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“Far From the Haunts of British Tourists”: Amelia Edwards’s Ghostly Critique of English Tourism, by Indu Ohri, University of Virginia

Victorians Institute Journal Digital Annex

As a Victorian woman, Amelia Edwards crossed gender, genre, and geographic boundaries by working as a popular journalist and novelist who traveled extensively across the world and became a pioneering Egyptologist. She journeyed throughout Europe in her mid-twenties and was friends with other notable female travel writers, such as Marianne North and Matilda Bentham-Edwards.@ Edwards wrote an account of her trip through the Dolomites, a mountain range in northeastern Italy, called Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys (1873). However, her most famous travel narrative, entitled A Thousand Miles Up the Nile (1877), chronicles the expedition she took to Egypt in 1873 with her traveling companion, Lucy Renshaw. Several critics have written about Edwards’s travel narratives, particularly A Thousand Miles up the Nile, but no one has examined how her ghost stories blend the conventions of travel writing and supernatural fiction. The ghost stories I will survey pre-date her trip to Egypt and typically feature Englishmen touring Continental Europe and forming close homosocial bonds with other men. Scholars such as Julia Kuehn and Stephen Keck have identified Edwards’s “anti-tourist” attitude in A Thousand Miles up the Nile directed toward British tourists who destroy antiquities and commodify the Egyptian landscape.@ Edwards distinguishes herself from these tourists by calling herself a serious traveler and criticizes them for their superficial appreciation of ancient Egyptian culture. I argue that Edwards’s “anti-tourist” views are also found in her ghost stories because they critique how tourism was damaging Europe’s scenery during the nineteenth century. While she did not actively campaign to preserve the European landscape like she did for Egyptian monuments, Edwards’s ghost stories still show her concern with protecting the natural world on the Continent.@
Edwards’s ghost stories stand out among Victorian supernatural tales because they are informed by the conventions of travel writing and take place in foreign locations, rather than local ones, such as the English country house. According to Patricia O’Neill, Edwards’s travel writing “manages to deliver on the author’s and the reader’s expectations that they will encounter adventure, exploration, art, and generous servings of local color” (54). Her ghost stories typically present traveling Englishmen whose adventures in Europe combine realistic descriptions of foreign customs, people, and landscapes and spine-tingling encounters with ghosts. Marjorie Morgan explains that the Victorians placed emphasis on landscape in their travel writing and saw the natural world as intimately connected to national identity (48). As a talented illustrator, Edwards was especially interested in describing and painting natural landscapes and approached them with the sensibility of an artist in both her writing and sketching (Moon More Usefully Employed 41; 54). In this paper, I will investigate how Edwards makes an ecocritical critique of the way humans radically alter, spoil, and dominate the European landscape for the sake of commercial tourism in three of her ghost stories.@ She makes this critique in her first supernatural tale, “My Brother’s Ghost Story” (1860), and it shows up in the following tales I will analyze. In “An Engineer’s Story,” “The New Pass,” and “A Night on the Borders of the Black Forest,” nature poses a threat to English travelers to show them it is destructive for human beings to try to tame the landscape. The ghosts who save these travelers’ lives serve a dual purpose of warning them about this natural threat as well as pointing out that nature can overpower human beings who attempt to control it.
