On Modern Travelling


From a Loetschberg Railway poster, illustrated by Eugen Henziross, 1931

by Vernon Lee


There is one charming impression peculiar to railway travelling, that of the twilight hour in the train; but the charm is greater on a short journey, when one is not tired and has not the sense of being uprooted, than on a long one. The movement of the train seems, after sunset, particularly in the South where nightfall is rapid, to take a quality of mystery. It glides through a landscape of which the smaller details are effaced, as are likewise effaced the details of the railway itself. And that rapid gliding brings home to one the instability of the hour, of the changing light, the obliterating form. It makes one feel that everything is, as it were, a mere vision: bends of poplared river with sunset redness in their grey swirls; big towered houses of other days; the spectral white fruit trees in the dark fields; the pine tops round, separate, yet intangible, against the sky of unearthly blue; the darkness not descending, as foolish people say it does, from the skies to the earth, but rising slowly from the earth where it has gathered fold upon fold, an emanation thereof, into the sky still pale and luminous, turning its colour to white, its whiteness to gray, till the stars, mere little white specks before, kindle one by one.

Dante, who had travelled so much, and so much against his will, described this hour as turning backwards the longing of the traveller, and making the heart grow soft of them who had that day said farewell to their friends. It is an hour of bitterness, the crueller for mingled sweetness, to the exile; and in those days when distances were difficult to overcome, every traveller must in a sense have been somewhat of an exile. But to us, who have not necessarily left our friends, who may be returning to them; to us accustomed to coming and going, to us hurried along in dreary swiftness, it is the hour also when the earth seems full of peace and goodwill; and our pensiveness is only just sad enough to be sweet, not sad enough to be bitter. For every hamlet we pass seems somehow the place where we ought to tarry for all our days; every room or kitchen, a red square of light in the dimness with dark figures moving before the window, seems full of people who might be friends; and the hills we have never beheld before, the bends of rivers, the screen of trees, seem familiar as if we had lived among them in distant days which we think of with longing.


This is the best that can be said, I think, for modern modes of travel. But then, although I have been jolted about a good deal from country to country, and slept in the train on my nurse’s knees, and watched all my possessions, from my cardboard donkey and my wax dolls to my manuscripts and proof-sheets, overhauled on custom-house counters—but then despite all this, I have never made a great journey. I have never been to the United States, nor to Egypt, nor to Russia; and it may well be that I shall see the Eleusinian gods, Persephone and whoever else imparts knowledge in ghostland, without ever having set foot in Greece. My remarks are therefore meant for the less fortunate freight of railways and steamers; though do I really envy those who see the wonderful places of the earth before they have dreamed of them, the dreamland of other men revealed to them for the first time in the solid reality of Cook and Gaze?

I would not for the world be misunderstood; I have not the faintest prejudice against Gaze or Cook. I fervently desire that these gentlemen may ever quicken trains and cheapen hotels; I am ready to be jostled in Alpine valleys and Venetian canals by any number of vociferous tourists, for the sake of the one, schoolmistress, or clerk, or artisan, or curate, who may by this means have reached at last the land east of the sun and west of the moon, the St. Brandan’s Isle of his or her longings. What I object to are the well-mannered, well-dressed, often well-informed persons who, having turned Scotland into a sort of Hurlingham, are apparently making Egypt, the Holy Land, Japan, into succursales and dépendances (I like the good Swiss names evoking couriers and waiters) of their own particularly dull portion of London and Paris and New York.

Less externally presentable certainly, but how much more really venerable is the mysterious class of dwellers in obscure pensions: curious beings who migrate without perceiving any change of landscape and people, but only change of fare, from the cheap boarding-house in Dresden to the cheap boarding-house in Florence, Prague, Seville, Rouen, or Bruges. It is a class whom one of nature’s ingenious provisions, intended doubtless to maintain a balance of inhabited and uninhabited, directs unconsciously, automatically to the great cities of the past rather than to those of the present; so that they sit in what were once palaces, castles, princely pleasure-houses, discussing over the stony pears and apples the pleasures and drawbacks, the prices and fares, the dark staircase against the Sunday ices, of other boarding-houses in other parts of Europe. A quaint race it is, neither marrying nor giving in marriage, and renewed by natural selection among the poor in purse and poor in spirit; but among whom the sentimental traveller, did he still exist, might pick up many droll and melancholy and perhaps chivalrous stories.

