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Carl Thompson. The Suffering Traveller and the Romantic Imagination. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. ISBN: 0199259984. Price: US$99

  • Sarah Moss

…more information

  • Sarah Moss
    University of Kent

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Carl Thompson positions his book between recent studies of the sea and seafaring in eighteenth and nineteenth century literature, and work on performativity and the subject. Developing Mary Louise Pratt’s thesis about the self-proclaimed vulnerability of nineteenth century explorers, Thompson argues that modern distinctions between travel and tourism, and the association of discomfort and danger with morally privileged ‘travel’, is rooted in the Romantic canon. He shows how Wordsworth and Byron in particular strive self-consciously to present their own suffering as evidence of authentic experience unavailable to readers. While addressing the traditional association of Romantic journeying and pilgrimage narrative, he writes that ‘there are more immediate models than romance-hero and pilgrim on which the Romantic traveller bases his self-dramatization qua traveller, even if these models are in turn heavily invested with notions drawn from Romance and pilgrimage traditions.’ (27) The greater part of the book is devoted to tracing the details connections and precise influences of these ‘more immediate models.’

Thompson’s elaboration of Robin Jarvis and Celeste Langan’s explorations of Romantic pedestrianism is compelling. He suggests that a significant part of the importance of walking in Wordsworth’s work is related to the physical and mental hardship of mountain-climbing, and the close readings offered in this context, as throughout the book, are original and illuminating. However, the opportunity to develop and theorise the connections between walking and writing is not taken, and as Thompson’s book progresses the lack of theoretical exegesis becomes more marked. It is a particular problem in the third chapter, where work on Wordsworth’s self-representations sits in oddly paratactic relation to the narratives of actual and metaphorical characters in his poems. Here, as elsewhere, the strength and subtlety of the close readings makes a convincing case for new and fruitful contexts for these best-known poems, but the implicit and uneven quality of any theoretical context for these readings, and a tendency to depend on older critical material, means that the full potential of this book remains unrealised.

Thompson’s partially articulated intellectual affiliations betray him early on, when he defines ‘Romanticism’ “as very much a masculine agenda, a set of creative, interpretative, and representational strategies taken up for the most part by male writers and readers.” (16). A footnote gives the authorities of Marlon Ross and Anne Mellor for this exclusion, publishing in 1989 and 1988 respectively. Important works indeed, but repeatedly challenged over the last twenty years by scholars to whose work there is scant reference here. The systematic exclusion of female writers from this study is distressing partly because there is so little need for it; since this is for the most part a study of influence it would be sufficient to take influence as the logic for inclusion, which would leave the shape of the book very much what it is at the moment without the need or incentive to dismiss women’s writing as “decidedly “amateur.”’ Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Norway, Sweden and Denmark would have provided an interesting and probably fruitful counter-narrative for a scholar so gifted in comparative close analysis, but with that exception the selection of primary texts could have been left to speak – in the masculine voice – for itself. Less easy to ignore is the lack of explicit engagement with any twentieth- or twenty-first-century work on influence and intertextuality, which would provide an obvious and straightforward context for this book.

Carl Thompson writes gracefully. His introduction sets out “the extent to which the Romantic traveller is simply following a different sort of script from the so-called tourist, rather than no script at all” (23). He describes how the guarantee of authenticity in Romantic travel narratives is “to plan for the unplanned, to engineer situations which will be out of the traveller’s control.” We have read of connections between Romance, pilgrimage narratives, and Romantic autobiography before, but what is new here is the detailed reading of other travel narratives in this context. The section on “Tourists: Diversification and Disdain” cannot quite avoid replicating the scorn for tourists and, to some extent, women writers that it finds in the writing of Wordsworth and Byron, but once Thompson settles into analysis and explication of the book’s key texts he writes with justified assurance, constructing a taxonomy of shipwreck narratives that is original and convincing. The elaboration of this taxonomy in relation to Childe Harold and the Ancient Mariner respects all the differences between poetry and travel narrative, celebrating the resistance of these poems to any particular scheme of reading. The following section on “Explorers: Rhetorics of Science and Artifice” traverses the well-trodden ground of Romantic-era natural science and exoticism, where one might think there are few new discoveries to be made. The theme is not new and Thompson does not claim to introduce any texts or intertexts unmapped by earlier scholars, but once again the quality and detail of the close readings here offers new contexts for old favourites.

In the final two chapters, “Romantic Travel I” and “Romantic Travel II,” the careful mappings of influence and analyses of travel narratives that make up the first half of the book provide the groundwork for fine analyses of the autobiographical poems of Wordsworth and Byron. Thompson shows how the Arab dream episode in Book 5 of the Prelude may be related precisely to James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, but this analysis goes far beyond influence-spotting. Drawing on the exegesis of shipwreck narratives earlier in the book, he shows how Wordsworth’s fear of ‘death by water’ coalesces with a more general distrust of exoticism:

The destruction the Arab fears is a great flood. Here we again find Wordsworth articulating an anxiety about survival as a threat of death by water; once again, it might plausibly be argued, we see the vestigial traces of the profound impression made on Wordsworth by images and narratives of maritime misadventure…As we have seen, Wordsworth frequently thought and imaged certain anxieties in these terms. Yet there are also reasons why their usage here might well derive in part from the Bruce story, for here too death by water, and deliverance from such fate, figures prominently. Bruce himself survived a shipwreck in the Mediterranean, and gives a highly rousing account of the experience in the introduction to the Travels. The most important document Bruce was eventually to bring out of the desert, meanwhile, was the Book of Enoch; this tells of Noah’s great grandfather and of a mighty race of beings, born of the union of men and angels, that were subsequently wiped out by the Flood.

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This is typical of The Suffering Traveller and the Romantic Imagination. As Thompson makes clear, it is not news to readers of Romantic scholarship that Wordsworth’s dream in Book V is inspired by Bruce, and no shift in theoretical foundations is alleged or offered here. What makes this book worth reading is the sensitivity, precision and detail of close reading across and between genres.

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