- A Canterbury Pilgrimage: An Italian Pilgrimage by Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Joseph Pennell
This new edition by Dave Buchanan, a professor of English at MacEwan University in Edmonton, assembles two important and long out-of-print illustrated bicycling travel memoirs produced during the heralded 1880s bicycle “boom.” Buchanan’s introduction contextualizes the memoirs and their authors, introducing A Canterbury Pilgrimage, first published to wide acclaim in 1885, with its companion and follow-up, An Italian Pilgrimage, first published in 1887. In this way, the slim volume brings together the lives, travels, writings, and illustrations of Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1855–1936) and Joseph Pennell (1857–1926), a married couple from Philadelphia, who together near the end of the nineteenth century produced both accounts following their European bicycling sojourns across England and Italy. The Pennells built a large and impassioned readership on the strength of their accounts, a position furthered by their many connections to several leading European and American artists, intellectuals, and writers. As Buchanan notes, nonetheless, the Pennell’s work “[h]as been long forgotten by all but a handful of cycling historians” (ix). This new volume helps assure their works will reach a new generation of readers.
Historians of sport, and bicycling in particular, will find this new edition of the Pennell’s bicycling memoirs useful for several reasons. It helps expand understandings of the so-called golden era of bicycling, adding new depth to the literary, artistic, gender, adventure, touring, and entrepreneurial dynamics that shaped the first bicycling boom, inserting a potent reminder that women writers, in particular, were key shapers of the “boom’s” meaning. United States historians interested in how Americans used and understood the bicycle across national borders will find much to consider here, as well. Handy bibliographies compiling all of the Pennell’s works, alongside a host of other bicycling travel works published contemporaneously to the Pennell’s volumes, further add to the volume’s utility for scholars. Buchanan makes a compelling case, finally, for situating the Pennells as key figures of the 1880s and 1890s bicycle boom itself, as “those Pennells” popularized an early form of travel writing still popular and resonant today.
The book succeeds at both recentering the Pennells as central historical figures in the bike boom and at reminding readers more familiar with other aspects of their biographies that the Pennells were also avid adventure and touring cyclists. As Buchanan shows, this aspect of their lives has gone overlooked. Elizabeth Pennell produced several works of biography, art criticism, and food writing during the course of her life, including The Delights of Delicate Eating, first published in 1896—but her many bicycling writings ranked among her [End Page 121] most treasured and most popular. Her husband Joseph, meanwhile, remained prominent among elite literary and artistic scenes in England and the United States throughout the turn of the century. Where Joseph has long been recognized by art historians and English scholars as one of the era’s great illustrators, collaborating with such figures as William Dean Howells, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, George Bernard Shaw, Henry James, and Washington Irving, Joseph’s bicycling pursuits (and the importance bicycling had to his artistic craft in general) remains underappreciated. Joseph and Elizabeth also shared many close friendships, including one with James McNeill Whistler, about whom the Pennells produced a coauthored biography in 1908. Buchanan helps remind us that these relationships and works ought to be thought of as entangled with the Pennell’s love affair for bicycling, a sport central to both their social circle and their creative and intellectual output.
Timely and compelling, Buchanan’s edited volume arrives as historians in the United States are once again rediscovering the bicycle’s significance. It is a welcome addition to a conversation long overdue.