The Fictions of Romantic Tourism explores an interesting and important question: What is the relationship between the rise of tourism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Britain and the development of what we have come to call the “Romantic” novel? Drawing upon a range of sources that includes visual as well as textual materials, Dekker argues that travel writing and the Romantic novel shared similar narrative strategies that emphasized the value of fiction and the imagination, and he illuminates the literary works of three of the period’s most influential writers—authors who, not coincidentally, operated at the interstices of both genres.
Detailed close readings of individual texts are the central contribution of Dekker’s study, and, over the course of this work, he develops two essential points about the relationship between the Romantic novel and the travel writing that was contemporaneous with its development. Both points are laid out clearly in the introductory chapter and are developed carefully as the argument progresses. Dekker first claim is that Romantic novels shared with late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century travel writing an investment in fiction. Here, the primary historical contrast is between these works and their immediate eighteenth-century predecessors, which, Dekker argues, privileged narrative realism. Why this shift in sensibilities, however? Why should the Romantic novel turn overtly toward fiction? While disavowing a “direct causal relationship,” Dekker contends that “key features of Romantic tourism—its devices for enhancing nature, its playfulness, its proneness to create and suspect fictions, and above all its privileging of the imagination—can be viewed as extensions of the fiction-making…processes” (25-6). The suggestion is that the novelists featured in this study—Ann Radcliffe, Walter Scott, and Mary Shelley—each drew upon their intimate knowledge of travel writing and its conventions in shaping the characteristic novels of their period. Dekker’s second claim is that the Georgian era coincided historically with a unique moment in the history of travel writing, during which middle-class tourism first emerged as a feature of the cultural landscape. This resulted in what Dekker designates the “Romantic ‘Age’ of Tourism,” a period dating from circa 1745-1830 during which middle-class aesthetics of the new and the novel (in both senses of that term) characterized tourism; throughout the study, he distinguishes Romantic tourism both from the earlier aristocratic model of the eighteenth-century Grand Tour and from the subsequent bourgeois familiarity of the Victorian traveler, with important implications for the novel as a genre.
In the introduction and especially in chapters one and two, Dekker defines the term “Romantic” as it operates in this study. The term is, he acknowledges, primarily a matter of convention—these are the novels we “usually agree to call Romantic” (3). However, Dekker also implies at moments in the text that the term “Romantic” encompasses a common set of aesthetic objectives, chief of which is the privileging of “patent fictionality” (3). (Jane Austen, for example, is cast as clearly “un-Romantic,” presumably on account of her entrenched narrative realism.) Although the correlation of the Romantic with the fictional is somewhat unsatisfying in the introduction, Dekker presents the argument quite convincingly in the second chapter, entitled (aptly enough) “The Fictionality of the Romantic Novel.” Here, Dekker argues for the connection by reading the "self-consciously experimental" (54) origins of the Romantic novel as a “mixed form” (56) in the works of Rousseau, Walpole, and Reeve. Chapter one, “The Fictions of Romantic Tourism,” makes a parallel case for the Romantic travel narrative, as represented by the texts of Walpole, Gray, Johnson, Wollstonecraft, and a number of American writers who traveled to Europe during this period
While incisive textual readings characterize Dekker’s argumentative approach to his topic, the most compelling features of this study is the way in which he returns in each case study to illuminate a common set of themes, chapter after chapter. Perhaps most importantly, he provides a provocative analysis of the connections between tourism and the rhetoric of childhood in the period—a rhetoric that he demonstrates is central both to the idea of the Romantic and to the fictions it privileged. Indeed, toward the end of his study, he distinguishes the Romantic novel from the Victorian novel, in part, by suggesting briefly that the cultural “exhaustion” (250) and commercialization of the Romantic-period travel topoi undermined the sense of wonder, novelty, and discovery that was central to the trope of European travel-as-childhood in early nineteenth-century novels. Other themes that emerge throughout the study to unify its claims include an interesting discussion of the salutary and restorative powers of travel, which Dekker connects to questions of narrative and cultural authenticity; an expansive account of “transport” in Romantic-period novels, a term that resonated with contemporary discourses of landscape aesthetics and sensibility as well as with the technologies of travel and with the penal institutions of indenture and colonial transport; and a suggestive series of observations on the tensions among poetry, fiction, and biography in Romantic-period travel novels. While the first two chapters of the study are historical and contextual, the bulk of this study—another six chapters—is given over to close readings of particular novels and travel accounts by Radcliffe, Scott, and Shelley.
