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Are We There Yet? Virtual Tourism and Victorian Realism by Alison Byerly (review)

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 45, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 704-705 | 10.1353/sdn.2014.0009

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“There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us lands away,” claims Emily Dickinson in the nineteenth century’s most famous ode to armchair travel. But Alison Byerly convincingly shows that bookish voyages could actually have a lot in common with ones conducted by ship, or at least with travels via public panorama displays, Thames excursions, and railways—the Victorian experiences around which she centers her study’s three sections. In Byerly’s analysis, these sites and itineraries for real experience merge with their descriptions in guidebooks, handbooks, and other representations; indeed, she argues that even physical travel could come to have something virtual about it. Like readers, she notes, viewers of a splashy panorama, or occupants immobilized in a railway carriage zooming through the countryside, seem to occupy two places at once, immersed yet abstracted from the scenes presented to them. Studies of Victorian travel writing often emphasize the Victorians’ taste for writing about the exotic or colonial. But Byerly notes the concurrent popularity of real and imaginary excursions into the familiar. For instance, before or after—or instead of—visiting a panorama of London (located in London, naturally), you could read a description of it that addressed you as a fellow traveller sharing the experience.

This evocation of a simultaneously immediate and distant reality becomes a formula for what Byerly calls virtual travel. (Influenced by late twentieth-century ideas about virtual reality experiences, she is nonetheless careful to distinguish their interactivity from the nineteenth-century texts and images she analyzes.) Yet clearly it might also be a recipe for fictional realism. Juxtaposing guidebook descriptions with scenes from works by Dickens, Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, Eliot, Hardy, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others, Byerly examines what she argues are Victorian fiction’s responses to the conventions and techniques of virtual travel. Her skillful analyses bring out important features that we might not notice otherwise, even in well-known passages—for instance, Victorian fiction’s tendency to describe locations from moving rather than fixed viewpoints, or its use of an observing figure as what Byerly calls an “avatar” for the reader.

Byerly assumes, and asserts, that these fictional practices reflect the influence of travel accounts on realistic fiction, but it’s not clear to me why the influence should have been only one-way. Perhaps fiction might have helped teach readers the pleasures of re-encountering, through a screen of artifice, a world that seemed familiar and nearly at hand. In any case, Byerly’s focus on finding and bringing together new materials is one of the pleasures of her study. On the travel side, we encounter a variety of reviews and guidebooks, including a useful look at the ubiquitous “Bradshaw’s” (a name that actually covers a multiplicity of railway and tourism guides). And Byerly regularly examines underexplored but once-popular genre fiction, works that respond to popular excitement about new experiences, technologies, and media in a revealingly direct way. Byerly also discusses a number of images related to virtual travel; the book’s few illustrations are so good that I longed for more. (The cover image, a witty collage that shows an unimpressed Queen Victoria appearing to contemplate a tethered hot-air balloon from the window of a train car on the doomed Tay Rail Bridge, is ingeniously perfect.)

The paradigm of feeling as if you’re in two places at once provides the leitmotif not simply of the Victorian texts Byerly analyzes but ultimately of her book itself. For, as it proceeds, Byerly propounds—with more and more insistence—a double chronological vision that considers Victorian virtual experience against parallel possibilities in our own media environment. Victorian avatars, cyborgs, chat rooms? Byerly’s “approach… assume[s] that it is possible to examine a historically specific body of material with both an awareness of its immediate cultural context and an openness to the illumination offered by comparing it with contemporary aesthetic and cultural manifestations” (208). Are We There Yet’s sense of cultural history is rich enough that complaints about anachronism seem picayune, whether or not one believes, for instance, that Jerome K. Jerome’s comic Three Men in a Boat actually resembles a blog very closely...

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