practical demonstrations, had the mechanics’ institutes in a roar).
And now, three famous authors. Hans Christian Andersen’s A Visit to Germany, Italy and Malta, 1840-41 proves to be a thin travelogue, over-delicate like blanched veal. Eager to make an immortal reputation, determined to see magic and faery everywhere, he forces his enthusiasms to small avail, filling in with whimsical tales. The most memorable character of this book (Unesco-sponsored) is the greedy fat Englishman who shares the Dane’s coach and behaves with a Bunterian crassness almost beyond belief. Was Andersen perhaps trying to build him into one of his ogres? During the journey the writer is ‘sick, both spiritually and physically’ and he admits that in familiar Italy the ‘scent of novelty’ has gone: but his devotees will relish his playful ingenuousness no less than his fortitude.
If misfortune befell Andersen, it was nothing to Thackeray’s distress when he first set off to write The Irish Sketch-Book. His wife threw herself from the boat, was fished up, and then made another suicide attempt. Weaker men would have wriggled out of the publisher’s contract, but Thackeray waited a couple of tortured years and then set off again. It was 1842, the eve of the Great Famine, which lends his report a grim piquancy. He is predictably hot against the black-a-vised, scowling priests, the do-it-yourself Trappists making their own shoes, the filthy young students at Maynooth in need of ten drill sergeants to make them wash. If we are to immure pretty girls as nuns, he says, we might as well support suttee in India: a thought repeated when he sees pilgrims performing ritual progresses on bare knees round and round the cairns on Croagh-Patrick, with priests urging on the blood-dripping laggards. Yet he believes it is the threat of the weekly Confessional that keeps pretty Irish girls so ‘highly moral’.
An indefatigable and cheerful reporter, he visits gaols, asylums and poorhouses and finds the occupants cleaner and happier than people outside. He listens to the popular case for throwing vitriol at owners of new-fangled saw-mills, he hears the great Father Matthew on Temperance, he fends off innumerable beggars and impostors. While he can see that a man will lie in bed to deaden the pangs of hunger, he cannot see why an absentee landlord is to be blamed for the steaming muck-heap under the tenant’s window. It is vigorous stuff.
Mr Rowlandson’s England is a curious hybrid, confessedly executed with tongue in cheek. It has some two hundred and fifty illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson at his liveliest, ranging from the satirical to the rustic. The text is by Robert Southey, condensed from his 1807 report on England purporting to be by a Spanish nobleman, and the joke consists of finding Southey phrases to fit Rowlandson pictures, or vice versa. One objection to this forced union is that Southey was less preoccupied by male scarecrows and fat beldams than Rowlandson; another is that we are denied Southey’s views on the industrial cities because Rowlandson shrank from them; and another is that some unidentified ‘Southeyed’ passages have been inserted, their historicity guaranteed by the editor John Steel. We read that England was beset, then as now, by vandalism, defacement, crime based on envy, vile domestic architecture, eyesores at beauty spots, over-tight trousers and captious book-reviewers. Southey (if it is he) puzzles over some of our manufactures: who needs a pocket toasting-fork? He goggles at the results of those spectacular vermifuges at the chemists’. He is shocked at the way tax-men’s narks peer into gentlemen’s hats to see if they contain a tax stamp. Crusty, righteous and amused by turns, the narrator seems to take much on hearsay. He assures us that the lower classes settle their disputes cleanly with fists, whereas (this will be new to some of us) ‘the American twists the hair of his enemy round his thumb and scoops out an eye with his finger.’