The first ghost story I will examine, Edwards’s “An Engineer’s Story,” also called “No. 5 Branch Line: The Engineer” (1865), highlights how the construction of railways during the nineteenth century transformed the landscape of not just Europe, but the entire world. The narrator Ben Hardy relates how he and his childhood friend Mat Price developed a bond “fast and firm as the great Tors upon our native moorlands” (234), comparing their friendship to uniquely English rock formations. However, Ben expresses his fear of these tors because they are the sites of pagan blood sacrifices (234-235), and the intensity of his relationship with Mat will require a violent sacrifice. Ben and Mat both become train engineers and are involved in creating various railway networks across Europe that promote tourism. When the Italian government contracts the pair to deliver locomotives for its new railways, Ben remarks on how the English are major promoters of Continental train travel:
We had had dealings with France, Holland, Belgium, Germany; but never Italy. The connexion, therefore, was new and valuable–all the more valuable because our Transalpine neighbours had but lately begun to lay down the iron roads, and would be safe to need more of our good English work as they went on. (238-239)
Ben and Mat are so enchanted by Italy’s exotic “fairy” (240) beauty that they decide to settle down there together and work for the Turin and Genoa Railway Company. They are happy to escape the “Black Country” of the English Midlands, which became greatly polluted during the Victorian era due to coal mining and heavy industrialization (Winter 152). A local shopkeeper, Gianetta, comes between the two friends by flirting with both of them and using her beauty to attract men to buy her souvenirs. Lynn Parramore calls Gianetta a “tawdry Cleopatra, surrounded by cheap jewels and toys in her mother’s shop” (137), since she is a rare foreign object for male consumption. Gianetta ends up turning herself into a commodity like the souvenirs she peddles to tourists when she sells herself off to an Italian nobleman by agreeing to become his mistress. Although Mat informs Ben of her actions, Ben refuses to believe him and stabs his friend in a jealous rage. Once this “blood sacrifice” has taken place, Ben and Mat’s friendship is reestablished, as Ben takes care of his dying friend to atone for his wrong.
After Mat’s death, Ben feels marked with “the curse of Cain” (262) and pursues Gianetta across Italy and France to fulfill Mat’s dying request and forgive her, but her refusal to see him turns Ben into “a wanderer upon the face of the earth” (264) nursing revenge against her. During his journey, Ben does not just act like a “tourist” because he performs important work on boats and railways all around the world, and in doing so promotes global travel:
First of all I engaged myself as chief engineer in one of the French steamers plying between Marseilles and Constantinople. At Constantinople I changed to one of the Austrian Lloyd’s boats, and worked for some time to and from Alexandria, Jaffa, and those parts. After that, I fell in with a party of Mr. Layard’s men at Cairo, and so went up the Nile and took a turn at the excavations of the mound of Nimroud.
Then I became a working engineer on the new desert line between Alexandria and Suez; and by-and-by I worked my passage out to Bombay, and took service as an engine fitter on one of the great Indian railways. I stayed a long time in India–that is to say, I stayed nearly two years, which was a long time for me; and I might not even have left so soon, but for the war that was declared just then with Russia….
I served with the fleet, of course, while the war lasted; and when it was over, went wandering off again, rejoicing in my liberty. This time I went to Canada and after working on a railway then in progress near the American frontier, I presently passed over the States; journeyed from north to south; crossed the Rocky Mountains; tried a month or two of life in the gold country; and then, being seized with a sudden, aching unaccountable longing to revisit that solitary grave so far away on the Italian coast, I turned my face once more toward Europe. (265-267)
Ben’s travel narrative reveals he is instrumental in helping travel networks make inroads into the wilderness all over the world, from the Egyptian desert, colonized India, the Canadian frontier, and the American West. His international travels foreshadow Edwards’s own trip to Egypt in 1873, her interest in Egyptian archaeology, and her lecture tour through North America between 1889 and 1890. Despite the worldwide reach of his travels, Ben continues to identify himself as an English subject and supports the British Empire by building railways in India and fighting in The Crimean War on the side of his countrymen.
