Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

From Cornhill to Cairo: Thackeray as Travel-Writer

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

From Cornhill to Cairo: Thackeray as Travel-Writer

Article excerpt


This essay examines Thackeray's travel-writing through close attention to his book Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Cairo (1846). It approaches it through Thackeray's other extended piece of travel-writing, The Irish Sketch Book (1843), and through W. A. Kinglake's Eothen (1844), which Thackeray read during his journey to Cairo. The essay explores Thackeray's deployment of an urban, unheroic narrator; his representation of 'the foreign' as 'pictorial spectacle'; and his engagement with the problem of representing places already represented, already textualized. It considers recurrent tropes in the writing and the problem posed by Thackeray's commercial sponsorship.


In the period 1841 to 1846, Thackeray was working in London as a freelance journalist, contributing to a range of periodicals including the Foreign Quarterly Review, Fraser's Magazine, the Morning Chronicle, and Punch. This was the period also of his major travel writings. In addition to regular visits to Paris, where his wife was placed under medical supervision in October 1840, Thackeray made a journey to Ireland from June to November 1842, paid a four-week visit to Belgium and Holland in August 1843, and travelled round the Mediterranean in the winter of 1844-45. (1) This last was the most ambitious of his travels. As a freelance journalist, everything was grist to his mill, and he tried to make professional use of his various travel experiences. Thus, from his visits to Paris, he had planned to write Dinner Reminiscences; or, The Young Gormandizer's Guide at Paris (Ray, p. 282), and he made notes on an 1840 visit to Belgium which he combined with his 1843 notes to produce 'Little Travels and Roadside Sketches' (Ray, p. 483). His major works in this period were The Irish Sketch Book (1843) and Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1846). (2)

Ray suggests that the interest of this genre of travel-writing was not so much in the place itself as in the place as refracted through the character and idiosyncracies of the narrator (Ray, p. 310). (3) Thackeray's narrator is consciously urban and unheroic. In Ray's words: 'Dublin, Belfast, Athens, Jerusalem, and Cairo are in turn tried by West End standards--and usually found wanting' (p. 310). (4) Or, as Thackeray puts it in A Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, 'My hobby-horse is a quiet beast, suited for Park riding, or a gentle trot to Putney and back to a snug stable' (p. 576).

The Irish Sketch Book, which was the more substantial work, focuses on 'the manners and scenery of the country'. Nevertheless, it cannot leave out glimpses of the political and economic state of Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine. Although Thackeray suggests that these are 'miseries that one does not dare to think of ', he cannot miss 'public evidences of the distress of the country' (p. 30). The dominant impression is of shabbiness, poverty, lack of work, and widespread 'popular starvation' (p. 86). Central Dublin is like a deserted city (p. 20); market-day in Carlow, in respect of the meanness of the objects for barter, is compared to market-day in 'a town of African huts and traders on the banks of the Quarra' (p. 41); beggars' houses in Bantry are unfavourably compared, for comfort, with 'a Hottentot kraal' (p. 104), and everywhere he finds signs of neglect and ruin. He notes that the Irish Poor Law Report records 'twelve hundred thousand people in Ireland' with no means of support' (p. 43). And he himself observes 'women pulling weeds and nettles in the hedges, on which dismal sustenance the poor creatures live, having no bread, no potatoes, no work' (p. 30). Thackeray, however, is resistant to the rhetoric of 'English tyranny and suffering Ireland' (p. 244).

The Irish Sketchbook records a clockwise circuit of southern Ireland from Dublin to Dublin, and then an anti-clockwise circuit of northern Ireland, ending again at Dublin. In the course of his narrative, Thackeray refers constantly to various guidebooks he is using. …

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