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Conference Review: Modes of Transport: Travel Writing and Form, 1780-1914
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Augustus Leopold Egg, The Travelling Companions (1862). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Poetry played a significant role in the conference Modes of Transport: Travel Writing and Form, 1780-1914, held at King’s College, London, on 26 and 27 May 2011. Kathryn Walchester’s paper “Treading in Man’s [Textual] Footsteps: Nineteenth-Century British Women Travel Writers in Norway” charted a shift from citations of poetry as a way of validating travel experience through the precursor text, to the moment when that fails, when nothing quite fits the experience of Norway. She gave the example of Mary Spence’s A Glimpse of Norway (1868), which cites Byron, and Isabella Blundell’s Gamle Norge (1862), which cites Gray’s Elegy among other poems, and compared these texts to Violet Crompton Roberts, whose A Jubilee Jaunt to Norway by Three Girls (1888) is overt in its relation to mass tourism and which quotes, rather than poetry, contemporary fiction, and especially Marie Corelli. This argument offers an intriguing relation between women’s travel writing and poetry, suggesting that stepping away from the beaten track of men’s earlier travel writing involves rejecting earlier poetic traditions. I also wonder if such a shift is related to the change in fashion of travel guides, when Murray’s Handbooks, which were famous for their quotations from Byron, were overtaken in popularity with Baedeker’s guides that eschew poetry for a wider, more popular audience. Churnjeet Mahn’s paper, “‘A Beadeker and a Pair of Opera Glasses’: ‘The Lady Traveller’ in Greece at the Fin de Siècle” partly focussed on Emily Pfeiffer’s travel writing in terms of the spectacle of antiquity in Athens and the belatedness of the tourist. It would be interesting to have Pfeiffer’s travel writing linked to her poetry, although this was unfortunately outside the scope of the paper.

A panel specifically on poetry, “Poetry in Motion”, heard A. V. Seaton describe the anapaestic metre as a tourist mode, since both the anapaest and travel writing ranked low in the hierarchy of literary forms. Seaton introduced the conference to a fascinating anonymous manuscript, “In Italia” (dated February 1836), which tells of a nouveau riche family’s journey to Italy as part of its gentrification, satirising the middle class’s entry into a European space formerly inhabited by the elite through the anaepestic metre. The author, a few years’ later, revised the poem to take out the social criticism, and Seaton argued that this change corresponded with the sudden rise of mass travel. From the later 1830s, the genre of tourism diversified: it was anaepestic no longer. The second paper in this panel, Nicholas Warner’s “Travelling Acts: Alexander Pushkin’s Literary Journeys” unravelled the associations between travel and liberty, arguing that Pushkin saw the act of the journey as a subversive escape. Warner’s paper was especially interesting for its argument about Pushkin’s relation to Romanticism, and its use of Chloe Chard’s sense of “imaginative geography” (from her Pleasure and Guilt on the Grand Tour [1998]). The final paper in the panel, my own “The Aura of Place: The Protestant Cemetery in Rome”, was partly based on my discussion of Keats’s grave posted elsewhere on this website, and focused on sonnets on Keats’s grave and their relationship to forms of travel.

I don’t think I have ever been to a conference that covered such a large range of textual forms, from anaepestic poetry to scrapbooks, shipboard newspapers to diaries, extra-illustrated novels to journalism. It was particularly interesting to see poetry’s place in the genre of travel writing, and there’s certainly a burgeoning of interest in this field.

Future conferences on a related theme include Travelling Identities (Birkbeck College, 18 June 2011), Republics of the Imagination: Dickens and Travel (Birkbeck College, 15 October 2011), and Travel in the Nineteenth Century: Narratives, Histories and Collections (University of Lincoln, 13-15 July 2011).

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