Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Andrew McRae, Literature and Domestic Travel in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Andrew McRae, Literature and Domestic Travel in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 260pp.; 9 b/w ills. Hbk. £50 ($90) ISBN-978-0-521-44837-6

Reviewed by Alan James Hogarth

[1]  Renaissance travel writing, the imaginative process of recording foreign experiences and encounters with the unknown, has, over the years, amassed an extensive corpus of critical studies. The textual products of travel, itineraries, diaries and maps have been variously examined as artefacts which defined borders, helped consolidate ideas of the nation, and gave expression to European identities, shaped against the difference of alien cultures. But the question of domestic travel, the materiality of mobility within England, and its implications for the development of a national consciousness, has, until now, remained relatively unexplored. Andrew McRae’s wide-ranging book fills a gap in the critical exegesis of early modern mobility, and asks the question: how did people experience and conceptualise the everyday business of domestic travel? Where voyages overseas and tours of Europe were coterminous with Renaissance conceptions of the acquisition of knowledge, domestic travel, although essential for internal trade, was treated with a great deal of suspicion. We need only consider the restrictive sixteenth- and seventeenth-century laws on vagrancy, or the Elizabethan Poor Laws, to catch a glimpse of how ‘placelessness’ constituted a threat to the social order. Literature and Domestic Travel, therefore, sets out to recover the meanings of mobility in a society which was ideologically committed to ‘values of place’ (8).Tensions between the mobile and the stationary are, therefore, central to the book, which at its heart is about socio-political negotiations of space, the physical and theoretical struggle of the conservative, propertied and ‘placed’ against the progress of the mobile subject. Divided thematically into two parts, entitled ‘Routes’ and ‘Travellers’, McRae traces these tensions as they converge over the ‘structures’ (15) of travel, the rivers and roads of the nation, and the ‘cultural modes’ of mobility, progresses, tourism and traffic (16). This structure allows the reader to navigate through the text, linking the networks of communication with the people who travelled them. As the title suggests, works of literature, including river poems, plays and pamphlets, comprise much of the raw material of McRae’s analysis, and indeed, some of the most insightful and interesting moments occur in his readings and re-evaluations of literary texts. Although this type of cultural history has frequently been the subject of criticism, the book’s reliance on a wide range of literature as important indicators of historical development remains one of its strengths.

[2]  A case in point is the chapter on rivers, in which McRae probes the topographical anxieties inherent in the country house poem, a genre which epitomises the ideals of property and placement. His readings of ‘To Penshurst’ and Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’ point to the ways in which each poem’s commitment to place simultaneously reveals the forces of change which the form sought to undermine. Jonson’s attention to the river Medway, which ran through the Penshurst estate and was marked as a potential site for common navigational development, is, therefore, slight: it is dismissed as nothing more than ‘an unreliable supplier of food’ (56), whilst static ponds are celebrated as bodies of water, easily claimed as property. With Marvell, the ‘fantasy’ of isolation perpetuated through country house poems is subject to a greater interrogation (60). His image of the controlled flooding of the river Denton on the Fairfax estate, McRae argues, signifies ‘the collapse of all distinction between land and water’(60), the force of the river suggesting a ‘wider disorder’, which reminds the lord and his estate of the economic and social world outwith Appleton House. Such new perspectives on the genre enliven the debate on the functions of country house poems, re-locating them within the context of spatial contestation.

[3]  Elsewhere, the book has a lot in common with Patricia Fumerton’s Unsettled: the Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England (Chicago University Press, 2006). Fumerton’s identification of the mobile labouring poor, existing in an ‘emergent economy characterised by mobility’, informs McRae’s discussion of ‘commoners on the roads’ (11). In looking at contemporary efforts to categorise the mobile population as rogues and vagabonds, pointless in their lack of a fixed moral point of origin, McRae identifies the spatial knowledge of the travelling poor as the source of this popular antagonism. Roads, for travelling subjects, are economic lines of communication, the knowledge of which ensures their survival. Free from surveillance, they become unclassifiable and, as a consequence, the multitude of travelling ‘types’, pedlars, tinkers and chapmen, are grouped together as vagrants. Tracing this specialised knowledge of the traveller, McRae utilises disparate sources, including Rogue pamphlets and John Ogilvy’s road maps, to great effect, charting the emergence of a new appreciation of circulation as the key to fresh understandings of the nation along economic lines.

[4]  Almost everywhere in the book, it is the industrious commoner who realises the potentiality of travel networks. The water-poet John Taylor, who, as the author acknowledges, threatens ‘on occasion’ to ‘take over’ the book, is held up as the embodiment of this new awareness (211). Taylor’s domestic travel pamphlets, composed as accounts of his own adventures, are, for McRae, central ‘to his construction of authorship and selfhood’ (219). But it is Taylor’s novel approach to travel and authorship as inseparable concepts, conceived in terms of labour, which McRae singles out as the defining feature of his literary output. Taylor’s journeys, McRae observes, were undertaken as a process of exchange, subsidised by a number of sponsors, who upon his return would be presented with a pamphlet, valued as a tangible record of his journey. His writings were not abstracted to mathematical, cartographic representations of space, but were rather concerned with the physical processes and personal experiences of mobility. They were designed to demonstrate that, in spite of certain difficulties, England was ‘essentially open to the traveller’ (230). In his conception of Taylor’s works as ‘arguments in favour of the free circulation of people and goods’, McRae succeeds in re-positioning this minor literary figure at the centre of economic re-imaginings of internal travel (232).

[5]  The book’s segments on tourism, journey poems and progresses touch upon the idea of leisure as a motivation for domestic travel. However, more attention could have been devoted to London, as a space of increasing circulation and mobility, popular amongst the upper classes as a location in which to spend, socialise and be seen. The demographic shift from the country to the city in the seventeenth century alone would be enough to suggest exceptional levels of traffic, and an examination of the forms that this mobility took could reward further study. But this remains a minor oversight in a book which does so much to recapture the early modern experience of domestic travel. Engaging with chorography, cartography and the theorisation of space, together with travel writing, pamphlets and imaginative literature, Literature and Domestic Travel in Early Modern England is a valuable contribution to a neglected area of research and will be of interest to geographers as well as literary and cultural historians.

University of Strathclyde, April 2010


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