Qualities of the 19th Century British Traveller in Iceland: Part 1

Goðafoss. Gelatin silver print by Henry A. Perkins, courtesy of Cornell University Library’s Fiske Icelandic Collection, Department of Rare & Manuscript Collections.

For my previous post on part of my drafted chapter, click here.

Historian John Pemble, in his book on Victorians and Edwardians travelling in the Mediterranean, has written that “the claim to be a ‘traveller’, as opposed to a ‘tourist’ or an ‘excursionist,’ was in most cases only a special kind of snobbery … [implying] revulsion from the British masses.” This claim is in fact up for debate. On the one hand, a certain author on Iceland might lampoon so-called tourists for behavior that he engages in himself with seemingly no distinction other than his privileged background. On the other hand, the same author can veer from the beaten track by not only travelling to less-known regions but also varying his achievements by learning Icelandic or enduring discomfort and danger. In this manner, according to travel writing scholar Carl Thompson, the author presents his journey “as a genuine challenge, and so as a genuine learning experience, for the travelling self … as a form of pilgrimage or exploration, rather than some sort of self-indulgent jaunt.” An individual’s status as tourist or traveller, therefore, can oscillate in his or her writing based on certain indicators of authenticity.

Hveravellir hot springs and terraces (with Daniel Bruun, the Danish captain and archeologist). Collodion print by Frederick H. Howell, courtesy of Cornell University Library’s Fiske Icelandic Collection, Department of Rare & Manuscript Collections.

Sabine Baring-Gould, for example, was generally referred to as a traveller by later authors and clearly considered himself one as well. His 1863 volume Iceland: its Scenes and Sagas, contains a map and many illustrations, several of which, including the frontispiece, are in color. Under his name he lists his accomplishments as “M.A., Fellow of S. Nicholas College, Lancing; Member of the Norse Literary Society,” and he dedicates the book to his uncle, “Major-General Edward Sabine, R.A., President of the Royal Society.” This information at the beginning of his book hints at Baring-Gould’s social standing and also reveal his interest in expeditions made for the purposes of natural science; although he claims no scientific goals, his actions and writing often follow the spirit encouraged by the Royal Society, as we will see below. In his preface he writes that his intentions when visiting Iceland were both journey to “scenes famous in Saga” and to make watercolor sketches along the way. Thus, he warns his reader to keep these goals in mind since “otherwise he may be disappointed at finding in these pages little new matter of scientific interest.”

The tube of Geysir after an eruption. Collodion print by Frederick H. Howell, courtesy of Cornell University Library’s Fiske Icelandic Collection, Department of Rare & Manuscript Collections.

At first one might consider Baring-Gould’s trip to Iceland a touristic one, based on his explicit objectives and his frequent recognition that several others have already written about what he describes; but other factors, including his aforementioned distinctions, strengthen his traveller status. For example, in his introduction he provides a list of the principal previous accounts of Iceland, and then explains, “The great majority of the tourists mentioned above have only visited the scenes in the neighbourhood of Reykjavík, such as the Geyser and Hekla, and perhaps extended their range to Snœfell’s Jökull.” The list includes well-known explorers as well as men we might dub travellers and tourists, so Baring-Gould’s use of the word “tourist” is insignificant, but his underscoring of the limitation to past visitors’ ranges quite explicitly sets him apart from them, given his much broader peregrinations. As Baring-Gould sets out for Dettifoss in the northeast of the island, where practically no Britons had gone before, he states that it is the “mightiest waterfall in Iceland; one, too, which no European has ever visited, and which has been seen by very few natives, and was unknown to the compilers of the great map of Iceland.” Here he is reinforcing the authenticity of his voyage by providing an account of a natural wonder that not only most travellers have never seen, but even the cartographers who designed the map that all visitors to Iceland carry did not know about.

In Part 2 we will see some of Baring-Gould’s influence and ideas on sagas and travel in Iceland.

2 thoughts on “Qualities of the 19th Century British Traveller in Iceland: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Making The Best Of A Surprise, Geothermal Energy Moves Forward In Iceland | Raxa Collective

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

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