• Collected
  • Article

Red Pomegranates, Red Covers

Travel writing versus travel guides


For a while in the 1980s the only book by my bedside was Bill Dalton’s Indonesia Handbook. In the depths of a West Highland winter I’d open it at random and read of yet another remote scatter of equatorial atolls. Unusually, Dalton’s handbook conveyed a genuine sense of discovery. Written on the hoof, his book was more travel writing than travel guide. As the wind rattled the slates and sleet dribbled down the single glazing, I’d fall asleep wondering if a stuffed civet cat could still be had for 7,500 rupiah, then dream of the Aru Islanders darning their coir-sewn prahu boats on the coral strand.

As sustenance for the duvet-wrapped traveller, the role of the travel guide has been neglected of late. The modern guide is typically multi-authored and so crammed with ‘where to’ (eat, sleep, shop, party etc) advice as to need constant updating. The text of Lonely Planet’s China is credited to ten writers; Footprint’s India acknowledges over 150 contributing correspondents. This may not be a bad thing if listings instill the confidence to actually go there, but I wonder whether arriving with a head bursting with the recommendations and impressions of others doesn’t rather dull one’s own responses. The format robs the traveller of that sense of discovery and certainly deadens the delights for the voyager between the sheets.

The Romans made a clear distinction in this matter of travel books. A periplus was a work of utility. It told you where was worth sailing to and what you might expect to find there. The first-century BC Periplus of the Erythraean Sea started on the coast of the Red Sea and listed every port of commercial significance from there all the way to the Bay of Bengal. A periegesis, on the other hand, was a descriptive ‘leading around’ and was much more chatty. It was klismos literature, the sort of thing you read in a chair (preferably a splay-legged Greek klismos) with feet up and an Attic vintage to hand. Until acquired by Avalon Travel Publishing in the 1990s, Bill Dalton’s Moon Publications, of which the Indonesia Handbook was the first, were unashamedly klismos.

In slightly different form the controversy over the functions of the travel guide resurfaced when the genre was coming into its own in the early nineteenth century. ‘Every Englishman abroad carries a Murray for information, and a Byron for sentiment,’ noted the American sculptor William Wetmore Story during a mid-century sojourn in Rome. The Byron was presumably Canto III of ‘Childe Harold’; and Murray was Byron’s publisher, John Murray II, of the Albemarle Street dynasty responsible for the little red guides known as Murray’s Handbooks.

It was actually John Murray III who coined the term ‘handbooks’, decreed they all be red and pioneered this most successful of travel publishing ventures. But as is the way in publishing, he had pinched the idea from another Murray author. Because she bestrode the transition from the Grand Tour of the eighteenth century to the less grand tourism of the nineteenth, Mariana Starke deserves her own biography. She published poetry and had a couple of plays performed before embarking with various members of her family for Italy. The year was 1791, Mariana was in her late twenties and the purpose of the tour was therapeutic, her sister and father suffering from tuberculosis. And as if nursing the sick was not enough, Mariana was further inconvenienced by Napoleon.

Her first book, Travels in Italy between the years 1792 and 1798 (1800), is written in the form of letters, many devoted entirely to the war. As the forces of the French Republic outmanoeuvred those of the Austro-Hungarians and their Italian allies, the Starkes were chivvied south, fleeing Nice as Napoleon moved in, then Livorno, Pisa, Florence and Rome. They were not, though, refugees. They travelled in style by coach and ship. And Mariana thought highly of the disciplined Republican army. In fact it was partly to refute claims that Napoleon was pillaging Classical artworks that she essayed an inventory of them. Travels in Italy was thus a hybrid ‘Containing a View of the Late Revolutions in that Country,’ as per the book’s wordy title, and ‘Likewise Pointing out The Matchless Works of Art which still embellish Pisa, Florence, Rome etc’.

The book did well. Where else could you find a listing of the laundry prices current in Florence (‘2 crazies’ for a night-cap ‘if not trimmed’, ‘8 crazies for pantaloons’) or the bewildering coinage then in circulation in Rome (32 paoli and 1 baioccho to the doppia)? Frequently re-titled and much expanded as to its geographical coverage and its recommended antiquities, the book’s rights were acquired by John Murray and by 1820 it had become Travels on the Continent. This followed a further two years on the road during which, we are told, Mrs Starke ‘examined … herself’ all the sites and museums. (The ‘Mrs’ was a precautionary affectation; she never married.) Though clogged with the practical information that her contemporaries most valued, any version of Mariana Starke’s great work is sufficiently personal to be well worth perusal, in-flight or in bed.