My main contention then is merely that, before visiting countries and towns in the body, we ought to have visited them in the spirit; otherwise I fear we might as well sit still at home. I do not mean that we should read about them; some persons I know affect to extract a kind of pleasure from it; but to me it seems dull work. One wants to visit unknown lands in company, not with other men’s descriptions, but with one’s own wishes and fancies. And very curious such wishes and fancies are, or rather the countries and cities they conjure up, having no existence on any part of the earth’s surface, but a very vivid one in one’s own mind. Surely most of us, arriving in any interesting place, are already furnished with a tolerable picture or plan thereof; the cathedral on a slant or a rising ground, the streets running uphill or somewhat in a circle, the river here or there, the lie of the land, colour of the houses, nay, the whole complexion of the town, so and so. The reality, so far as my own experience goes, never once tallies with the fancy; but the town of our building is so compact and clear that it often remains in our memory alongside of the town of stone and brick, only gradually dissolving, and then leaving sometimes airy splendours of itself hanging to the solid structures of its prosaic rival.

Another curious thing to note is how certain real scenes will sometimes get associated in our minds with places we have never beheld, to such a point that the charm of the known is actually enhanced by that of the unknown. I remember a little dell in the High Alps, which, with its huge larches and mountain pines, its tufts of bee-haunted heather and thyme among the mossy boulders, its overlooking peak and glimpses of far down lakes, became dear to me much less for its own sake than because it always brought to my mind the word Thrace, and with it a vague fleeting image of satyrs and moenads, a bar of the music of Orpheus. And less explicable than this, a certain rolling tableland, not more remote than the high road to Rome, used at one time to impress me with a mysterious consciousness of the plains of Central Asia; a ruined byre, a heap of white-washed stones, among the thistles and stubbles of a Fife hillside, had for me once a fascination due to the sense that it must be like Algeria.

Has any painter ever fixed on canvas such visions, distinct and haunting, of lands he had never seen, Claude or Turner, or the Flemish people who painted the little towered and domed celestial Jerusalem? I know not. The nearest thing of the kind was a wonderful erection of brown paper and (apparently) ingeniously arranged shavings, built up in rock-like fashion, covered with little green toy-box trees, and dotted here and there with bits of mirror glass and cardboard houses, which one puzzled me considerably in the parlour of a cottage. “Do tell me what that is?” at last rose to my lips. “That,” answered my hostess very slowly, “that is a work of my late ‘usband; a representation of the Halps as close as ‘e could imagine them, for ‘e never was abroad.” I often think of that man “who never was abroad,” and of his representation of the Alps; of the hours of poetic vision, of actual creation perhaps from sheer strength of longing, which resulted in that quaint work of art.

As close as he could imagine them! He had read, then, about the Alps, read perhaps in Byron or some Radcliffian novel on a stall; and he had wondered till the vision had come ready for pasteboard and toy-trees and glue and broken mirror to embody it! And meanwhile I, who am obliged to cross those very Alps twice every year, I try to do so at night, to rumble and rattle up and down their gorges in a sleeping-car! There seems something wrong in this; something wrong in the world’s adjustments, not really in me, for I swear it is respect for the Alps which makes me thus avoid their sight.


And here is the moment for stating my plea against our modern, rapid, hurried travelling: there is to decent minds a certain element of humiliation therein, as I suspect there is in every royal road. There is something almost super-humanly selfish in this rushing across countries without giving them a thought, indeed with no thoughts in us save of our convenience, inconvenience, food, sleep, weariness. The whole of Central Europe is thus reduced, for our feelings, to an arrangement of buffets and custom-houses, its acres checked off on our sensorium as so many jolts. For it is not often that respectable people spend a couple of days, or even three, so utterly engrossed in themselves, so without intellectual relation or responsibility to their surroundings, living in a moral stratum not above ordinary life, but below it. Perhaps it is this suspending of connection with all interests which makes such travelling restful to very busy persons, and agreeable to very foolish ones. But to decent, active, leisured folk it is, I maintain, humiliating; humiliating to become so much by comparison in one’s own consciousness; and I suspect that the vague sense of self-disgust attendant on days thus spent is a sample of the self-disgust we feel very slightly (and ought to feel very strongly) whenever our wretched little self is allowed to occupy the whole stage of our perceptions.

