Victorian Travel Writing

Travel literature was quite popular in the Victorian era, with increasing travel throughout the world creating a market for the accounts of those that had seen far-off and exotic lands. They were, too, also drawn to “travel accounts and guidebooks describing familiar places.” (Byerly 12) Literature included such elements individual experience, practical advice and scientific fact, with rhetoric that was often designed to “evoke the sense of a fictive journey that is shared by author and reader” (12). This journey is “either physically enacted by the reader or imaginatively performed by the act of reading” (12), emphasizing the duality of the travel text as something that is both instructive and literary. The narrative of Victorian travel literature that strives to embolden its literary elements seeks to succeed in not only conveying to the reader new information of interest vis the lands of topic, but also, perhaps more significantly, to create the “sensation of being imaginatively transported from place to place” by immersing the reader in “an imaginary space” (12).

In the inclusive nature inherent in its design and narrative, travel literature allows for accessibility even when such places are not accessible to the reader. It uses its narrative to create the ‘imaginary space’ as observed by the observer, and the narrative then functions as a window in which the reader might actually participate in the journey without actually being there. In the context of disability, such accessibility is significant insomuch that it allows for the disabled reader — for example, one inhibited by the boundaries set by a lack of ableness or one’s sex — to experience the world in a way that they otherwise might not. The medium through which this literary experience is conveyed is not wholly undiscriminating (one must still be able to read or perhaps be read to) though those with imaginative minds unable to travel may find themselves as active participants in a journey that might have otherwise been unreasonable or even impossible —  from the comfort of their own home, no less.

Too, this narrative potentially allows for the reader to experience the world from a different perspective. The experience of female travel writers was often distinctive from their male counterparts, sometimes reflecting their subordinate social status in Victorian society. For example, while female writers would assert the “epistemological value” (O’Cinneide) of their accounts, the more masculine elements of scientific data and political expertise often carried disclaimers and apologies that arguably reflected the insecurities imposed upon them by the patriarchy. In the female travel writer, the idea of the narrative and ‘guide’ temporarily inverting the traditional Victorian social hierarchy through is a curious idea and suggests travel literature for the Victorians could act as a genre in which the text becomes more than simply a text — something through which disenfranchised find empowerment and mobility through their observations, either as readers or as guides.

Works Cited

  1. Byerly, Alison. Are We There Yet?: Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2012. Print.
  2. O’Cinneide, Muireanne. “Travel Writing.” Oxford Bibilographies. 2012. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.

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