The chapters dedicated to Radcliffe focus on the religious, literary, and political concerns that are revealed by her interest in tourism and travel writing. The first of the two chapters primarily considers Radcliffe’s biography and the ways in which she suppresses, negotiates, or reveals her personal investments in her travel narrative, A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (1795), and in her journals. Throughout the study, Dekker interweaves discussions of literary texts and visual sources, and one of the highlights of this chapter is the way in which he places Radcliffe’s work into dialogue with Salvator Rosa’s portraiture and J.M.W. Turner’s illustrations of Picturesque Views in England and Wales (1826-35). The second chapter devoted to Radcliffe reads several of her Gothic novels, with particular attention to The Romance of the Forest (1791), which Dekker identifies as a “breakthrough novel [that] assimilates the discourse, and contributes to the fictions, of Romantic tourism” (96). The chapter focuses thematically on “Radcliffe and Spiritual Tourism,” and Dekker’s claim is that the piously Protestant Radcliffe employs a Gothic and sensational Catholicism as a narrative device for exploring the relationship between national culture and private subjectivity.
Chapters five and six consider Scott, and the first of these two chapters is given over to a discussion of Waverley (1814) and The Heart of the Mid-Lothian (1818), with particular attention to the metaphor of aesthetic and commercial “transport.” While the readings of both novels are convincing and interesting, the contextual discussion, focusing on the role of the English traveler to Scotland in contemporary travel literature and novels, is the most fascinating part of the chapter and helps to illuminate the national tensions Scott negotiated. The second of these chapters considers Scott’s creative output circa 1814-1816, the period Dekker identifies as central to “Scott’s transition from poet to novelist” (155). Dekker quite inventively places this period, and especially Guy Mannering (1815), in dialogue with Scott’s later reflections on landscape gardening and with the illustrations of Scott’s work by J.M.W. Turner, in order to explore Turner’s decision to represent narrative episodes from the novels using “the view point of a contemporary tourist-artist” (171).
The final two chapters focus on the works of Shelley. In chapter seven, Dekker explores the idea of “companionable tourism” in works such as A History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817) and Frankenstein (1818); the argument devotes considerable attention to questions of authorship and borrowing, not only among the Shelley/Byron circle but also from Wordsworth and, to a lesser extent, from Rousseau. Dekker explores in both of Shelley’s texts the idea of fiction-as-biography and the literary crafting of self-representation, observing that narrative episodes related to travel operate as particularly rich sites of character development. Extending these claims, the eighth chapter considers Shelley’s relationship as a tourist and as a writer to Italy in particular, and Dekker reads Valperga (1822) and The Last Man (1826) in relation to a series of travel-inspired literary texts, including DeStael’s Corinne (1807), Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818), and Percy Shelley’s The Cenci (1819). The discussions of the theatrical rhetoric of Romantic tourism (244) and of the childhood themes in The Last Man (248) are noteworthy. This final chapter, however, is the least satisfying section of Dekker’s study. The Last Man is offered to readers as representing “the end of an era in the history of tourism and literature” (249), and Dekker extrapolates from Shelley’s statement in the book that she is “the last relic of a beloved race” (qtd. 249) in order to bring his study and his discussion of Shelley’s work to a hasty conclusion—for there is no concluding chapter to the study. It may be that 1826 was a watershed date in the history of tourism, marking the end of an era, but one would like to be persuaded. Likewise, it is certainly possible that the Victorians lost the sense of “novelty” and child-like wonder that characterized travel in the “Romantic” era. Yet, one is reminded immediately of counter-examples that one would like to see contextualized—Byron’s exasperation as early as 1810 at the way in which travel writing dominated his own experiences of Constantinople and left him with nothing new to say or to discover or Lewis Carroll’s undeniable playfulness in the Victorian travel novel that is Alice in Wonderland (1865). However, while the final pages of this study use uncharacteristically broad strokes and can be frustrating, it is a frustration born out of a desire to hear what Dekker has to say about these matters and about how the relationship between tourism and the novel developed into the late Romantic period.