Reluctant Source: Murray's Handbooks and Pictures from Italy

By McNees, Eleanor | Dickens Quarterly, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Reluctant Source: Murray's Handbooks and Pictures from Italy


McNees, Eleanor, Dickens Quarterly


In the aftermath of the Grand Tour and just before rail travel and Cook's Tours launched the mass tourism that would characterize the latter part of the nineteenth and all of the twentieth century, Charles Dickens posited an alternative to the popular Murray's Handbooks for Travellers, the first of which appeared in 1836. (1) In his Pictures from Italy (1846) Dickens deliberately set out to write a travel book against the guidebook genre, one that would substitute "a series of faint reflections--mere shadows in the water," for Murray's practical advice to prospective British tourists (PI 5). These two modes of travel writing--one explicitly directed toward the newly emerging middleclass tourist who demanded an efficient mapping of routes punctuated by pre-approved sites, the other intended for an audience more willing to be entertained than precisely informed--highlight a particularly mid-Victorian dichotomy. Murray's readers, often limited by time and budget, required a reliable authority to dictate safe passage through a foreign country. Dickens's Pictures from Italy, on the other hand, appealed to a romantic yearning to resist the beaten track, to be both literally and metaphorically diverted. In other words, Murray's Handbooks appealed to the tourist, Dickens's Pictures to the traveler (and also to the armchair traveler) with whom Dickens hoped "to compare impressions with some among the multitudes who will hereafter visit the scenes described with interest and delight" (PI 7). (2)

This "Battle of the Travel Books" was particularly acute in nineteenth century British accounts of Italy. Between 1800 and 1850 over 240 prose works (including eighteen in translation but excluding journals, memoirs and magazine articles) were published in Great Britain. (3) In 1846, the year of Pictures from Italy, four other books were published on various aspects of Italy and Italian culture. While Murray's Handbooks figure prominently, they were accompanied by such various titles as Sketches of Vesuvius with short Accounts of its Principal Eruptions (1833); The Philosophic Rambler: or the Observations and Adventures of a Pedestrian Tourist through France and Italy (1834); and Popular Customs, Sports and Recollections of the South of Italy (1846). Dickens owned and admired a translation of Louis Simond's 1828 A Tour in Italy and Sicily, and he would have been self-consciously aware of forays into the genre by his own compatriots. (4) Titles beginning with more informal and less authoritative words than Murray's Handbooks proliferated (Excursions, Reminiscences, Letters, Hints, Rambles, Notes, Recollections, Travels, Sketches) though Dickens's final title, Pictures from Italy, overtly committed him to a more visual terrain than many of the other works.

Amidst this onslaught of travel books, the Victorian distinction between tourist and traveler, like that between the guidebook and travelogue, especially prior to the advent of railway travel after mid-century, is at best blurred, at worst unfairly divisive. In the introduction to his anthology of English writing on Italy in The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Italies of British Travellers (1996), Manfred Pfister questions "our ideal-type distinction between travelogues and guide books," arguing that the difference "does not really apply to the books on Italy before the middle of the nineteenth century":

   From the beginning, travelogues served also as guide books, and the
   structural and functional differentiation between these two genres
   was a gradual process that began in the seventeenth century, thus
   leaving the distinction blurred for almost two centuries. (11).

Nevertheless, a number of theorists of tourism--Dean MacCannell, Jonathan Culler and James Buzard, among others--emphasize the gulf between the tourist and traveler or later between the tourist and the anti-tourist. They suggest that while both traveler and tourist yearned for an authentic experience, for a direct encounter with another culture and its artifacts, the tourist needed the authoritative verification of the guidebook to validate the experience while the traveler trusted his own impressions, his own slightly reckless diversion from the hierarchy of mandatory sites.

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