Book Notes: French Romantic Travel Writing (2012)

First a confession: when I first heard about this study from Cambridge Press, I felt a bit like the fellow who had just completed writing a manuscript on the fascinating secret history of the creator of Wonder Woman when his agent called to tell him about Jill Lepore’s then-forthcoming book “The Secret History of Wonder Woman”. For you see dear reader, I was a harried grad student nearly finished with the penultimate draft of my dissertation on the French Romantic writers who traveled to the Levant in the first half of the 19th century- how they did it, what they thought they were doing, etc.- focusing on writers like Chateaubriand, Lamartine, and Nerval- when I spied a reference to C.W. Thompson’s “French Romantic Travel Writing: Chateaubriand to Nerval.” Curses!

So, like a harried grad student, I nervously avoided the book, plowed through with the dissertation, and buried myself in my new life in labor. Years passed and I decided to rewrite the dissertation into a book of my own. So now I have courageously read Professor Thompson’s book and I have to say that it’s a magisterial, authoritative, and very lively read on a topic that hasn’t gotten sufficient attention (Curses!).

Thompson is dealing with something that has long been evident in French scholarship, but woefully under acknowledged in Anglo studies- namely that travel writing was a major genre in France in a way “that was never matched by their English and German counterparts, for in the first half of the century Balzac, Vigny, Musset, and Sainte-Beuve were exceptional in failing to publish such accounts.”  The Romantic persona is restless, to say the least, and given to wandering, exile, and rootlessness, and in France it was a near rite of passage to make a voyage to some location, near or far, and write a book about the experience. This is not entirely surprising following the experience of the Revolution and the chaos of the early revolutionary years, in which many Frenchmen actually were exiled. Interestingly, Thompson notes that many of these books were not particularly successful- and yet they still went.

François-René de Chateaubriand set the fashion, writing about travel in a different way than much of what came before with his Itinéraire de Paris à Jerusalem… (1811) Where previous travelers had written accounts that were primarily straightforward and dry records of places been, sights seen, and events that occurred along the way, Chateaubriand’s account was literary, poetic, elusive, somewhat fictional, and deeply subjective. There were a few predecessors- Thompson cites Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, and I would suggest the influence of Madame de Staël and the somewhat negative influence of Volney. Chateaubriand’s stated aim was to revive the medieval pilgrimage, and he did this by narrating his transcendent subjectivity in response to a divinely-created world. His writing treats religious consciousness as a side effect of landscape and history in a style that was fairly irresistible in the post-Revolutionary cultural world. I was a bit struck to find that Thompson and I came separately to the nearly identical note that, for Chateaubriand “travel in space was also travel in time” and the world was “everywhere a historical palimpsest”. Throughout, I was struck by the correctness of his conclusions.

After the Revolution and Empire, French culture was troubled, to say the least and travel seemed to offer the individual a way to escape their social milieu, reflect upon it, and recapture lost energies and a truer, more innate self lying buried beneath a troubled social self. As Thompson puts it, “a fundamental theme common to most of these travelogues is the quest for energy in all its creative forms- moral, aesthetic, physical, political.” I phrased it “a latent potency” but the notion also recalls Victor and Edith Turner’s classic work on “quasi-liminality”- travel as a ritual that places the individual in a place betwixt and between his old life and an emerging consciousness. It’s not entirely surprising, then, that travelers like Lamartine returned with pseudo-prophecies about the way forward for French culture (and imperialism). Something was definitely in the air too; at roughly the same time that Lamartine was waxing millenarian with the eccentric Lady Hester Stanhope in the Lebanon desert, the Saint-Simonians, who had been exiled from Paris, were running afoul of Ottoman authorities in their search for the “celestial female” in the streets of Constantinople!

