Friday, March 17, 2017

Eothen by AW Kinglake

I'm still a little amazed that I got sucked into reading travel non-fiction; after all, you would think that there were few things less interesting than listening to someone telling you in exhaustive detail about his holidays in places you've never been. On the other hand, as I attempt to write convincingly about such places, a bit of travel non-fiction has certainly come in handy.

William Dalrymple, surely the most entertaining travel writer of recent years, cites 1830s traveller Alexander William Kinglake as one of his inspirations. Since Kinglake also roamed through the Levant, stopping at Smyrna, Cyprus, Nablus, Cairo, and Damascus, I decided to read his account of his journey. The prospect was tempting on account of being a look at travel in the Levant before the upheavals of the twentieth century, but I was a little surprised by how very entertaining it was.
It is the plague, and the dread of the plague, that divide the one people from the other.  All coming and going stands forbidden by the terrors of the yellow flag.  If you dare to break the laws of the quarantine, you will be tried with military haste; the court will scream out your sentence to you from a tribunal some fifty yards off; the priest, instead of gently whispering to you the sweet hopes of religion, will console you at duelling distance; and after that you will find yourself carefully shot, and carelessly buried in the ground of the lazaretto.
Armed with this dry wit, a small army of long-suffering servants, and the kind of swagger that Englishmen abroad could command in those days (which has now transferred itself to the Americans), Kinglake sets out on his journey into the Ottoman Empire. He spends an evening with the famously peculiar Lady Hester Stanhope in her ancient monastery in the Lebanon. He gets lost and almost starves on the east side of the Jordan, is told off by a Franciscan friar in Jerusalem for not joining a clerical brawl with the Greek Orthodox, sightsees in Cairo during a plague epidemic that kills half the population, and pretty much has the time of his life.

Modern readers might find Kinglake's attitude toward the locals rather snobbish and condescending - and so it is, although I don't believe moderners themselves are any less so when beholding their forbears. One of the local traits that strikes Kinglake about the inhabitants of the then Ottoman Empire is described like this:
[T]he Sheik explained to Dthemetri the grounds of the infinite respect which he and his tribe entertained for the Pasha.  A few weeks before Ibrahim had craftily sent a body of troops across the Jordan.  The force went warily round to the foot of the mountains on the east, so as to cut off the retreat of this tribe, and then surrounded them as they lay encamped in the vale; their camels, and indeed all their possessions worth taking, were carried off by the soldiery, and moreover the then Sheik, together with every tenth man of the tribe, was brought out and shot.  You would think that this conduct on the part of the Pasha might not procure for his “friend” a very gracious reception amongst the people whom he had thus despoiled and decimated; but the Asiatic seems to be animated with a feeling of profound respect, almost bordering upon affection, for all who have done him any bold and violent wrong, and there is always, too, so much of vague and undefined apprehension mixed up with his really well-founded alarms, that I can see no limit to the yielding and bending of his mind when it is wrought upon by the idea of power.
I think Kinglake is often guilty of sweeping generalisations, but it was interesting that this theme kept cropping up in many of his dealings with the locals, so as to bear out his observation that "You will find, I think, that one of the greatest draw-backs to the pleasure of travelling in Asia is the being obliged, more or less, to make your way by bullying." Personally I think this has to still be something of a generalisation, because every human being has eternity in his heart and knows the worth of liberty and grace. But I also think it's no accident that people ruled for so long by a religion that sees God as a principle of total, raw power should finally extend their worship of power into their daily lives like this. 

Not all of Kinglake's generalisations seem as valid as this, and generally he views the local people among whom he travels the same way Mr Bennet viewed his neighbours. This results in an interesting sort of two-level effect, where Kinglake is laughing at the oddities of the people he travels among, and the modern reader is laughing at the oddities of Kinglake. In fact, I'm convinced Kinglake was aware of this - he spends plenty of time laughing at himself and his people, not just at those he calls "Asiatics". There's the hilarious passage where he passes another English traveller in the desert: the hope that the fellow-countryman won't disturb his privacy by attempting to speak to him; the embarrassment and then resignation when their servants stop to exchange greetings; the social tact and delicacy necessary to speak to a gentleman one hasn't been introduced to and isn't particularly interested in, on matters of mutual interest. There's an equally funny passage where Kinglake, lost in the desert and suffering from thirst, shocks a pair of Bedouins considerably - but I risk giving away too much.

Eothen, Or, Traces of Travel Brought Home From the East, to give it its full title, was quite simply a lot of fun, compounded by the fact that it's not just a journey to far-away places, but also back in time.

3 comments:

Joseph J said...

A good travel book is basically an adventure story with lots of interesting tangents.

Also, anyone who can have the time of his life in the middle of a plague epidemic knows something I want to know.

Deuce said...

A fine and timely review. I'm writing a Lovecraft Mythos novel which spends a bit of time in Cairo during that epidemic, so I shall track this down posthaste. From the sound of it, I would love it anyway.

Suzannah said...

Joseph, he specifically says in a footnote that he spent the whole time feeling nervous and didn't realise until he left the city how frightened he actually was the whole time, it's just that his fear manifested in a rather effervescent way!

Deuce, it's a really enjoyable book. Hope it also provides some excellent research! Feel free to come back and tell us your thoughts!

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