The American Traveller in Great Britain, 1800-1914

The American Traveller in Great Britain, 1800-1914: Passionate Pilgrims

Allison Lockwood

Cornwall Books, 1981; 551 pp.

Mrs Lockwood states that she has consulted 500 books in writing this book, and there is no reason to doubt her. A glance through the bibliography, that infallible guide to a writer's experience and qualifications, tells us that this is no ramble through familiar fields. Naturally Hawthorne, Washington Irving and Henry James are there, but there are few other known names. My Holiday; How l Spent It by James N. Matthews, published in 1867, is a typical entry, and extracts from this, and more than 400 other books of this type, make rewarding reading.

This is one of the few books of the last decade that will encourage the reader to look at the nineteenth century with new eyes. There is no doubt at all that it is a major work. To a certain extent the British have a proprietorial attitude to the nineteenth century; popular history is an amalgam of cleverboots, egotism and credulity, today as ever. The Victorian image-makers still exert their spell, whether we like it or not. But they did not on the Americans who came here between 1800 and 1914 to goggle at literary relics (Shakespeare's house was a disgusting butcher's shop) or chip a bit off Stonehenge (a mallet was hung up for this purpose).

Maybe Passionate Pilgrims is not quite the right title, though nicely alliterative, for the Americans were more often innocent, tetchy, shrewd – and caring (the natives were far more tearful about Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin than child-slaves in the mills and mines a couple of miles away). Surprisingly often, our assumptions are dented. Even at the turn of the nineteenth century the pace of London was far brisker than that of New York. People walked faster, traffic was quicker. We think of London at night in Victorian times as being often dangerous, Jack the Ripper territory, fog in Baker Street and creatures from Dore round every corner. It is almost astonishing to learn that only once in Mrs. Lockwood's cache of 500 books was there any hint of violence. The Victorian police must have been wonderful – or Mrs Lockwood is the greatest of the image-makers.

A word in praise of American publishing. In these days of hype and similar cretinous fulsomeness how refreshing to come across a book like this. And a word about the illustrations; a quaint and ramshackle lot, reflecting some of the extracts, and none the worse for that.

 

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