- English Travel Narratives in the Eighteenth Century: Exploring Genres
This book explores the boundaries between the emergent genre of the novel and the popular travel narratives at the end of the eighteenth century. Jean Viviès offers an overview of the problems encountered when a narrative genre is defined within the constraints of literary labels. As the author concludes, "Genre is not to be taken as a pre-existent category . . . but as a subject of reflection that is itself unreliable and problematic" (109). Looking at travel narratives as part of a continuum in the evolution of the English novel rather than a separate literary category, Viviès invites consideration on the intertextuality of different traditions and genres.
English Travel Narratives in the Eighteenth Century is organized in four blocks of essays that, whether read independently or collectively, present a cohesive discussion on the limits between fictional and travel narrative, exemplified by the work of authors such as Laurence Sterne, Tobias Smollett, and James Boswell. In chapter 1, Viviès examines three of Boswell's travel narratives and the author's literary relationship to Samuel Johnson (about whom he wrote the famous biography). Boswell's works open a discussion on the validity of their classification under travel writing, as on the blurring of fiction and reality in autobiographical texts. Boswell's Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides has been considered a biography of Johnson rather than a travel book, since it follows Johnson's experiences in Scotland. Moreover, "the journey offers the opportunity to shift the man of letters from his usual environment . . . so as better to assess the effects of this change both in terms of our knowledge of the character (biographical) and the narrative effects this produces" (47). This blend of biography and travel narrative, and thus the overlap of history and fiction, attests to "the paradoxical modernity of James Boswell" (49) and serves as a prefatory text to the later Life of Johnson.
The works of Sterne, the novels Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey, close the authorial focus of this study. In his third chapter Viviès analyzes travel [End Page 96] narratives within the frame of eighteenth-century sentimentality. As an example of the recategorization of texts into literary genres, Viviès points out that contemporary readers did not think of A Sentimental Journey as a novel but as a travel book. Once again Viviès demonstrates the instability of the limits between the fiction and reality of a journey.
Offering a different thematic approach on travel narratives, chapter 4, "The Vagaries of the Picaresque," provides a compelling discussion of the term picaresque and the imprecision with which it has been applied to literature across cultures and time. Viviès evaluates the adequacy of this adjective when applied to travel narratives, thus offering a pertinent closure on the debate surrounding the texts previously considered. The sixteenth-century Spanish-born genre gained great popularity across Europe and influenced later works, including the eighteenth-century English novel. Viviès discusses the appropriateness of this term as it is occasionally applied to English classics such as Moll Flanders (1722) and Tom Jones (1749). In the case of the latter work, the term picaresque "proves problematic from the start, since the novel is not written in the first person by the presumed picaro" (87). Through his comparison of the classic characteristics of the picaresque novel, Viviès successfully argues the inappropriate and excessive use of the term.
Viviès concludes with a theoretical analysis of travel narratives and "their status as a literary artefact" (101). Difficulties arise given that travel narratives are often regarded as either "a document (informing us about reality) or a fragment of an autobiography (informing us about its author)" (101), and thus the boundaries between reality and fiction complicate the theoretical analysis of these texts, usually applied to more explicitly factual writings. The common denominator of this book is the critical angle from which the varied texts...