Project Update: British Travel Writing, 1780-1840

In this blog post, Dr Benjamin Colbert, Reader in English Literature and co-director of the Centre for Transnational and Transcultural Research, reflects on the recent launch of a pilot travel writing database and on its future development.


On 10 July 2014, I officially cut the ribbon on the Database of Women’s Travel Writing (DWTW) at the Chawton House Library conference, New Horizons: Reassessing Women’s Travel Writing 1600-1800. DWTW provides full and accurate records for nearly 200 titles (at present 196), all the known books of travel published in Britain and Ireland by women between 1780 and 1840. Although the number of travel books by women was relatively low – about 4% of the total travel books published ­– this was also the period in which women travel writers began to establish themselves as an important and fast growing presence in the field.

Benjamin Colbert launching DWTW at Chawton House Library, 10 July 2014

Benjamin Colbert launching DWTW at Chawton House Library, 10 July 2014

Since July I have been steadily adding new material to the database, principally the short biographies linked to authors and contributors in the main entries. Of the 158 names associated with the database (including co-authors, sometimes men) only 58 have entries in the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), so this phase of the project is turning up interesting new material and connections. To take only one recent example, my research has shown that Maria Frances Dickson, Irish children’s writer and author of Souvenirs of a Summer in Germany (1837), toured Germany in the summer of 1836 accompanying another database author, Lady Henrietta Chatterton, who married Dickson’s mother’s brother and is the dedicatee of Souvenirs. While Lady Chatterton garners a DNB entry, Dickson does not, and this connection until now has gone wholly unnoticed. To date, 62 new biographies have been uploaded and the others will follow in due course.

This blog will profile one of these authors and her travel writings every month, so please look out for these special features beginning in November.

DWTW is a pilot database, however, part of a larger project: British Travel Writing, 1780-1840. This project aims to create a fully searchable and publicly accessible online database of all travel writings published in Britain and Ireland. It covers the period in which Grand Tourism gives way to more commercial modes; the period, indeed, in which the words ‘tourist’ and ‘tourism’ were coined.

The project addresses a real gap in our knowledge about the market share of travel writing in the British and Irish publishing industry, but asks other questions about the nature of the genre itself, the sometime porous divides between manuscript and print culture, periodicals and books. By focusing on the book the project in no way slights these other manifestations of travel culture, as can be seen in the many entries for books that, for example, are printed privately with specific audiences in mind, or derive from serialised articles in periodicals, or gesture in more subtle ways to their manuscript incarnations ‘urged by friends’ into print.

Perhaps the most difficult question that the database addresses is ‘What is travel writing?’ and the answer for British Travel Writing is largely pragmatic, a way of both acknowledging generic and cross-generic plenitude while keeping the project within attainable bounds. The project thus focuses on narratives, guidebooks, illustrated letterpress plate books, topographical descriptions, and collections – travel subgenres which record actual travels whether or not the ‘I’ of the observer (or the one who experiences, as in the case of the blind travel James Holman) is present. That the writer has travelled, then, is a desideratum along with the requirement that the resulting travel book is on the whole non-fictional, even if tales, poems, or narrative structures associated with fiction are incorporated within it. Travel fictions – be they experiments in loco-descriptive poetry, the novel, satire, or other fictional genres – will not feature in the first phase of the project. For other strategic omissions see the History, Scope, Aims section of DWTW.

With these criteria in mind, to date around 5,000 titles by around 3,000 authors have been identified through painstaking collation of existing sources in bibliographies, databases, and catalogues and the process of inspecting and describing first editions is well under way. Entries in the database, as suggested above, include carefully transcribed full titles, including subtitles and author information quite often left out or truncated in library and short title catalogues and other bibliographical sources. Only epigraphs are not transcribed as part of the title page, and these are reproduced and identified in notes accompanying each entry. Similarly, we have transcribed publishers’ imprints and printers’ colophons, described physically each inspected item, and provided a list of sources including copy inspected and full-text databases that hold the work. Supplementary notes include title page epigraphs and their sources; lists of subsequent editions; dedications (identified whenever possible); chronological lists of contemporary reviews and notices; and additional information on problems of attributions or special features. Content by regions is also included.

DWTW and its parent project, then, will provide for the first time longitudinal information about travel book production, history, genre, authors, and regional content that we hope will underpin future scholarship in travel writing studies, history of the book, and other disciplines, as well as providing a convenient and respected reference for students, librarians, archivists, book dealers, auction houses, and other users.

For further updates on British Travel Writing and DWTW, please visit this blog again, or become a follower to receive automatic updates of new postings by email.


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