Transformations in Writing
A Guest Blog by Richard Abbott
For a whole variety of reasons, I have been recently reading some late 18th and early 19th century literature. It’s been quite an eye opener in several ways. For one thing, the Victorian stereotyping of gender had not yet appeared, and women writers could flourish without having to disguise their true self by an assumed or ambiguous name. Also, genres had not developed anything like the separation that came later.
The particular area I want to write about today concerns the crossover between travel writing and fiction which was happening at that time. Even today, in an age when global travel is common, and images from every country on Earth are easy to access, good travel writing is widely appreciated. How much more was this true when there was no internet, no photography, and most people travelled only within their locality. Soldiers and sailors might well experience something of other countries, but they had no choice of destination, and were hardly going as tourists.
The emerging middle class craved the experience promised by travel – the word “tourist” for such an adventurer first appeared in writing in 1772, and within a few decades the noun form “tourism” was established. But the destinations available to most such people were limited to places fairly close at hand, so they used their skills of literacy to read of the delights and terrors of other more exotic locations.
Authors were quick to meet this demand, undeterred by the minor problem that for the most part they had no greater personal experience of the places they portrayed than did their readership. There were a few recognised sources of information – often artists or those of a radical political disposition who financed their trips by producing descriptive books. But an author’s skill lay in turning these disparate sources into something both accessible and gripping to their voracious public.
So, the gap between travel writing and fiction was very small. The most successful fiction writers were able to describe foreign locations sufficiently well that readers believed that the story was based on real experience. Journeys to places that were impossible to see for real, were vicariously possible through fiction. Many authors presented their material faithfully, but others resorted to pure invention. Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, rose to fame in the mid 19th century with some highly romanticised accounts of Polynesian life. These were based very loosely on real experience, but had been heavily embroidered to titillate his audience.
The English novelist Ann Radcliffe blended travel writing alongside her Gothic novels, and in the process became the best paid author of her generation. Reading her fiction, it is very hard to recall that she had no personal experience at all of most of her settings. The sense of place – not just as geography, but also as a human environment – is very vivid. She was ahead of her time in that she wanted to convey the emotional and spiritual impact of immersion in a strange place, not just its aesthetic qualities. She wanted to describe human geography, and how it was shaped by terrain.
Oddly, it seems to have been a real journey to the English Lake District – recorded in Observations during a Tour to the Lakes of Lancashire, Westmoreland, and Cumberland – which brought about a crisis in confidence in her fiction writing. Her descriptions of climbing Skiddaw, and crossing the tidal sands of Morecambe Bay back to Lancaster, became classics of the genre, and were routinely included in travel brochures for many years. Her route up Skiddaw is easily recognisable to the modern walker. She obviously found this ascent, and the new perspective it provided of the landscape below, to be profoundly moving. The whole account is well worth tracking down if you have an interest in Cumbria.
Her fiction writing more or less stopped after Observations was published. There were several possible reasons for this, and nobody knows for sure which was the primary one. For one thing, she seriously disliked the literary direction that the Gothic novel had taken in the hands of others. She preferred stories where all events had a rational explanation, and where the protagonists adhered to a clear moral framework. But the new crop of Gothic authors was writing for sensation, and exploring the supernatural – a lineage more closely akin to the modern horror genre. There were also rumours – almost certainly untrue – that her mental health had failed, and she had been confined in an asylum.
But as well as this, the personal changes caused by real travel seem to have affected her ability to write about place in her fiction. Perhaps the impossibility of successfully capturing the full impact that a journey might have on a person deterred her. At any rate, her previous steady pace of writing stopped, and she withdrew into seclusion, seemingly to enjoy a peaceful and happy life with her husband.
Travel writing has had to change in a world of global mobility and easily accessed information. The focus now might be on human interactions – quirky and striking characters who typify their home, perhaps. Or an author might put an ecological spin on their writing, capturing something unique about a place which might not survive the next few decades. Something other than simple description of place is needed.
A similar process has happened in science fiction – another genre I love. Back in the first half of the twentieth century, you could put your space adventure on, say, Mars or Venus, and nobody would mind that we really had very little idea what those planets were like. Books as diverse as Sea Kings of Mars and Perelandra could invent whatever they wanted by way of landscape. But now, with high quality pictures and analyses readily available for those planets and others, readers require accuracy. So while writing parts of Timing, I wandered in virtual form around parts of the Martian surface, courtesy of Google Mars. Our expectations have changed.
Transformations like this happen from time to time in writing. In Ann Radcliffe’s day, authentic travel experiences were beginning to supplant literary ones, and authors responded with new descriptive styles. Science fiction has shifted radically in the last fifty years as science fact has poured detail into previously sketchy knowledge. Historical fiction has had to accommodate a growing array of facts.
What other transformations, I wonder, can we expect in the coming years?
About Richard Abbott
Richard Abbott lives in London, England. He writes science fiction about our solar system in the fairly near future, and also historical fiction set in the ancient Middle East – Egypt, Syria, Canaan and Israel.
When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District. He is the author of In a Milk and Honeyed Land, Scenes from a Life, The Flame Before Us, Far from the Spaceports, and most recently Timing.