There is in M. Zola’s Bête Humaine a curious picture of a train, one train after another, full of eager modern life, being whirled from Paris to Havre through the empty fields, before cottages and old-world houses miles remote from any town. But in reality is not the train the empty thing, and are not those solitary houses and pastures that which is filled with life? The Roman express thus rushes to Naples, Egypt, India, the far East, the great Austral islands, cutting in two the cypress avenue of a country house of the Val d’Arno, Neptune with his conch, a huge figure of the seventeenth century, looking on from an artificial grotto. What to him is this miserable little swish past of to-day?

There is only one circumstance when this vacuity, this suspension of all real life, is in its place; when one is hurrying to some dreadful goal, a death-bed or perhaps a fresh-made grave. The soul is precipitated forward to one object, one moment, and cannot exist meanwhile; ruit not hora, but anima; emptiness suits passion and suffering, for they empty out the world.


Be this as it may, it will be a great pity if we lose a certain sense of wonder at distance overcome, a certain emotion of change of place. This emotion—paid for no doubt by much impatience and weariness where the plains were wide, the mountains high, or the roads persistently straight—must have been one of the great charms of the old mode of travelling. You savoured the fact of each change in the lie of the land, of each variation in climate and province, the difference between the chestnut and the beech zones, for instance, in the south, of the fir and the larch in the Alps; the various types of window, roof, chimney, or well, nay, the different fold of the cap or kerchief of the market women. One inn, one square, one town-hall or church, introduced you gradually to its neighbours. We feel this in the talk of old people, those who can remember buying their team at Calais, of elderly ones who chartered their vetturino at Marseilles or Nice; in certain scraps in the novels even of Thackeray, giving the sense of this gradual occupation of the continent by relays. One of Mr. Ruskin’s drawings at Oxford evokes it strongly in me. On what railway journey would he have come across that little town of Rheinfelden (where is Rheinfelden?), would he have wandered round those quaint towered walls, over that bridge, along that grassy walk?

I can remember, in my childhood, the Alps before they had railways; the enormous remoteness of Italy, the sense of its lying down there, far, far away in its southern sea; the immense length of the straight road from Bellinzona to the lake, the endlessness of the winding valleys. Now, as I said in relation to that effigy of the Alps by the man who had never been abroad, I get into my bunk at Milan, and waking up, see, in the early morning crispness, the glass green Reuss tear past, and the petticoated turrets of Lucerne.

Once also (and I hope not once and never again) I made an immense journey through Italy in a pony cart. We seemed to traverse all countries and climates; lush, stifling valleys with ripening maize and grapes; oak-woods where rows of cypress showed roads long gone, and crosses told of murders; desolate heaths high on hill-tops, and stony gorges full of myrtle; green irrigated meadows with plashing water-wheels, and grey olive groves; so that in the evening we felt homesick for that distant, distant morning: yet we had only covered as much ground as from London to Dover! And how immensely far off from Florence did we not feel when, four hours after leaving its walls, we arrived in utter darkness at the friendly mountain farm, and sat down to supper in the big bare room, where high-backed chairs and the plates above the immense chimney-piece loomed and glimmered in the half-light; feeling, as if in a dream, the cool night air still in our throats, the jingle of cart-bells and chirp of wayside crickets still in our ears! Where was Florence then? As a fact it was just sixteen miles off.

To travel in this way one should, however, as old John Evelyn advises, “diet with the natives.” Our ancestors (for one takes for granted, of course, that one’s ancestors were milords) were always plentifully furnished, I observe, with letters of introduction. They were necessary when persons of distinction carried their bedding on mules and rode in coaches escorted by blunderbuses, like John Evelyn himself.

It is this dieting with the natives which brings one fully in contact with a country’s reality. At the tables of one’s friends, while being strolled through the gardens or driven across country, one learns all about the life, thoughts, feelings of the people; the very gossip of the neighbourhood becomes instructive, and you touch the past through traditions of the family. Here the French put up the maypole in 1796; there the beautiful abbess met her lover; that old bowed man was the one who struck the Austrian colonel at Milan before 1859. ’Tis the mode of travelling that constituted the delight and matured the genius of Stendhal, king of cosmopolitans and grand master of the psychologic novel. To my kind friends, wherever I have any, but most perhaps in Northern Italy, is due among other kinds of gratitude, gratitude for having travelled in this way.


But there is another way of travelling, more suitable methinks to the poet. For what does the poet want with details of reality when he possesses its universal essence, or with local manners and historic tradition, seeing that his work is for all times and all men?