Edwards’s acknowledgment of how railways helped to spread the British Empire’s power ties into the way the English viewed the landscape with an “imperial mentality” (Morgan 55). Ben expresses this domineering attitude in his remark that he enjoys his feeling of “power” (264) as a regular train driver on the Venice-Mantua railway. During a storm, the raging waters beside the tracks destroy part of this rail line, showing that nature can ruin the work of overconfident engineers like Ben. This disaster greatly inconveniences the passengers by upsetting their travel plans, the train timetables, and Ben’s work schedule. When Ben hears that he must drive a train with Gianetta as a passenger, his desire for revenge leads him to plan to kill everyone onboard by letting the train plunge off the broken tracks and into the water. Ben decides that Gianetta “should die, in the plentitude of her wealth and beauty, and no power upon earth should save her!” (267). His control over the train’s engine wrongly leads him to believe that he has the right to punish Gianetta against Mat’s wishes. Ben completely ignores the example of the water sweeping away the train tracks, which shows there are larger forces that can exert authority over human beings. Right before an accident can occur, Mat’s ghost appears and takes Ben’s place at the engine, saving everyone from drowning by stopping the train. The final image of the train halting and Ben fainting puts an end to his restless wandering, with Ben insisting that he accepts the existence of the apparition “as I believe in the mercy of Heaven and the forgiveness of repentant sinners” (279). Transformed by his supernatural experience, Ben submits to a higher otherworldly authority and finds a sense of peace at last in knowing that he and Gianetta have been forgiven by Mat’s ghost.
The second ghost story I will consider, “The New Pass” (1871), features Frank Legrice and Egerton Wolfe, two English tourists and best friends traveling through the Swiss Alps together. Frank is an unimaginative lawyer, while Egerton is a creative dreamer, and together they both represent the opposition between urban and rural life. In Untrodden Peaks, Edwards complains Switzerland had been ruined by “the flood of Cook’s tourists” (ix) who followed the same fixed routes as all the other sightseers using Cook’s popular travel guides. She raises this point when Frank comments that they are serious travelers because they stray off the beaten path “far from the haunts of the British tourist and the Alpine Club-man” (35). A local informs the two that the old mountain pass used by the native Swiss has been superseded by a new pass meant to draw tourists and allow for carriages full of vacationers. The locals hope that the new pass will bring “floods of visitors!” (37) is ironic, considering that the waterfall that once flowed where the new pass now runs has been diverted from its natural course through advanced engineering. Based on “An Engineer’s Story,” we know that Edwards feels skeptical about whether engineers can actually improve the landscape by changing it to encourage tourism. In fact, Frank and Egerton describe the old pass as delightful because the wildlife has been allowed to thrive there without human interference: “And in truth it was wonderfully lovely and secluded–a mere rugged path winding steeply upwards in a soft green shade, among large forest trees and moss-grown rocks covered with patches of velvety linen” (36). As a nature-lover, Egerton compares the landscape to “a stray fragment of Arcadia” (36) untouched by human beings. While his description of nature as a pastoral idyll may be romanticized, Egerton displays a respect for the power of the natural and supernatural that is missing from the skeptical Frank.
The sight of avalanches falling on the Alps makes Egerton recall his deceased younger brother Lawrence, who would have enjoyed seeing the beautiful mountains in person before he died young. Lawrence’s favorite poem was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Hymn before Sun-Rise, in the Vale of Chamouni” (1802), which describes the speaker’s sense of wonder at viewing Mont Blanc at daybreak. In Coleridge’s poem, the speaker tells the natural elements, including the mighty avalanches, to praise God as their creator: “And they too have a voice, yon piles of snow, / And in their perilous fall shall thunder, God!” (lines 62-63).@ This allusion serves as a reminder that all natural elements, even human beings, are subject to higher powers than themselves. The menacing fall of the avalanches and Egerton’s associating them with Lawrence foreshadows how Lawrence’s ghost will warn them away from the new pass before it is swept away by the waterfall. At first, it may seem surprising that it is Frank rather than Egerton who sees Lawrence’s ghost waving them away from the new pass. However, we are more likely to believe the testimony of the skeptical and practical Frank over the imaginative Egerton. At the same time, Egerton has enough respect for the ghost–and by extension, the natural world–to listen to Lawrence’s warning and take the old pass instead. Frank’s obstinate skepticism and his belief that he is merely suffering from an “optical illusion” or “hallucinations” (38) nearly lead to his death when he enters the new pass alone.
