Monday 29 June 2015

Romantic Women's Travel Writing

A street in Pompeii
I became interested in women’s travel writing of the Romantic period entirely by accident during the course of my PhD research. Part of my doctoral thesis explores the link between depictions of abandoned cities in Romantic Last Man literature and contemporary accounts of visits to the newly-rediscovered cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. What fascinated me about these travel accounts was the way in which Pompeii and Herculaneum are not presented as ruins in the traditional sense; rather, they are described by early nineteenth-century tourists as appearing to have been only recently abandoned, Mary Celeste-style. Just as the Last Man wanders around deserted cities encountering half-eaten meals in people’s homes, so, too, did contemporary visitors to the sites come across chilling scenes of abandoned domesticity.

An article printed in an 1824 edition of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine suggests a strange feeling of the uncanny in its account of Pompeii. The city is described as rooted in the ancient past and yet simultaneously imbued with a sense that it was inhabited up until the previous day, with the author stating that ‘the narrow streets, the little Greek houses, with their remnants of ornamental painting, their corridores [sic] and their tessellated floors, are seen, as they might have been seen the day before the eruption’. Likewise, in a poem of 1827, Robert Stephen Hawker observes the ghostly traces left by the seemingly recently-fled inhabitants of Pompeii, noting the ‘print of frequent feet’ left in the street and describing the ‘gate unclos’d, as if by recent hand’ .

John Martin's 'The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum' (1822)
One of my favourite accounts of a trip to the lost cities, however, was written by someone who never even visited the sites. Sarah Atkins’s Relics of Antiquity, Exhibited in the Ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1825) was written ‘for the Use of Young Persons’, and in her Preface Atkins explains that she merely ‘assume[s] the character of traveller’, using other people’s accounts to inform her descriptions. Atkins’s travel narrative is, nonetheless, atmospheric, and she captures her young readers’ attention by invoking the sense of the uncanny found in other, authentic descriptions of the sites, remarking that ‘[Pompeii] is, in truth, an ancient town, the inhabitants of which appear to have fled but yesterday’.

Drawing on the account of one Mr Eustace, Atkins explains to her intrigued reader that:

While you are wandering through the abandoned rooms, you may, without any great effort of imagination, expect to meet some of the former inhabitants, or, perhaps, the master of the house himself; and almost feel like intruders, who dread the appearance of any of the family. In the streets, you are afraid of turning a corner, lest you should jostle a passenger; and on entering a house, the least sound startles, as if the proprietor was coming out of the back apartments [...] All around is silence; not the silence of solitude and repose, but of death and devastation: the silence of a great city without a single inhabitant.

This description certainly sends a shiver down my spine, and leads me to wonder whether it gave some of her young readers nightmares!

Given my interest in Atkins as a travel writer who never went travelling, I was delighted to discover that her work is included in the new Database of Women's Travel Writing. The database, which is free to use, provides full and accurate bibliographical records for 202 titles: all the known books of travel writing published by women in Britain and Ireland between 1780 and 1840. The site can be searched not only by title, author, and date, but also by genre (including narratives, guidebooks, letters, topographical descriptions, and collections) and place of publication. The database has been created as part of a larger project, based in the University of Wolverhampton's Centre for Transnational and Transcultural Research, which will eventually include all the travel books published during this period.

I was really pleased to see Sarah Atkins represented on the site, and through searching the records have discovered that she also published accounts of 'travels' to Egypt and Nubia which I'll certainly be looking up!