Regarding “A Description of the Lakes”

A red, gold-lettered text titled “The English Lakes” and looking more like something better found in a library than in the backpack of a traveller, Harriet Martineau’s A Description of the English Lakes was published in 1858 by London’s Simpkin, Marshall, though earlier editions bearing the name A Complete Guide to the English Lakes were previously published by John Garnett in Windermere and Whittaker and Co. in London. A local publisher, John Garnett “persuaded Martineau to publish the first in a series of guides to the Lake District” (Easley 301), and the success of 1854’s Guide to Windermere led to the production of A Complete Guide to the English Lakes in 1855 (301), which provided the material that would eventually become A Description of the English Lakes. Along with Martineau’s graceful writing, A Description of the English Lakes also includes illustrations by way of W.J. Linton’s woodcarvings. With her travel book, Martineau states that her goal as both writer and guide was to bring into this work a sense of completeness that would allow even those who had not yet visited the Lakes, and perhaps even those who had no desire to, a glimpse into the life and beauty that so stirred the passions of so many thinkers, artists and writers like Martineau (2). Naturally, the book was also intended to be of service to those who actually would visit the area, and so is filled with the kind of detail you hope from a travel guide: memorable spots for sight-seeing, glimpses into local lore and scientific details of the natural landscape.

Of the text, Easley notes something of interest: it is self-promotional, especially in how Martineau “[fuses] her identity with the landscape of the Lake District” (293) and centres herself as a literary point of interest. Indeed,

Martineau, like Wordsworth, made the literary focus of her guidebook even more transparent by including her own name on the title page and integrating a variety of literary references to the region. Thus, Martineau’s homes, writings, and social relations form part of the guidebook’s appeal.  (302)

Easley believes that Martineau “may also have intended to capitalize on her celebrity as a marketing strategy for selling her guide” (302) in a way that is both similar to and competitive with another prominent figure of the Lake District, William Wordsworth, and her guide even competed with his own for sales. Martineau’s goal, to Easley, was to establish herself as a literary figure in the Lake District, and one that rivalled the fame of William Wordsworth. (302) Such an act is of particular aggression and decidedly masculine in how it seeks to exert dominance; furthermore, I would argue that such a reading of the book’s history invites the suggestion that, through its attack on Wordsworth. there is an aspect of aggression against patriarchal authority that informs Martineau’s travel text.

Further, while the work itself — a travel guide — is not unusual or interesting, it is perhaps the production of the work by Martineau that is most so. Martineau was deaf, and was, too, without smell and taste, leaving her without full use of all her senses. Arguably, this would make her a less adequate guide than another. Adding to the matter, she was also female and thus, in the genderized Victorian era, a figure that was inherently lacking in authority. Yet, despite these hinderances, the authority as a guide was hers to assume, and the work itself, despite being a travel guide, can be shown to reflect in its narrative the elements of disability and gender that empowered Martineau’s defiant ascension from a shy young woman in turmoil to a widely-recognized and prolific writer that gained much respect and admiration from her peers.


Works Cited

  1. Easley, Alexis. “The Woman of Letters at Home.” Victorian Literature and Culture 31.1 (2006): 291-310. JSTOR.Web. 3 Apr. 2014.
  2. Martineau, Harriet. A Complete Guide to the English Lakes. London: Whitaker and Co, 1855. Internet Archive. Web. 1 Apr. 2014.

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