Tales of travel: Research project explores travel writing in the early modern period

Travelogues gained in popularity in Europe from the mid-18th century and subsequently grew in social and political significance

16 October 2019

Travel writing became highly popular during the mid-1700s. German, French, and especially English writers used various literary forms to chronicle their travels and adventures abroad. "Travelogues were in full vogue in Europe at the time. With their wide dissemination and range of literary forms they were a significant contribution to the formation of the middle classes and the emergence of nation states." This is the view of Dr. Sandra Vlasta, who is researching travel literature from 1760 to 1850 as part of an EU-funded project at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). "These accounts not only described the social and political developments of Europe in the Sattelzeit, the lead-up to the modern era, they actively influenced them," the literary scholar pointed out. Travelogues were therefore an important medium from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries, having an impact on the social, cultural, and political changes that took place in Europe.

In the 1840s, the German author Fanny Lewald wrote about her stay in Rome. The Italian metropolis was frequented by artists from all over Europe during the 19th century. Lewald described the Roman art scene and compared the various nationalities. She observed that it would be beneficial for the German artists to have the backing of a strong nation instead of a series of fragmented states, as they would then be more likely to receive financial support as did artists from other countries. "Fanny Lewald thus made statements which indirectly showed her support for a unified German nation," emphasized Vlasta. "It is quite apparent that authors felt free to express their own opinions on contemporary issues through the medium of travel writing. This is an effect not be underestimated considering the extensive circulation of these texts."

The contribution of travel literature to the development of individual and national identity

Travel writing represents one of the oldest genres of literary historiography. The earliest known forms of travel writing were produced in ancient Greece. However, it was only when stagecoach travel also served for public transportation and – most importantly – the railway network was established that the opportunities for travel improved and consequently travel writing also blossomed as a result. "From the last third of the 18th century onwards, the interest in travel greatly increased. The first tour operators appeared, traveling became easier, and a larger section of the population was able to journey abroad", explained Vlasta. With this increased interest in travel came the growing popularity of travel writing as a genre. It forms a kind of intermediate category between text books and literature, between news reports and fiction. It broaches a variety of topics from politics and culture to geography and history, so that almost every reader can get something out of it. "The travelogues also allowed people to negotiate their own identity. They could ask themselves what they would like to adopt from other countries and in what way they felt they should differentiate themselves from them. In that way, they could define what determined their status as a nation and as individuals," said Vlasta, outlining the function of the texts in promoting the process of individualization and the development of a collective national identity.

The fact that numerous leading authors also published works in the genre, such as Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens and George Sand, to name but a few, demonstrates that travel writing was not on the fringes of the literary industry. "What I find particularly interesting as a literary scholar are the language and concepts employed by authors to convey cultural characteristics – differences as well as similarities." For her research, Vlasta has compiled a list of 100 to 120 works, written in German, English, French, and Italian. Her focus is on travel literature by professional authors, although many were also penned by diplomats and other officials. "It is interesting how accounts written about the same location can be so different because the objectives of the individual writers are different," added Vlasta. Charles Dickens, for example, incorporated many socio-critical views in his novels as well as in his travel writing.

Funding through the European Commission's Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions

Sandra Vlasta studied Comparative Literature and English at the University of Vienna and obtained a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature. Since 2017 she has been working as a research associate in the General and Comparative Literature division at the Gutenberg Institute for World Literature and Written Media at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. Her project, entitled "European Travel Writing in Context. The Socio-Political Dimension of Travelogues 1760-1850," is being funded for two and a half years to the end of March 2020 by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship. Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions were established by the European Commission to foster trans-national and cross-sector mobility and career development in the field of research. As part of her fellowship, Dr. Sandra Vlasta spent five months at the Centre for Travel Writing Studies at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom.