The Guidebook and the Beaten Track (Part 1)

Basalt pavement, Kirkjubær (Síða). Collodion print by Frederick Howell ca. 1900, courtesy of the Fiske Icelandic Collection in the Department of Rare & Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

It’s now been almost exactly a month since I finished my first draft of a thesis chapter, and shared the introduction to it here on Raxa Collective. My goal was to spend part of my academic break as a comfortable vacation without thinking of Iceland and instead focus on enjoying my time in India with family, and apart from the niggling worries that pop up when I’m trying to fall asleep every now and then, I’ve succeeded. But school starts up again in less than two weeks, so it’s about time to rev up the Iceland think-engine again, and a good way to do that is by sharing some more of the draft as it stands so far. What follows is a section of the “Cockneys in Iceland” chapter with the same title as this post, de-annotated, slightly altered, and divided into two parts for readability. 

Seyðisfjörður, Vestdalsfoss. Collodion print by Frederick Howell ca. 1900, courtesy of the Fiske Icelandic Collection in the Department of Rare & Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

During the mid- to late-nineteenth century, the red-jacketed Murray handbooks of Europe became near-ubiquitous resources for British and other Anglophone travellers. The books were meant to be useful reference tools regarding practical information such as timetables, currencies, and prices; they contained route suggestions with details on dress, modes of transport, and attractions; and also provided a general history of the country and its people. A survey of the Murray handbooks that mentioned Iceland over time, in Part 2 of this section, can be helpful in examining the evolution of popular conceptions of Iceland by British travellers, especially as they relate to being off the beaten track relative to the rest of Europe.

Perceived remoteness and difficulty of access, which generally meant fewer travellers and thus less information on the location, became a key distinction for those aiming to deviate from the common tour. James Buzard, historian of fiction and travel literature in Victorian Britain, has written that in the nineteenth century British travellers on the continent began more competitively seeking authenticity and originality in their trips “to distinguish themselves from the ‘mere tourists’ they saw or imagined around them,” largely by finding a place’s culture in “secret precincts ‘off the beaten track’” that were discoverable “only by the sensitive ‘traveller’, not the vulgar tourist.”

On the S. Coast of Snæfellsnes, near Búðir. Collodion print by Frederick Howell ca. 1900, courtesy of the Fiske Icelandic Collection in the Department of Rare & Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

Iceland was one of these less-known places, and within Iceland itself there were certainly ‘secret precincts’ given the difficulty of travel in the interior compared to the comfortably beaten track of Europe. Although the ‘sensitive traveller’ could still find something worthwhile in the old Grant Tour haunts, a place as seemingly remote as Iceland with less travel literature devoted to it was more exciting and less likely to receive immediate scrutiny from critics. While the vehicle of the Grand Tour had been the coach, with all its discomforts and dangers, continental travel in the nineteenth century became rapidly commoditized with the railroad, which faced its own criticism as well. Iceland’s unique geography was such that all land-based movement had to be made by pony, and trips were often affected by the amount of forage or the presence of safe river crossing.

2 thoughts on “The Guidebook and the Beaten Track (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: The Guidebook and the Beaten Track (Part 2) | Raxa Collective

  2. Pingback: Qualities of the British Traveller in Iceland: Part 1 | Raxa Collective

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