In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Travel Writing

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Research Societies
  • Genre
  • Victorian Travel Writing and Postcolonial Theory
  • Tourism
  • Women and Space
  • Space and Motion
  • Religion

Victorian Literature Travel Writing
Muireann O’Cinneide
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0099


Fueled by transport improvements and expanding British global influence, Victorian travel writing emerged in the period as a commercially popular and successful genre, which became a predominantly middle-class preserve. Journeys of missionaries and merchants fostered colonial expansion, while as the British Empire grew in scope, so too did the travels of its administrators and soldiers. Increasing popular interest in scientific, geographical, and anthropological research meant that travelogues could serve as accounts of individual experience, instructions for future travelers, advice on imperial administration, religious admonition, reports on scientific discoveries, or a combination of all these possibilities. Many prominent Victorian novelists also wrote travel accounts (as well as incorporating elements of their travels in their fiction): the best-known of these include Charles Dickens (b. 1812–d. 1870), Anthony Trollope (b. 1815–d. 1882), and William Thackeray (b. 1811–d. 1863). The late Victorian period of imperial expansion saw a particularly close relationship between travel writing and the successful colonial adventure stories of writers such as Henry Rider Haggard (b. 1856–d. 1925), Rudyard Kipling (b. 1865–d. 1936), and Robert Louis Stevenson (b. 1850–d. 1894). Individual travelers such as the adventurer and scholar Richard Burton (b. 1821–d. 1890), the missionary David Livingstone (b. 1813–d. 1873), and the explorer Henry Morton Stanley (b. 1841–d. 1904), became near-legendary figures. Widening opportunities for travel extended also to women such as Isabella Bird (b. 1831–d. 1904) and Mary Kingsley (b. 1862–d. 1900). Until recent decades, Victorian travel writing received relatively little critical attention, possibly due to the ambiguity of its generic status. Increased interest from the 1970s onward in literature’s involvement in cultural and political constructions enabled more attention to be paid to travel writing as a genre. This was particularly the case for postcolonial studies: ironically, enhanced critical awareness of the implication of travel and travel writing in colonial power structures gave it new life as a serious object of academic study. Initially positive “recoveries” of travelers who were comparatively marginalized figures in Victorian society, such as women, gave way to more wary considerations of the rhetorical work performed by their texts. Whereas earlier criticism considered travel writing in the context of the politics of representation, particularly in relation to the depiction of intercultural contact, more recent work has emphasized the fluidity of its genre positioning and the implications of the act of travel for individual, national, and spatial concepts of identity. There has also been greater critical concern with countering the metropolis-periphery model of British Victorian travel writing by investigating the works of travelers from different locations within the empire, and their accounts of journeys to other colonies and to England itself.

General Overviews

This section is intended to offer a selection of texts that would make good starting points for undergraduate students approaching the scholarly analysis of travel writing as a genre, although the texts listed are also valuable sources for academics engaged in ongoing research. Hulme and Youngs 2002 opens up a wide-ranging understanding of travel writing’s history and its critical contexts. Blanton 2002 is a useful introduction, although students are directed if possible toward the more up-to-date Thompson 2011, which gives an assured foundation for critical analysis of the genre. The introduction and essays in Clark 1999 provide a readable and accessible consideration of the ideological relationships between travel writing and empire. The essays in Hooper and Youngs 2004 coalesce the formal features that characterize the genre while highlighting the ongoing debates about such categorization, or whether travel writing even exists as a genre (see also Genre). Leask 2005 is a concise overview of travel writing’s changing critical fortunes that would benefit an undergraduate commencing study in the field.

  • Blanton, Casey. Travel Writing: The Self and the World. 1995. London: Routledge, 2002.

    Introductory overview from classical times to the 20th century. Offers a useful critical survey (pp. 1–29), considering historical development, influence on other genres, and cultural studies, together with detailed chapters on individual travel writers, including Mary Kingsley (pp. 44–58). Also offers an annotated bibliography and detailed suggestions for further primary and secondary reading.

  • Clark, Steve, ed. Travel Writing and Empire: Postcolonial Theory in Transit. London: Zed, 1999.

    A good introduction for students and scholars wishing to understand the relationship between travel writing and empire. The essays place travel writing from the early modern period up to the late 20th century in relation to modern models of analysis, emphasizing the genre’s complicity with violent acts of incursion.

  • Hooper, Glenn, and Tim Youngs, ed. Perspectives on Travel Writing: Studies in European Cultural Transition. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004.

    Essay collection engaging with the fluidity of travel writing as a formal genre, as well as its varying contexts, from the early modern period to the late 20th century. The editors’ introduction (pp. 1–12), and the chapters by Borm (pp. 13–26) and Youngs (pp. 167–180) provide useful commentaries on the state of the field.

  • Hulme, Peter, and Tim Youngs, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL052178140X

    Crucial introductory text divided into “Surveys” (pp. 17–104), historical contexts 1500 to 2000; “Sites” (pp. 103–222), geographical locations; and “Topics” (pp. 225–278), gender, ethnography and theories. Hulme and Youngs’s “Introduction” (pp. 1–16) establishes critical contexts; for Victorian writing see Roy Bridges on “Exploration and Travel Outside Europe, 1720–1914” (pp. 53–69) and Helen Carr on “Modernism and Travel” (pp. 70–86).

  • Leask, Nigel. Introduction. “Journeys of Discovery.” eSharp 4 (Spring 2005): 1–4.

    Short piece encapsulating the development of scholarship on travel writing.

  • Thompson, Carl. Travel Writing. The New Critical Idiom. London: Routledge, 2011.

    Introductory guide that both new students of the genre and scholars doing ongoing research are recommended to consult, particularly with regard to questions of definition and formal qualities. Outlines key definitions and debates, gives a broad historical overview, and considers canonical and marginal texts.

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