Thompson’s approach is to detail the sweep and common themes of the genre and in this he writes about fascinating characters like Custine, whose book on Russia draws on the writer’s “deep faith and sadomasochistic tendencies” or Flora Tristan’s “Peregrinations of a Pariah” which combines autobiography, romance, philosophical travel, and crude racism. Thompson also details the publication history of the books, how writers got paid for them, and the government officials who helped them go. It seems somewhat surprising that they did help writers who could be eccentric and socially critical, but it was in keeping with a desire to further French culture abroad that sent French poets along with “scientific expeditions” to the Peloponnese to complete their translations of Aristotle, for instance. Even today, one can find news reports in Le Monde on politics in Jerusalem that begin by citing Chateaubriand and Lamartine.

What Thompson captures, in a way that writers after Edward Said have not, is how enjoyable many of these texts can be. Certainly, Chateaubriand was a gloomy writer who saw wit as the worst character flaw, but writers like Custine and Nerval captured the sheer joy in living that comes with travel and a great many voyageurs felt that voyaging had returned them to their youth and the youth of the world. Where I agree most strongly with Thompson (it’s one of my key theses in fact) is that the French Romantic travel practice was a transitional phase, “somewhere between the touring of elites in the eighteenth century and the practices of modern tourism that began to emerge with Thomas Cook around 1850.” Chateaubriand intended to revive pilgrimage, but in many ways he was central to a discourse on travel that shaped how we think of tourism today. Instead of an act of penance or obligation, it is a life-changing, borderline-spiritual event in one’s autobiography.

Or, at least, it’s intended to be. Perhaps the most recurrent feelings about travel in later writers like Nerval and Flaubert (who felt the genre was exhausted and never published his notes) are disappointment and disillusionment after their travel. Chateaubriand simply set the bar too high with his quasi-visionary “pilgrimage”, although one should note that the tourist who is disillusioned by their travels is most often saddened not by the place visited, but by their own lack of response to it. And yet, they still go. It was not long after the French Romantic travel genre had exhausted its energies that package tourism and group pilgrimages began to flourish in France and beyond. In the end, a tourist can become a pilgrim and a pilgrim can easily find himself a tourist.


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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6 thoughts on “Book Notes: French Romantic Travel Writing (2012)

  1. Nice article. I’ve read Said, but not any of the French travel writers (my French lit is weak, but I’ve been reading some lately). Reading this reminded me of the Orientalist section of the Musee D’Orsay, so I’m guessing the paintings must have been in style along with the literature. I wonder if the paintings had any Salon success.

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    • Yeah I believe so- at least Delacroix and Ingres must have been. I’m not as good with the art as lit but my sense is it went in waves of popularity after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, the Greek war of independence, and the taking of Algeria. Of course this is when the French military was taking over painters and other savants with the expeditions. Then there were the expositions, which I find fascinating. Somewhere I have a picture of Paris with the park in front of the eiffel tower filled with faux Egyptian buildings!

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  2. Enjoyable piece, but I wanted more!

    So I did a little Googling and learned enough to ask dumb questions

    Clearly, you explored the pilgrim/tourist dichotomy. Apparently the Turners included in their analysis of Middle Ages pilgrimages the throw away line: “This is why some pilgrimages have become crusades and jihads.” If we unmoor this from its specific historical reference we can extend your observation “that the tourist who is disillusioned by their travels is most often saddened not by the place visited, but by their own lack of response to it.” to a related insight. The tourist, pilgrim and crusader all, by their very presence (more or less so according to the activities they engage in) change the places they visit. Sadness about this is something that I encountered frequently in the random more of less contemporary travel writing I’ve encountered. I wonder if this came up in your work on the French Romantics travel writing.

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    • Well, if I can get this book published…

      The Turners also had a great line to the effect that, if a pilgrim is half tourist, a tourist is half pilgrim. Definitely there was sadness. I found that nearly every French traveler after Chateaubriand commented that Europeans were ruining the “Orient” by their presence. Maxime Du Camp had a line that Alexandria had become nothing but a “ville franque- the worst thing in the world!” So disillusionment was a constant theme, particularly when you get to the second generation of French Romantics, who were incidentally of significantly lesser means than their illustrious forebears and more ironic in general.

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