Frank stubbornly proceeds inside the new pass even after he notices it is steadily flooding with water; he only turns back when a wave pursues him like a “living thing” (39) endangering his safety. Although this “imprisoned flood” destroys the new pass and almost kills Frank, he still describes the “liberated waters” as lovely once they have assumed their rightful course down the mountain:
After this, the imprisoned flood came pouring out tumultuously for several minutes, bringing with it fragments of rock and masonry, and filling the road with dèbris; but even this disturbance presently subsided, and almost as soon as the last echoes of the explosion had died away, the liberated waters were rippling pleasantly along their new bed, sparkling out into the sunshine as they emerged from the gallery, and gliding in a smooth continuous stream over the brink of the precipice, thence to fall, in multitudinous wavy folds and wreaths of prismatic mist, into the valley two thousand feet below. (39)
After being humbled by his terrifying experience, Frank says he “follow[s] meekly” (39) in the trail of Egerton by taking the old pass, which has been reestablished as the preferred route for the locals and tourists. When the news of Frank’s miraculous escape spreads, the Swiss lose respect for the engineer whom everyone had praised for his clever manipulation of the landscape, since the new pass’s collapse has challenged their faith in humanity’s dominance over nature. The ghostly Lawrence’s warning both saves Egerton and Frank from death and acknowledges that the waterfall can overcome any human means to subdue it.
In the last ghost story I will analyze, “A Night on the Borders of the Black Forest” (1872), Edwards addresses how massive deforestation has ruined the landscape of the German Black Forest. The narrator, Chandos Hamilton, is an English tourist in Germany who asks a local traveler named Gustav Bergheim for directions. The two instantly become friends and traveling companions. Hamilton is a typical English sightseer following his guidebook to sites that English tourists frequent and he has traveled through the Tyrol and Italian Lakes (85). It is interesting that Hamilton mentions these specific Italian territories, since Edwards had just finished her trip over the Dolomites the year this story was published (Moon 97-102; 262). At first, the pair’s journey through Germany seems less exciting than the adventures of Bergheim’s friend Fritz, who died exploring the African wilderness. However, Hamilton and Bergheim soon find out that nature can be just as menacing in Germany as in far-off Africa when they undergo their terrifying ordeal in the Black Forest. We experience vivid local color while the two come across a kermesse, or fair, and Hamilton catalogues the people in attendance as well as their various pastimes:
Here a compact, noisy, smoking, staring, laughing, steaming crowd circulated among the booths; some pushing one way, some another–some intent on buying–some on eating and drinking–some on love-making and dancing. In one place we came upon rows of little open stalls for the sale of every commodity under heaven. In another, we peeped into a great restaurant-booth full of country folks demolishing pyramids of German sausage and seas of Bäirisch beer. Yonder, on a raised stage in front of a temporary theatre, strutted a party of strolling players in their gaudy tinsels and ballet-dresses. (87)
The neutral listing of local details and the employment of artistic metaphors to describe landscapes are common tendencies in Edwards’s travel writing (Melman 271-272), and Hamilton’s mention of the traveling actors heightens the theatrical nature of the kermesse. At the fair, the two men find a driver who is willing to take them part of their way, leaving them in the middle of the Black Forest late that night.
Hamilton and Bergheim hold different attitudes toward the Forest, with Hamilton understandably being scared of an unfamiliar place named “The Black Forest” and Bergheim cheerfully clueless about any danger:
“A mountain farmstead, by all the gods of Olympus!” exclaimed Bergheim, joyously. “This is good fortune! And they are not gone to bed yet, either.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“Because I saw a light.”
“But suppose they do not wish to take us in?” I suggested.
“Suppose an impossibility! Who ever heard of inhospitality among our Black Forest folk?"
“Black Forest!” I repeated. “Do you call this the Black Forest?"
