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

§ 8. Waterton; Darwin; Wallace

The “romantic revival,” which transformed poetry and fiction, made itself gradually felt in the literature of travel also. It is true that solid and formal records, such as are characteristic of the eighteenth century, continued to appear down to about 1825. But narratives of a more natural and easy flow were already beginning to take their place. Sir Leslie Stephen, in an admirably humorous piece of criticism (chapter II of The play-ground of Europe) attributes, in part at least, the modern taste for mountains and rugged scenery to the influence of Rousseau and his followers. On the other hand, Byron urges that natural scenery does not, in itself, furnish an adequate topic for the poet.

  • I have seen as many mountains as most men and more fleets than the generality of landsmen, and to my mind a large convoy with a few sail-of-the-line to conduct them is as noble and poetical a prospect as all that inanimate nature can produce.
  • And he applies to poetry Pope’s dictum: “The proper study of mankind is man.” Byron’s own poetical book of travels, Childe Harold, had borne out this observation. What Byron says of poetry may be applied to literature generally; and the better travel-books of the nineteenth century respond to this test. They deal less with monuments, museums, churches and institutions: they deal more with men and women in relation to their surroundings. Sometimes, this human interest lies in the pleasant egotism of the traveller, sometimes in his observations on those among whom he moves. The change of tone appears notably, if not actually first, in works by naturalists, impelled to travel by scientific motives. Alexander von Humboldt’s narrative of travels in tropical South America, translated into English in 1814–21, deeply influenced later observers and travellers. In 1825 appeared Waterton’s Wanderings in South America, a most entertaining and vivacious record of adventurous and unconventional travel. Charles Waterton was a Yorkshire squire of an ancient Roman catholic family, educated at Stonyhurst, a keen sportsman and enthusiastic naturalist, also a devoted reader of Don Quixote, of the Latin poets and of English literature. He spent eight years managing an estate in Guiana, and, afterwards, made four journeys of observation in the Orinoco region, between 1812 and 1824. His account of his ride on a crocodile is classical:
  • It was the first and last time I ever was on a cayman’s back. Should it be asked how I managed to keep my seat, I would answer, I hunted some years with Lord Darlington’s foxhounds.
  • But one may open the book on any page to be entertained by vivid and humorous descriptions. Waterton afterwards turned his Yorkshire park into a kind of preserve or museum of living creatures. At the age of eighty-three, he was still climbing the tallest forest trees and rising daily at 3 A.M.

    The war of South American independence and the accompanying political revolution produced a number of descriptions of travels in that continent. Among them, the journal of captain Basil Hall, of the royal navy, has a deserved reputation. Sir Francis Head’s account of his rides across the Pampa, published in 1826, gives a vivid, rapid and faithful sketch of Gaucho life and character. It was received at the time with general incredulity, which, in itself, is sufficient proof of widespread interest. But, among narratives of South American travel Darwin’s account of the voyage of the “Beagle” is preeminent, not only by virtue of its place in the history of science, but, also, by virtue of its qualities as a picturesque and readable record of travel.

    In 1848, nine years after the publication of Darwin’s first work, Alfred Russel Wallace sailed to Brazil, where he spent four years in the scientific exploration of the Amazonian region. His book fully justifies its frequent reimpressions as a record of travel, apart from its scientific value. The ship in which Wallace was returning home caught fire at sea. Her people took to the boats and were picked up by a passing vessel. Wallace’s collections were all lost. The event is admirably described by Wallace himself. Yet more interesting and better written than his Amazonian narrative is his work on the Malay archipelago (1869), an account of eight years of residence and travel in the East Indies—straightforward, unaffected and entertaining.