Mr. Browning, I was told last year by his dear friends at Asolo, first came upon the kingdom of Kate the Queen by accident, perhaps not having heard its name or not remembering it, in the course of a long walking tour from Venice to the Alps. It was the first time he was in Italy, nay, abroad, and he had come from London to Venice by sea. That village of palaces on the hill-top, with the Lombard plain at its feet and the great Alps at its back; with its legends of the Queen of Cyprus was, therefore, one of the first impressions of mainland Italy which the poet could have received. And one can understand Pippa Passes resulting therefrom, better than from his years of familiarity with Florence. Pippa, Sebald, Ottima, Jules, his bride, the Bishop, the Spy, nay, even Queen Kate and her Page, are all born of that sort of misinterpretation of places, times, and stories which is so fruitful in poetry, because it means the begetting of things in the image of the poet’s own soul, rather than the fashioning them to match something outside it.

Even without being a poet you may profit in an especial manner by travelling in a country where you know no one, provided you have in you that scrap of poetic fibre without which poets and poetry are caviare to you. There is no doubt that wandering about in the haunts of the past undisturbed by the knowledge of the present is marvellously favourable to the historic, the poetical emotion. The American fresh from the States thinks of Johnson and Dickens in Fleet Street; at Oxford or Cambridge he has raptures (are any raptures like these?) into which, like notes in a chord and overtones in a note, there enters the deliciousness, the poignancy of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Turner.

The Oxford or Cambridge man, on the other hand, will have similar raptures in some boarding-house at Venice or Florence; raptures rapturous in proportion almost to his ignorance of the language and the people. Do not let us smile, dear friends, who have lived in Rome till you are Romans, dear friends, who are Romans yourselves, at the foreigner with his Baedeker, turning his back to the Colosseum in his anxiety to reach it, and ashamed as well as unable to ask his way. That Goth or Vandal, very likely, is in the act of possessing Rome, of making its wonder and glory his own, consubstantial to his soul; Rome is his for the moment. Is it ours? Alas!

Nature, Fate, I know not whether the mother or the daughter, they are so like each other, looks with benignity upon these poor ignorant, solitary tourists, and gives them what she denies to those who have more leisure and opportunity. I cannot explain by any other reason a fact which is beyond all possibility of doubt, and patent to the meanest observer; namely, that it is always during our first sojourn in a place, during its earlier part, and more particularly when we are living prosaically at inns and boarding-houses, that something happens—a procession, a serenade, a street-fight, a fair, or a pilgrimage—which shows the place in a particularly characteristic light, and which never occurs again. The very elements are desired to perform for the benefit of the stranger. I remember a thunderstorm, the second night I was ever at Venice, lighting up St. George’s, the Salute, the whole lagoon as I have never seen it since.

I can testify, also, to having seen the Alhambra under snow, a sparkling whiteness lying soft on the myrtle hedges, and the reflection of arches and domes waving, with the drip of melted snow from the roofs, in the long-stagnant tanks. If I lived in Grenada, or went back there, should I ever see this wonder again? It was so ordered merely because I had just come, and was lodging at an inn.

Yes, Fate is friendly to those who travel rarely, who go abroad to see abroad, not to be warm or cold, or to meet the people they may meet anywhere else. Honour the tourist; he walks in a halo of romance. The cosmopolitan abroad desists from flannel shirts because he is always at home; and he knows to a nicety hours and places which demand a high hat. But does that compensate?


There is yet another mystery connected with travelling, but ’tis too subtle almost for words. All I can ask is, do you know what it is to meet, say, in some college room, or on the staircase of an English country house, or even close behind the front door in Bloomsbury, the photograph of some Florentine relief or French cathedral, the black, gaunt Piranesi print of some Roman ruin; and to feel suddenly Florence, Rouen, Reims, or Rome, the whole of their presence distilled, as it were, into one essence of emotion?

What does it mean? That in this solid world only delusion is worth having? Nay; but that nothing can come into the presence of that capricious despot, our fancy, which has not dwelt six months and six in the purlieus of its palace, steeped, like the candidates for Ahasuerus’s favour, in sweet odours and myrrh.

Piece originally published in Limbo and Other Essays, by Vernon Lee, 1897.

About the Author:

Vernon Lee (14 October 1856 – 13 February 1935) was a British writer.