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  • Destination as DestinyAmelia B. Edwards’s Travel Writing
  • Patricia O’Neill (bio)

Amelia Blandford Edwards (1831–1892) was a distinguished intellectual and public figure of the Victorian period. As an unmarried woman without independent means or immediate family, the middle-class Edwards had to rely on her personal abilities and enterprise to earn a living. Fortunately, her individual gifts were both varied and of a high order. From the time that George Cruikshank, the most celebrated of Charles Dickens’s illustrators, discovered to his astonishment that the drawings attached to a short story submitted to Cruikshank’s Omnibus were the work of a precocious twelve-year-old girl, Edwards’s literary and artistic abilities earned her much admiration and, eventually, a good income.1 Although she settled on writing—principally journal articles, two volumes of short stories, and eight novels—for her livelihood, her youthful accomplishments as artist, singer, pianist, composer, and poet were also brought to bear when in midlife she directed her talents to promote scientific excavation and preservation of the artifacts and sites of ancient Egypt.

According to her own account, an accident of weather and a consequent shift in destination brought Edwards and her friend Lucy Renshaw to Cairo to begin a three-month journey up the Nile in 1873.2 Having published a travelogue of her journey to the Dolomite region earlier that year, Edwards was not unprepared to put her experience of Egypt into literary form. But as she recounted many years later, the lure of Egypt was its remoteness in time and the possibility for even an amateur to make important contributions to knowledge of its ancient civilization. The subsequent two years of study before the publication of A Thousand Miles up the Nile transformed the multitalented Edwards into a woman with a mission. As the motivating force behind the establishment of the Egyptian Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society), Edwards helped develop Egyptology as a discipline and was the person most responsible for fostering interest in ancient Egypt [End Page 43] among Anglophones. As a result of her single trip up the Nile, Edwards wrote and lectured on Egyptology in England and the United States for the rest of her life, garnering several honorary degrees from American colleges and receiving a civil pension for service to the nation from the British government.

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Figure 1.

Photograph of Amelia Edwards. Courtesy of the Somerville College Governing Body.

Since her death in 1892, both of Edwards’s two volumes of travel writing have remained popular because of their narrator’s lively voice and their conscious mixing of scientific and scholarly discourse with personal and poetic descriptions. Indeed, Edwards’s later achievements as a public intellectual in the cause of Egyptology could be seen as beginning with the narrative explorations of the Dolomites in Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys (1873) and the more durable and acclaimed description of the Egyptian journey, A Thousand Miles up the Nile (1879). Both volumes constitute acts of self-making for Edwards, but that self is radically different from one volume to the next. This difference can be attributed primarily to the ways in which each [End Page 44] place impinged on Edwards’s consciousness as a woman, a British subject, and a devotee of art and literary culture in its broadest sense. Ultimately, her travels provided the answer to Edwards’s quest for meaningful work. As an Egyptologist, Edwards was hailed as “the most learned woman in the world” by the New England Women’s Press Association, which gave her a grand reception during her American tour in 1889–90.3 What she brought back from her travels, then, was a new conception of her own identity and a framework for enticing others to appreciate the strange variety and antiquity of human and natural landscapes. Moreover, in the differences between the tone, content, and reception of the two travel volumes, we can trace the major trajectory of her career and the manner in which travel writing enabled Edwards to transform herself from a lady novelist to an authoritative voice within Victorian culture.

The Victorian woman’s account of her travels abroad...


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pp. 43-71
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