- Sailing with Byron from Genoa to Cephalonia, and: A Biography of Daniel Roberts
These two books provide keen insights and intriguing details about one of the major tropes of early nineteenth-century literature: travel. The key texts of Romantic literature feature journeys – see, for example Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, The Prelude, Frankenstein – and many of the real and fictional travelogues of the period rely upon sea travel as a mode of transportation. Both of these books focus on Romantic travel-by-water, providing readers with important insights into the ways in which iconic literary figures, as well as lesser-known individuals, experienced boats, ships, and the sea. In a sense, both titles work to recover the sensual, mental, physical, and spiritual experience of sailing during the Romantic period.
In Sailing with Byron, Prell reconstructs Byron’s journey from Genoa to Cephalonia aboard the Hercules in 1823 through textual and material artefacts. Lengthy excerpts from Edward Trelawney’s Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author (1878) and James Hamilton Brown’s Voyage from Leghorn to Cephalonia (first published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, January 1834) provide gossipy details and impressions of Byron as a sailor. Though much of this story has been told, in both the magisterial biography by Leslie Marchand, and the more recent one by Fiona MacCarthy, Prell argues that a detailed examination of the voyage must be reproduced based on his sources: ‘readers of Marchand and MacCarthy are deprived of many meaningful insights regarding Byron’s personality and behaviour during the voyage’. The excerpts Prell reproduces do, indeed, fill in some of the gaps about the voyage. We learn, among other things, that Byron is a pleasant sailing companion and that Byron’s customary dinner of ‘a considerable quantity of decayed Cheshire cheese, with pickled cucumbers or red cabbage’ was viewed as bizarre by his fellow travellers given ‘the intense heat of summer, under a blazing Italian sun’. Beyond the details drawn from the memoirs, Prell includes primary documents such as the charter to the ship, images of and the approximate weight of the Spanish dollars Byron was transporting, and plans of a typical dinghy and collier brig. Most enchanting, perhaps, is the hypothetical drawing of a fully loaded Hercules. The image was produced by Prell and folds out for careful examination. For those unfamiliar with the organisation of a nineteenth-century brig, this image is especially useful for understanding the use of space and storage aboard the Hercules.
Whereas with Sailing With Byron Prell restricts himself to a singular voyage over the space of a few weeks, with his biography of Daniel Roberts, he attempts to recover an entire life dedicated to travel and the sea. Prell’s account of the naval officer and captain Daniel Roberts (1789–1869) comes as close to capturing the life and times of a minor Romantic figure as one can. Prell draws from an impressive number of primary source documents including five of Roberts’s [End Page 183] journals, letters, court martial documents, wills, and many images produced by Roberts and his contemporaries. Many of these artefacts are reproduced as transcripts and/or facsimiles in the book’s appendices. Indeed, the great volume of documents can seem overwhelming at times; of the 1,049 pages in this eBook, only 183 are the text of the biography, the bulk of the book is composed of appended materials. Despite the careful collection of source material, Prell seems, at times, frustrated by the elusive nature of his subject. ‘Unfortunately’, Prell writes in his introductory remarks, ‘there are still some gaps in presenting the biography of Daniel Roberts. When offering possible scenarios, I have attempted to clarify that these scenarios are only speculations and not provable facts’. This, of course, is the...