Benjamin Colbert »

Benjamin Colbert is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Wolverhampton. His main areas of interest are travel writing and satire, and his publications include vol. 3 of Pickering & Chatto’s ‘British Satire, 1785–1840’ series: Complete Longer Satires (2003) and Shelley’s Eye: Travel-Writing and Aesthetic Vision (2005). He is also the Reviews Editor for the European Romantic Review and has co-edited with Glyn Hambrook a special issue of Comparative Critical Studies, entitled ‘Literature Travels’ (2007).

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This article is copyright © 2009 Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, and is the result of the independent labour of the scholar or scholars credited with authorship.  The material contained in this document may be freely distributed, as long as the origin of information used has been properly credited in the appropriate manner (e.g. through bibliographic citation, etc.).

Referring to this Article

B. COLBERT. Review of Nicola J. Watson, The Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic & Victorian Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture, 1780–1840, 19 (Winter 2009).

Online: Internet (date accessed):

Nicola J. Watson, The Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic & Victorian Britain (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), viii + 244pp. ISBN 978-4039-9992-9; £45 / $75 (hb); ISBN 978-0-2302-1092-9; £16.99 / $29 (pb).

Abstract Tags

On 14 September 1814, Samuel Rogers came upon a stone tablet in Geneva marking the birthplace of Rousseau and close by another for Charles Bonnet (1720–93), the Swiss naturalist. ‘No such things with us’, Rogers recorded in his journal, ‘None on Johnson’s in Ball Court or Milton’s in Jewin Street’. [1] Two years later, Shelley toured Switzerland on the trail of Rousseau, whose Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise (1761), Shelley consulted on the spot. This book, Shelley wrote, ‘acquires an interest I had not conceived [sic] it to posess [sic] when giving & receiving influences from the scenes by which it was inspired’. [2] Such responses to text and place, according to Nicola J. Watson in The Literary Tourist, lead by an inexorable logic to the blue plaques that now dot the literary landscape of Britain and to the popularity of following in the footsteps of authors or of exploring landscapes associated with fiction. Although it gestures towards the transnational scope of literary tourism, represented by British tourists’ pursuit of Rousseau in Switzerland and visits to Shelley’s grave in Rome, Watson’s book is especially focused on places closer to home and the ways in which national identity is revalidated in a process of touristic intertextuality, the layering of text, place, and affective identification between tourist-readers with absent authors.

Were The Literary Tourist a mere historical survey of travel writings that invoke the presence of writers, characters, and fictional works in landscapes, the book would not want for compelling material. But Watson’s purpose is also to explore the proposition that nineteenth- (and even twentieth-) century reading habits in Britain are predicated upon literary tourism. Speculatively, Watson considers, first, whether literary tourism redresses ‘the erosion of the intimacy of the relationship between [writers and readers] in an age of mass readership’ (p. 13) and, second, whether ‘realist strategies in nineteenth-century narrative’ might grow out of or symbiotically produce readerly habits of comparing texts with the physical world. More convincingly, she demonstrates how literary tourism becomes enmeshed in ‘cultural nationalism’, readers’ ‘sense of holding affective property in the nation via texts’ (p. 14). While the book falls short of a comprehensive analysis of these three areas of concern, it does marshal sufficient empirical evidence to suggest a solid basis from which such analysis must proceed, and it performs along the way convincingly nuanced readings both of literary and ‘non-literary’ texts (including tombs, monuments, and memorials).

The book is divided into two parts, each chronologically surveying generic forms of literary tourism. Part One (‘Placing the Author’) is concerned with ‘touristic efforts to locate the author’ (p. 14) in tombs, birthplaces, homes, and haunts. Chapter 1 (‘An Anthology of Corpses’) considers the development of touristic fascination with places of the celebrated dead. In the eighteenth century, for example, Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey was valued as a place of public commemoration for British national feeling, but by the 1780s increasingly became a space where tourists visited in order to feel the presence of authors with whom they sought a personal, organic, or ‘authentic’ communion (hence the importance attributed to internment of actual remains, as when, later in the nineteenth century Hardy’s body was literally divided between his widow and the nation, the heart alone remaining at Stinsford––or ‘Wessex’, to literary tourists). These links between corpse and corpus, place and text, Watson explains as a ‘new model of tourism driven by a desire on the part of the tourist to construct a more intimate and exclusive relationship with the writer than is supposed to be available through mere reading’ (p. 34). The irony here, illustrated by the interpenetration of Gray’s Elegy into tourists’ accounts of his grave at Stoke Poges, not to mention the construction of the monument to the poet found there, is that ‘texts […] make places in their own image’ (p. 47). Chapter 2 (‘Cradles of Genius’) offers another model of tourism, what Watson calls ‘textless tourism’, in which the visit to a writer’s birthplace ‘aspires […] to being an experience that pre-empts the necessity for texts’ (p. 59). At issue here is the environment that produces and nurtures genius and the co-optation of the writer into a national landscape (‘national poet and national soil’ [p. 59]), with Shakespeare’s Stratford and Burns’s Alloway being homologous, inter-referential sites celebrated in countless images, travel journals, and public performances (Garrick’s Shakespeare Juibilee in 1769 being the prototype here).

