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Eighteenth-Century Travel Narratives

Eighteenth-Century Travel Narratives Essay - Critical Essays

Eighteenth-Century Travel Narratives


Eighteenth-Century Travel Narratives

Travel narratives became one of the most popular and respected European literary genres during the eighteenth century. These narratives included descriptive accounts of the geography, monuments, and customs of foreign lands. Although tales by European travelers to exotic destinations had existed for centuries, eighteenth-century travel narratives proved unique for a variety of reasons. The sheer number of books published about foreign travel far surpassed those of previous centuries, outselling all other published works in England with the exception of the novel. Technological improvements in roads, carriages, and ships meant that a far greater number of ordinary citizens, not just explorers and soldiers, had the opportunity to travel throughout the continent or overseas and record their experiences. Reflecting the scientific spirit of the age, eighteenth-century travel narratives responded to the public's growing appetite for knowledge of the world by more accurately describing the lands and peoples of distant regions than the more fictionalized accounts written from the Middle Ages to the Romantic Period.

Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of eighteenth-century travel narratives was their blending of factual information with artistic literary content. In order to garner critical praise or popular success, it was not enough for an author to only record facts about the natural wonders of the lands to which he or she traveled. On the other hand, authors who focused more narrowly on how their travels affected them personally were accused of being egoists and without literary appeal. The most acclaimed travel narratives were like those of Joseph Addison's Remarks on Several Parts of Italy (1705), Daniel Defoe's A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-1727), and Samuel Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). These narratives entertained the reader with a combination of descriptive analysis of what was distinct or remarkable about a foreign land and people along with philosophical or moral reflections about what those differences might imply.

More often than not, eighteenth-century travel narratives titillated their readers with descriptions of the strange customs of foreigners. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Embassy Letters, written between 1716 and 1718 and published in 1763, offered her readers views of Turkey which few European men would have been allowed to witness, namely Turkish baths and harems. Although Montagu's impressions of Turkey were generally favorable, most accounts of foreign lands and customs emphasized central European cultural superiority. Elizabeth Craven's A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople (1789), for example, depicted Turkey as a depraved and crumbling empire. Jacob Wallenberg's My Son on the Galley (1781) masked the exploitation of the Swedish East India Company with grotesque descriptions of the customs and people of China and the East Indies. Many critics today argue that eighteenth-century travel narratives often served to justify European imperialism through these types of pejorative accounts.

Not all eighteenth-century travel narratives were written by Europeans, nor expressed European cultural superiority. In 1789, Olaudah Equiano, a Nigerian who had been brought to Europe as a slave, published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. In this autobiographical account, Equiano described how he gained his freedom before traveling back to Africa where he encountered customs and manners which compared favorably with those in Europe. Painting Africans as “noble savages,” Equiano's travel narrative can be viewed as a corrective to European accounts of Africa as the “dark continent.” Another travel narrative written by a non-European (and the first published work by an Indian in English) was The Travels of Dean Mahomet (1794), which described the author's journeys through India as a soldier in the British East India Company from 1769 to 1784. Although neither Equiano's, Mahomet's, nor the handful of published Indian Muslim travel narratives gained wide circulation in their own day, they are read today as a counterbalance to the dominant European voices of the age.

Representative Works

Joseph Addison
Remarks on Several Parts of Italy (travel narrative) 1705

Thomas Astley
A New General Collection of Voyages and Travels (collected travel narratives) 1746

Frederick Calvert Baltimore
A Tour to the East (travel narrative) 1767

Giuseppe Baretti
A Journey from London to Genoa (travel narrative) 1770

William Beckford
Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents (travel narrative) 1783

Daniel Beeckman
Voyage to and from the Island of Borneo (travel narrative) 1718

Angela de Boccage
Letters Concerning England, Holland, and Italy (travel narrative) 1762

Baron Inigo Born
Travels through the Bannat of Temeswar (travel narrative) 1774

James Boswell
An Account of Corsica (travel narrative) 1768

Patrick Brydone
A Tour through Sicily and Malta (travel narrative) 1771

Andrew Burnaby
Travels through the Middle Settlements in North America (travel narrative) 1775

Dimitrie Cantemir
The History of the Growth and Decay of the Othman Empire (travel narrative) 1714-16

Richard Chandler
Travels in Asia Minor (travel narrative) 1775

John Cook
Voyages and Travels Through the Russian Empire (travel narrative) 1770

Elizabeth Craven
A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople (travel narrative) 1789

William Dalrymple
Travels through Spain and Portugal (travel narrative) 1777

Daniel Defoe
A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (travel narrative) 1724-27

Alexander Drummond
Travels through Different...

(The entire section is 769 words.)

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Charles L. Batten, Jr. (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Batten, Charles L., Jr. “Introduction” and “Toward a Definition of Eighteenth-Century Travel Literature.” In Pleasurable Instruction: Form and Convention in Eighteenth-Century Travel Literature, pp. 1-8; 24-46. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978.

[In the following essays, Batten asserts that the great popularity of travel narratives in the eighteenth-century was due to their blending of imaginative literary content with descriptive information about the world at large. Batten also attempts to define the genre of eighteenth-century travel narrative, suggesting that it is characterized by a combination of autobiographical and scientific elements.]...

(The entire section is 13497 words.)

Amy Elizabeth Smith (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Smith, Amy Elizabeth. “Travel Narratives and the Familiar Letter Form in the Mid-Eighteenth Century.” Studies in Philology 95, no. 1 (1998): 77-96.

[In the following essay, Smith examines British reviews of travel narratives from 1749 to 1780, concentrating on the epistolary form many travel writers used to gain approval for the personal details they often added to their descriptions of foreign lands and customs.]

How does epistolary form affect the content of a narrative? While no two modern critics of the eighteenth-century novel answer this question precisely the same way, all agree that it did have an influence; one can hardly imagine a reading of...

(The entire section is 8097 words.)