Superior Persons

E.S. Turner

  • Travels with a Superior Person by Lord Curzon, edited by Peter King
    Sidgwick, 191 pp, £12.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 283 99294 8
  • The Ladies of Castlebrae by A. Whigham Price
    Alan Sutton, 242 pp, £10.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 86299 228 1
  • Lizzie: A Victorian Lady’s Amazon Adventure by Tony Morrison, Anne Brown and Ann Rose
    BBC, 160 pp, £9.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 563 20424 9
  • Miss Fane in India edited by John Pemble
    Alan Sutton, 246 pp, £10.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 86299 240 0
  • Explorers Extraordinary by John Keay
    Murray/BBC Publications, 195 pp, £10.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 7195 4249 9
  • A Visit to Germany, Italy and Malta 1840-41 by Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Grace Thornton
    Peter Owen, 182 pp, £12.50, October 1985, ISBN 0 7206 0636 5
  • The Irish Sketch-Book 1842 by William Makepeace Thackeray
    Blackstaff, 368 pp, £9.95, December 1985, ISBN 0 85640 340 7
  • Mr Rowlandson’s England by Robert Southey, edited by John Steel
    Antique Collectors’ Club, 202 pp, £14.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 907462 77 4

‘We travellers are in very hard circumstances,’ said Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. ‘If we tell anything new we are laughed at as fabulous.’ This mistrust of the footloose is endorsed by the trenchant definition of ‘traveller’s tale’ in Chambers’ Dictionary: ‘an astounding lie about what one professes to have seen abroad’. To be sure, this batch of 19th-century travellers’ tales features some astounding liars, but there are also some reasonably honest witnesses. These include the stiff-backed statesman whom Max Beerbohm called ‘Britannia’s butler’, two twin widows on a Gospel quest, a get-rich-quick bride in Amazonia, a caustic spinster in India, a writer of fairy-tales, a future poet laureate teamed with a leading delineator of bosoms and bums, and a respected novelist earning his crust in Ireland. ‘No one expects literature in a work of travel,’ said Mary Kingsley (she who was saved from the spikes of the leopard pit by her thick, sensible skirt), but many Victorian travellers had an eye on the popular magazines and lecture platforms. The sheer profusion of outlets, at the century’s end, probably tempted fabulists.

To generalise about these books would be rash: however, they contain many minor echoes and parallels which both tease and please. Thus the famous subcutaneous worms which permeate the population of Bokhara are matched by the long intestinal worms displayed, coiled in bottles, in London chemists’ windows. The domestic slaphappiness of the monks in Sinai is more than balanced by that of the filthy students at Maynooth College, in Ireland. It is hard not to marvel at the expense of spirit shown in tracing the source of rivers, or in ensuring that Englishwomen, wherever they are, do not fall below their station; and no one could fail to be impressed by the ubiquity of champagne, even on the high Amazon. The jacket of Travels with a Superior Person shows the young Curzon, resembling a more soigné young Churchill, standing proprietorially before the Pyramids. This is the man who postponed marriage to an heiress for four years in order to travel the world, which he could not ask a wife to do. Elizabeth Longford, in her introduction, describes this as a characteristic blend of ‘cold calculation and sensitive consideration’. The book consists of extracts from Curzon’s Tales of Travel, Russia in Central Asia and Leaves from a Viceroy’s Notebook (a title to put the reader in his place). ‘No traveller of the period had a prose style to match that of Curzon,’ proclaim the publishers, but the great man unbending to amuse with his travel anecdotes (some of them mere worked-up footnotes) is painfully formal and stilted. Fortunately the writing greatly improves when he crosses the Caspian, where Elizabeth Longford finds his purple passages’ alluring. Certainly he can bring the ‘shameless uniformity’ of Kara Kum alive by his account of sand-columns giddily revolving away into a land of mirage. He delights in describing natural effects and three times he invokes Wordsworth’s ‘the light that never was on sea or land’. But his account of Mount Athos seen from afar is highly resistible: ‘a girdle of amethysts encircled its waist; the breath of beauty fanned its radiant shoulders; its head was crowned with a diadem of rubies and pearls.’ (What, no chalcedon? No chrysoprase?)

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