In 1829 the young John Murray III thought it good enough to imitate. Then studying geology in Edinburgh, he convinced John Murray II to fund a tour of the Low Countries and Germany, so complementing Mariana’s book rather than competing with it. Only three other travel guides were then available. One was of Belgium, another of Switzerland and the third was Starke’s — ‘a work of real utility because full of practical information gathered on the spot,’ thought Murray. He would emulate it in all bar its ‘singular medley of classical lore borrowed from Lemprière’s dictionary’, its laundry tariffs and its ‘elaborate theory of the origin of Devonshire cream’ (brought, according to Starke, from Asia Minor to Exmouth by the Phoenicians).

In 1829 there were still no railways and Germany seemed ‘ignorant of Macadam’, but Murray got off to a flying start. At Weimar he called on Goethe, who beneath his brown dressing gown wore a clean white shirt, ‘a refinement not usual among German philosophers’. Then in Vienna it was Metternich’s turn, although Murray was more excited by meeting his ‘headsman’, or executioner, and identifying the sword he used. Murray Handbooks should be confined to ‘descriptions of what ought to be seen at each place,’ he declared, without ‘bewildering’ the reader ‘with an account of all that may be seen’. Judicious selection was the key and it gave to the first four little red books, all written by young Murray himself, a pleasantly authoritative flavour. Who, for instance, but a geologist would have noticed that the slate rocks in southern Switzerland were ‘full of red garnets’? Like Starke, Murray favoured the personal touches that distinguish a good periegesis.

This observation about the garnets would prove important. A new enemy was at the gates. Hard on Murray’s heels, one Karl Baedeker was already replicating his itineraries. The first true Baedeker Guide appeared in 1839, just three years after the first Murray Handbook. And it was small consolation that its author was revealed as a ‘copyist’; for ‘full of red garnets’ appeared in the German translation as ‘overgrown with red pomegranates’. To be fair, Baedeker did acknowledge Murray as his precursor. But when a writer in the Pall Mall Magazine suggested otherwise, Murray went so far as to claim that it was he alone who was ‘the author, inventor and originator’ of the travel guide — which was a bit unfair on the by then deceased Mariana Starke.

Accumulating around a hundred titles between them, Murray and Baedeker slogged it out till the end of the century. Both subcontracted authorship (Francis Palgrave wrote the new Handbook for Travellers in Northern Italy for Murray) and both employed correspondents to help update the books. Their methods increasingly anticipated those of the next – and possibly last – generation of travel guides, that of today’s picture-packed tourist directories. But less saccharine and breathless than these back-packers’ peripli, each assumed a well-read readership attuned to good prose and a thirst for diverting information.

In the end, it was the Murrays who threw in the sponge. The handbooks were sold to the publishers of the new Blue Guides, who had themselves produced the English versions of the Baedekers. There was, however, at least one exception. In 1972 John Murrays VI and VII gave me my first break as a writer by commissioning updated entries for the 22nd edition of their India Handbook. Still based on the assumption that the only means of transport was the railway, it was published in 1975 as A Handbook for Travellers in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

It was probably not a commercial success. Frommer, Fodor and Nagel were already in the field, and the Lonely Planet series was launched in the 1980s. But I got a chance to explore South Asia, plus a free copy of the last of the classic travel guides. It would be by my bed, like Dalton’s Indonesia Handbook, if it wasn’t safer in a suitcase awaiting our next periegesis.

John Keay is an author and Asianist. His twenty books include standard works like India: a history and China: a history.

You might also like:

Dominica Passport by Mehranvary, Wikicommons
Collected Article

The Musings of a Dominican, Yorkshire Lass

My work as a children’s book writer and playwright has definitely been influenced by my Caribbean roots and Yorkshire background.…

Author Wioletta Greg and the cover of her 2017 Man Booker longlisted novel, Swallowing Mercur
RLF News Article

Wioletta Greg reflects on her life and RLF grant experience

A Polish author previously longlisted for the International Booker Prize, Wioletta now lives in Lewes, East Sussex.

RLF News Article

The Life and Times of Reverend David Williams

As we get ready to celebrate our 234th anniversary on 18 May, a recent RLF grant beneficiary takes a deep…

Royal Literary Fund Substack

View our Substack. All our articles are free to read and are written by either the RLF team or our contributing writers.

Subscribe on Substack