The Guidebook and the Beaten Track (Part 2)

Hot springs in Iceland’s Fjallabak Nature Reserve. Photo via DailyMail Online

As I wrote in Part 1, I think a brief inspection of Murray guidebooks over time hints at the image that a Briton considering a voyage abroad would hold in his mind of a place like Iceland. The first edition of A Handbook for Travellers in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Russia, an 1839 volume by Murray intended for travel through most of Scandinavia, states in the Preface that,

“The principal object of the following pages is to afford such of my travelling countrymen as are disposed to quit the more beaten paths of southern Europe, and explore the less known, but equally romantic, regions of the north, some useful information as to time and distance, which at present they can only obtain by actual experience.”

Although this version of the guidebook did not contain any information on Iceland, John Murray III’s views are made clear from the outset: continental Europe was growing crowded with tourists, and Nordic regions were a new market for discerning travellers to be aided by the enterprising handbook.

Lake Mývatn, Iceland. Photograph © Jonas Bendiksen, NatGeo

The 1858 edition, renamed A Handbook for Travellers in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland, still lacked an actual chapter on Iceland but included the island in routes to Denmark and cited authors who had written accounts of their travels there. The handbook emphasizes Iceland’s remoteness, explaining that “Steamers are sometimes talked of to run on this line, but no such arrangements are yet in force, and the only mode of getting at Iceland is to wait at Copenhagen or Aberdeen for some merchant vessel, which is going there.” The steamship routes would not become reliable until about a decade later, when the Danish established lines from Copenhagen and Edinburgh. However, reaching Iceland itself was only half the journey; Murray’s 1858 handbook warns that, “No one … should visit Iceland who is not prepared to encounter considerable hardships in making excursions into the interior of the country.” These hardships become evident when reading the traveller’s books on their Icelandic experiences, as we will see in the next section (for another few posts).

By 1883, a separate guidebook for Denmark had been published and was in its fifth edition; its preface concludes with the celebratory declaration that “A brief but comprehensive Guide to Iceland, a country more accessible now than formerly, has been added to this Edition, and is the result of experience gained in more than one journey through that Island.” At this point of the nineteenth century, Iceland had been attainable by steamship for a decade or so, roads in the interior were improving, and several trips to the island had been made by the contributors to the Handbook, allowing the 1883 edition to boast nearly forty pages of information on Iceland alone, including a map and six well-described routes. The more significant amount of space dedicated to the island indicates the growth of interest in travel there; once again, however, the author cautions that,

Landmannalaugar, Iceland. Photo © Fred Lefebvre

“Under any circumstances a tour in Iceland involves a good deal of discomfort, and roughing it in a manner to which few travellers are accustomed; hence it happens that the comparatively small number of persons who visit its shores usually do so with some definite object in view, other than simple change of air and scene. The principal objects are sport, geology or exploration. Others go from a fondness of the scenery or literature. Those who go without any special interest in anything are likely to be disappointed.”

This quotation addresses several important elements of trips made by travellers who disdained the mere sightseer and claimed greater authenticity and cultural understanding than the common tourist—earning them the name of anti-tourists in contemporary scholarship. The handbook author highlights ‘roughing it’, which travellers to Iceland often emphasize in Victorian displays of masculinity and genuineness; he mentions the low volume of present visitors to the island, which underscores the relative originality of the travellers in going there; and he discusses the ‘object’ of travel to Iceland, baldly stating that those aiming to visit Iceland out of whimsy—i.e. simple tourists—will not have successful trips.

In their writing, nineteenth-century Britons in Iceland usually focus on “definite objects” that involve self-improvement (e.g. Saga studies or searching for the picturesque), some contribution to place-knowledge (e.g. mineral surveys or traversing unknown regions), and combinations of the two (e.g. collecting ornithological specimens or reaching mountain summits). I discuss these topics further in the next section of my chapter, Qualities of the British Traveller, which I’ll post as Part 1 and 2 soon.

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

  1. Pingback: Classics-R-Us | Raxa Collective

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