“Undoubtedly. All these wooded hills south of Heidelberg and the Odenwald are outlying spurs and patches of the old legendary Schwarzwald–now dwindling year by year. Hark! the dogs have found us out already!” (90)
Bergheim’s offhand remark about how the Black Forest has been “dwindling year by year” acts as a subtle critique of the irresponsible logging methods used by the Germans. During the nineteenth century, farming practices and the log trade with Holland had deprived the Black Forest of so many trees that a reforestation program had to be implemented (Jeanrenaud 18). The Gothic atmosphere lends horror to a scene of ecological destruction, in which the two come across piles of trees that have been chopped down: “The moon was rising fast; but the shadows of the pines lay long and dense upon the road, with only a sharp silvery patch breaking through here and there. By and by we came across a broad space of clearing, dotted over with stacks of brushwood and great symmetrical piles of barked trunks” (89). Although Bergheim assumes the Black Forest dwellers will be hospitable, Hamilton rightly senses that the forest and the men who take them in pose a threat to the two men’s lives. This difference of perception leads Bergheim to act oblivious to their hosts’ strange behavior, while Hamilton senses something is wrong when their hosts refuse to share a drink with the two visitors.
Hamilton’s suspicions about the danger posed by their hosts–and the Black Forest–are confirmed once he realizes that the sleeping Bergheim has been drugged and they are both trapped alone in the house with murderous thieves. In an incredibly suspenseful scene, Hamilton turns the room which he and Bergheim occupy into a “fortress” (95) by gathering weapons and barricading doors to hold off their murderers. Just as Hamilton is waiting to see how the murderers will breach his defenses, Bergheim has a vision of the bodies of the murderers’ other victims that wakes him up:
“One man under the hearth,” [Bergheim] went on, in the same unnatural tone. “Four men at the bottom of the pond–all murdered–foully murdered!”
I had scarcely heeded his first words; but now, as their sense broke upon me, that great rush of exultation and thankfulness was suddenly arrested. My heart stood still; trembled; I turned cold with terror.
Then the veins swelled on his forehead; his face became purple; and he struck out blindly, as one oppressed with some horrible nightmare.
“Blood!” he gasped. “Everywhere blood–don’t touch it. God’s vengeance
And so, struggling violently in my arms, he opened his eyes, stared wildly round, and made an effort to get upon his feet. (98)
This ghostly vision of the corpses hidden under the fireplace and in a nearby pond serves a twofold purpose. The first is to show the pair the Black Forest is a sinister place that swallows up unwary tourists; the second is to warn the two men of this fact so they do not end up like the other victims. Hamilton and Bergheim escape danger from another natural element, namely fire, when the murderers try to burn them alive by setting the house ablaze. While the supernatural vision terrifies Hamilton, it also saves both men’s lives by waking Bergheim, who figures out that they should escape the burning house through a window. By saving Hamilton and Bergheim, the ghosts of the victims enact “God’s vengeance” on their killers. The murderers are either killed or executed and their victims’ remains are recovered by the police, allowing the ghosts to finally rest in peace now that their bodies are no longer trapped in the Black Forest.
It is important for Victorian scholars to recognize that a woman writer like Edwards should occupy a place in our conversations on nineteenth-century ecology alongside male authors like Wordsworth, Ruskin, Hardy, and Hopkins.@ Her ghost stories reveal a sophisticated awareness of the damage that European tourism was inflicting on the landscape, based on her experiences traveling over the Continent. Edwards makes it clear that taking a journey can be dangerous for sightseers who do not respect the integrity of nature, instead forcing their will on the landscape for the sake of a convenient holiday. Her ecological critique of the European tourist industry is highly relevant today in light of the reported decline of the city of Venice, in part due to the millions of visitors who arrive there every year. Edwards was so inspired by the beauty of Venice that she captures its splendor through the eyes of a male artist in a moving supernatural tale called “The Story of Salome.” In 2010, the mayor of Venice lashed out against critics who denounced his scheme to cover up some of the city’s most famous landmarks with advertising billboards. In reply to his detractors, he said that “If people want to see the [famous Bridge of Sighs] they should go home and look at a picture of it in a book” (qtd. in “Venice Mayor”). As a talented illustrator and admirer of the landscape, Edwards would be horrified by the suggestion that advertisements and pictures in travel brochures should replace the natural and manmade beauties of Venice. Her ghost stories help us to see how the willful destruction of Europe’s scenery in the name of commercial tourism will eventually turn the landscape into a ghostly presence as it slowly disappears from view.
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