Travel writers and native responses

Tim Hannigan, ‘“A hideous and wicked country”: Cornwall under the travel writer’s gaze, and receiving travellers’ texts as a ‘travelee-reader’’, Terrae Incognitae 51.2 (2019), pp.131-152.

This entertaining article looks at travel writing on Cornwall over the ‘long nineteenth century’. It focuses on three texts, Richard Warner’s account of 1809, Wilkie Collins’ Rambles Beyond Railways of 1850, and Charles Lewis Hind’s Days in Cornwall of 1907.

The first and longer part of the article traces change and continuity in these texts and others. Change is identified in the way the Cornish landscape and by implication Cornwall was viewed. At the beginning of the 1800s its landscape was seen through a hostile lens as ‘dreary’, ‘horrid’ and ‘deformed’. It was the antithesis of the fashionably ‘picturesque’. Moreover, the implicit aim of travellers’ accounts of the time was to integrate this ‘difference’. By the end of the 1800s however, the emphasis had switched to the maintenance of ‘difference’ in a non-metropolitan ‘other’. At the same time, travellers’ accounts displayed continuity in their consistent tendency to exoticize Cornwall and its culture. Moreover, travel writers united in denying a voice to the objects of some of their analysis – the Cornish people. Instead, the Cornish themselves, like their land, were persistently ‘othered’.

All this is fairly familiar stuff, another slightly different take on a by now consensus narrative of travellers’ texts that includes Gemma Goodman’s unpublished thesis of 2010 on ‘Cornwall: an alternative construction of place’, Rachel Moseley’s recent Picturing Cornwall (2018), some of Alan Kent’s work or come to that a few of my own musings from 2000 and later. It also suffers from a couple of irritating and unnecessary factual errors. The ‘first stretch of passenger railway’ was not laid after Wilkie Collins’ visit but well before, in the 1830s, when two stretches of line were built. It’s also not exactly true that there was ‘significant in and out-migration’ in the 1850s. Out-migration yes, but there was very little in-migration at this date.

The second part of this article is more novel. Here, Hannigan adopts a self-reflexive stance as a native Cornish writer responding to such outsider travel writing. He adopts Wendy Bracewell’s rather clumsy term of ‘travelee’ to describe the person in the place being written about by the traveller. Therefore, we have travelee-readers, those locals who read travellers’ accounts. Noting the rise of travelee-polemics in late eighteenth century Ireland, an antidote to travellers’ accounts, he asks why there were no similar explicit texts in Cornwall. This is an interesting point although surely some texts, for example dialect tales, incredibly popular in the mid to late 1800s, could be read as indirect travelee-polemics.

However, Hannigan points out how the travelee is not just a victim of others’ texts. He or she might well enjoy being portrayed as ‘exotic’ and ‘different’. Such ‘auto-exoticization’ could be a means of establishing agency and more than a merely passive internalisation of outsider imagery. This is indeed a very useful insight, although Hannigan seems a little unsure of the precise role of travellers’ accounts in the creation of difference.

While suggesting that insiders could actively re-write travellers’ accounts, he also asserts that the ‘creation of difference’ was ‘originally largely imposed from without’. Really? There are many examples from the 1810s onwards of an internal search for ‘difference’. It may be preferable to look at external representations as feeding into this parallel internal search, admittedly mutually compatible rather than starkly opposed. This relationship between insider identity and outsider imagery echoes my account in Industrial Celts, based on research in the late 1990s. That presents a similar argument, but one couched in a more sociological vein.

Finally, in this very readable piece, Hannigan writes that, as a Cornish person, he is doubly written into travellers’ texts, finding his sense of place validated. Fair enough, but isn’t he trebly written, as an active and published travel writer himself? That may make this particular travelee-polemic a little less than typical.