Date of Completion

January 1984


Literature, English




The travel book is an art form, but only when the writer casts off the obligation to provide statistical information and makes his book a personal self-expression. Then he must avoid the opposite fault of naive egocentrism by giving his "sadly long strain about Self," in Alexander Kinglake's phrase, a literary structure.^ A number of British writers between 1766 and 1937 wrote literary travel books. They often traveled to escape a constricting home society, although, as Paul Fussell writes, British culture and literary tradition remain the "norm" in their books. In writing they deliberately overturn documentary expectations in favor of strongly individual books, marked by an idiomatic style and personal interpretation of the journey theme. Travel thus provides the occasion for both autobiography and a kind of literary amateurism, an experimentation in a form less rigorous than fiction or poetry but, through its very openness, offering novel opportunities for self-expression. Often, writing a travel book also leads the author to contrast himself with the class of heroic travels, to mock them or himself, or to show heroism in a new form.^ Three pair of travel books illustrate the features and evolution of the form. Tobias Smollett's Travels through France and Italy (1766) makes the Augustan grand tour account a vehicle of splenetic tirades; Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (1768) rejects irate argumentation for intimate and spontaneous discourse. In Eothen (1844), Alexander Kinglake wittily undercuts the Byronic Romanticism of his Middle Eastern tour; Charles Doughty, in Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888), elevates the quest to epic porportions. D. H. Lawrence's Sea and Sardinia (1921) dramatizes a flight from modern civilization to a remote island; W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, in Letters from Iceland (1937), comment from an equally insular spot on the European pre-war moment.^ While it would be inaccurate to say that the travel book evolves towards something "better" during the period, each of these writers enriches the form by bringing to it the innovations of his particular genius and of his literary period. ^