Chapter 3 (‘Homes and Haunts’) takes its title from William Howitt’s Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets (1847), a book that epitomises the Romantic and Victorian interchange between text and tourism. Watson’s focus here is on Scott’s Abbotsford and the Brontë sisters’ Haworth. Scott ‘invented the genre of the writer’s house in Britain’ (p. 93) by colluding with tourists’ desires to hunt out topographical and domestic sources to his popular fictions. But it was Washington Irving’s Abbotsford (1832), based on a personal visit of 1816, that established the ‘itinerary and sensibility of all future literary tourists’ (p. 95) to the house and environs with its emphasis on how seeing through the writer’s eyes can transform a dull and uninteresting landscape, and how the house itself might be seen as a source and expression of the writer’s imagination: Abbotsford becomes ‘novelistic’ (p. 99). At the heart of Abbotsford is the writer’s desk, ‘the trophied workshop of a conscious genius’ (p. 107), bespeaking Scott’s romantic and national stature. By contrast, Haworth is ‘regional and marginal to the nation, domestic and pathologically, genteelly secretive, informed by privation and desolation’ (p. 107). The interest here is more focused on the female authors, on their texts as veiled biography, and on the Parsonage at Haworth as a melancholy symbol of melancholy lives redeemed but not liberated by art. The key text here, Watson argues, is Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), which first put Haworth on the tourist map and whose depiction of the Parsonage became that to which all future proprietors of the site aspired to replicate. For Gaskell, the Parsonage becomes ‘the location of a meta-Gothic novel’ (p. 123) that elides distinctions between its author occupants and their characters. The conflation of biography and fiction, repeated by tours, guidebooks, and the Brontë heritage industry, ideologically reinforces the reduction of female authorial agency to the status of her characters, from narrator to narrated, confined within the bounds of fictional geographies (p. 126).

Part Two (‘Locating the Fictive’) ‘deals with efforts to locate the fictive text’ (p. 14), within landscapes ‘saturated with [the] fiction[s]’ of Rousseau, Scott, Blackmore, Dickens, and Hardy, the latter two writers representing a special case in which fictional topographies become located in ‘actual’ places. Chapter 4 (‘Ladies and Lakes’) pinpoints the origins of this kind of tourism in the devoted sojourns of sentimental tourists to the ‘classic ground’ associated with Rousseau’s Julie near Lake Geneva, alluded to above. While Rousseau’s St. Preux models the ‘reader-tourist’, St. Preux’s ‘unavailable object of tourist desire’ (p. 137), Julie, evokes the belatedness and disappointment that became stock responses of tourists seeking out the novel’s traces in the Swiss landscape (hence, as Watson argues referring to Charles Tennant’s 1824 tour, such visits ‘could never authentically disappoint’ since they are inscribed within a ‘spectrum of […] recorded experiences […] primarily of disappointment’ [p. 146]). Like Julie,Scott’s popular Lady of the Lake (1810) spurred sentimental tourists to follow the paths of its hero, Fitz-James (the subterfuge of the incognito King James V), yet Scott’s layering of real history with fiction spawned maps, guidebooks, and subsequent editions of the poem that interleaved, at times confused the two, and this appealed to ‘the spirit of romantic documentary’ expected by Victorian readers. R. D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone (1869), similarly and for similar reasons, transformed Exmoor into Lorna Doone Country. In this example and many other instances cited in Chapter 5, literary counties based on the works of novelists constitute a ‘wholesale geographical naturalisation of fiction’ (p. 170), the imaginative capital of national identity. As touristic impulses develop from the sentimental to the desire for documentary analysis, meanwhile, the importance of the writer’s own life, his or her biography, subsides, with Hardy’s Wessex emerging at the end of the period under consideration as a pure emanation of the writings themselves. One thread connecting Hardy and Scott, however, is that both writers build into their fictions narrative techniques derived from guidebooks, mapping out ways in which the fictions will in turn be appropriated by guidebooks to ‘actual’ landscapes.

This summary of the book cannot do justice to the richness of its materials, the extensive research upon which it is based, the many examples and permutations that Watson illustrates using novels, poems, guidebooks, illustrations, and her own visits to the tombs, homes, and haunts of writers. At times example outweighs analysis and Watson finds herself rephrasing rather than developing her argument (e.g. ‘flattens out the distinction between fictional and biographical material’ [p. 121], ‘flattening out of the distinction between the biographical and fictional’ [p. 123], ‘fusion between the biographical and fictional’ [p. 127]). The proliferating ‘models’ of tourism deduced from varieties of literary tourism, meanwhile, might have formed the basis for a more integrated theoretical consideration of the subject, such as Dean MacCannell provides in The Tourist: a New Theory of the Leisure Class (1976), not mentioned in this study, but whose notion of ‘sight sacralisation’ also has a clear bearing on Watson’s discussion of the textuality of place and commercial reproductions thereof. [3] Such minor concerns aside, the writing is confident, often eloquent, and Watson, a self-confessed and passionate literary tourist, occasionally and self-consciously allows her scholarly mask to slip, revealing the enthusiast in the field, her children in tow (or vice versa), comparing her own readings to literary sites as they exist today, herself and her subject the best antidote for the ‘embarrassment’ that has hitherto kept literary tourism in the shadows of scholarly respectability.

1. J. R. Hale(ed.), The Italian Journal of Samuel Rogers (London: Faber and Faber, 1956), pp. 142–43.

2. Donald Reiman (ed.), Shelley and his Circle, 1773–1822, vol. 7 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 719.

3. Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: a New Theory of the Leisure Class, with a foreword by Lucy R. Lippard (1976; Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 39–56.