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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

VII. The Literature of Travel, 1700–1900

§ 17. Winwood Reade; Mary Kingsley

Travel in tropical west Africa is a lurid tale of barbaric negro states, of slave-hunting and human sacrifice, of monstrous animals and pestiferous swamps, of mysterious rivers and dangerous forests, of trading and carousing in the midst of pestilence and death, of explorers devoting health and life to their zeal for observation and for science. Among those whose lives were sacrificed to their passion for west African travel there are two whose literary power raises their books above the rest. These are W. Winwood Reade and Mary Kingsley. Reade, a nephew of the novelist, was himself a man of literary power and promise who gave his fortune and life to west Africa. His African Sketch-book, a charming record of three journeys, appeared in 1873. Not long after its publication, its writer died from the effects of his share in the Ashantee campaign. Mary Kingsley, whose father and two uncles were all notable voyagers and authors, travelled for scientific observation. In 1900 she died at Simon’s Town of enteric fever, caught in tending Boer prisoners. Her Travels in West Africa, though marred in parts by overlaboured humour, is very good at its best:

  • On first entering the great grim twilight regions of the forest, you hardly see anything but the vast column-like grey tree stems in their countless thousands around you, and the sparsely vegetated ground beneath. But day by day, as you get trained to your surroundings, you see more and more, and a whole world grows up gradually out of the gloom before your eyes.… Nor indeed do I recommend African forest life to anyone. Unless you are interested in it and fall under its charm, it is the most awful life in death imaginable. And if you do fall under its spell, it takes the colour out of other kinds of living.