Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

9.6. Spreading the Word: Texts and the Text
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Mihaela Irimia (University of Bucharest)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

British Travel Literature in the 19th Century. Transdisciplinarity, Genre and Gender Crossing

Carmen Andraş (The "Gheorghe Sincai" Institute for Social Sciences and the Humanities of the Romanian Academy Targu-Mures)


A starting point in the analysis of British travel literature to the East or the Orient, to Europe, Asia, America or Africa, in the framework of postcolonial studies, is the observation that of all the literary genres, travel writing in the 19 th century emerges as perhaps "the most capacious cultural holdall" (Amanda Gilroy, 10-11): a hybrid discourse that crossed the disciplinary boundaries of memoirs, letter-writing, education, ethnography, anthropology, natural history, sociology, medicine, aesthetics, ethics, politics and economics. Indeed, the archaeological and anthropological research that was part of Britain’s colonial project found its form in travel writing. Travellers often sought to cross more than national boundaries. Sometimes the circulating discourses of travel secured self-identity and reaffirmed existing convictions of cultural superiority for the authors and readers of travel accounts, but the experience of geographic displacement also helped 19 th century writers to renegotiate the cultural verities of "home". Nevertheless, the disturbances of travel could destabilize not only the hierarchies of disciplines and genres, but also the boundaries of national, racial, gender and class affiliation, thus enacting the disciplinary miscegenation that defined the mapping of geographical space.

The reduction of experience to facts was becoming a form of the imaginary - and potentially practical - power and control. The traveller/narrator was supposed to experience the difference between the stages of human development in various societies, to compare the data of practice with his previous knowledge, and, eventually, to envisage a potential implantation of the benefits of human progress in those remote places. And when a spatially and temporally remote world escaped any classification and definition, Western travellers motivated an inconsequential experience by the puzzling condition of these borderlands, not entirely different from and not entirely the same as "civilized" Europe. In fact, as Mary Baine Campbell observes, "the distance that is so inherently pleasurable to a reader of voyages, is the distance from oneself, with all that implies of gaps one might (or might not) close, differences one might absorb, spaces one might annex" (Mary Baine Campbell, 32).

In the context of my interest in 19th century British travel literature, at first in the restricted space of Central and Eastern Europe, Romania included, I have then extended the geography of my research, having in mind the great mobility and dynamism that characterized British travel and exploration in a century that brought about not only the imperial expansion but also the enlargement of knowledge, be it imperial or not, related to power or not. The bibliographies produced by specialists in the field indicate the existence of an extraordinary rich and complex corpus of 19 th century British travel literature. Nevertheless, I have decided to start my research restricting not only the geography of travel but mostly the social and gender category of the travellers. It was not an accidental choice since I grew more and more impressed by the tenacious character, intellectual posture and artistic skills of the British lady travellers, tourists, and explorers at the same time. I was also impressed by the quantity and quality of postcolonial and feminist critical works dedicated to the subject, especially those by Sidney Foster, Sara Mills, Amanda Gilroy, Dorothy Middleton, Mary Baine Campbell, Dea Birkett, Marion Tinling and so on. My paper represents an initial step in this endeavour, since the number of women travellers and the quality of their writings are much more complex than I have firstly imagined. British lady travellers dared to cross not only their frustrating feminine condition in Victorian England, from which they tried hard to escape by travelling abroad (helped by their social status too, indeed), but also the boundaries between disciplines set by Enlightened reason. They crossed the frontier between wonder and science, fiction and poetry, creating an imaginative geography; between aesthetics and ethics, creating a geography of pure beauty and human care; between medicine and aesthetics, within a geography of bodily and spiritual reinvigoration; between botany and aesthetics, within a geography of exotic flora; between sociology, politics and ethics, within a human geography of understanding and tolerance, refraining as much as possible feelings of imperial superiority and power.

As Dorothy Middleton observes "they were mostly middle-aged and often in poor health, their moral and intellectual standards were extremely high and they left behind them a formidable array of travel books. Nearly always they went alone, blazing no trail and setting no fashion...." (Dorothy Middleton, 3-4) They were wealthy, but had difficult family responsibilities (they had to look after invalid parents). The few of them who were married had to carry the burden of their unhappiness even though they accompanied their husbands in their missions abroad.

The concept of escape is in Shirley Foster’s view, of particular importance here. It is not only the escape into another space, but also the escape from a tedious life into the realm of literature. Self assertion through travel and writing! "But such desire still smacked too much of self-pleasing and irresponsibility, and so certain strategies were employed to 'cover' it, regarding both the journeys and the published accounts. Chief of these is the insistence on 'proper' purpose, a way of validating the respectability and usefulness of the activity, especially where this could be related to current notions of womanhood". (Shirley Foster, 1990, 8)

Their stories meant sometimes the search for health, with travellers like Isabella Bird (whose spinal disease immobilised her in a wheel-chair when she was at home), Marianne North (who suffered from severe deafness), Harriet Martineau (who suffered poor health as a child, resulting in an anxious, insecure personality. She began to lose her hearing early and by the age of twenty she was forced to resort to the use of ear trumpets). "There is often a link between physical weakness and geographical mobility, since the physical and psychological results of their journeys were often quite surprising", observes Shirley Foster. (9-10) They were in fact crossing the boundaries of their weak bodies, social restraints and financial dependence upon their fathers and husbands.

Propagandist or philanthropic purpose is related to the desire for 'improvement', so dear to the Victorians. Postcolonial studies often exaggerate their imperialistic hidden purposes. Their enterprises could also mean both self-perfection through knowledge and experience and the enlightenment of others through communication of this knowledge. This motivation encouraged those women collect "facts" everywhere - sociological (about women, children, family, domestic manners), anthropological (primitive peoples and their customs) botanical, medical, archaeological, economical or, political (interested in American democracy; several had abolitionist views; they unmasked patriarchal mentalities, and the subordination of women and children both in foreign societies and at home). Anna Jameson was an Irish archaeologist, writer and art critic, author of the first systematic study of Christian iconography in English (friend of Lady Byron, the Goethe family, Elisabeth and Robert Browning with whom she travelled and exchanged letters); Marianne North, a botanical explorer and painter. Harriett Martineau gained widespread recognition as a social and political scientist, politician, historian, journalist, public educator and fiction writer; Emily Pfeiffer and Frances Trollope, were writers and self-taught social and political commentators; Frances Wright, was a fervent political activist for the equality of rights and militated against slavery in America (especially in her utopian settlement at Nashoba, helped by Frances Trollope, involved in the project of experimental education of black children); Fanny Kemble, an actress, a writer and a political activist, tried almost the same thing on her husband’s plantation in Georgia. Lady Emmeline Stuart-Wortley (poet, specialist in theology and philosophy); Isabella Bird, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London (accepted in 1892) and the first woman Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Edinburgh, was a famous Victorian, who richly merited her place in the Dictionary of National Biography. By following up her adventures in remote places with her well-informed books, she ensured a continuing interest in her life and in her experiences. She was a writer an explorer and a very passionate photographer The reaction of the Royal Geographical Society to female globe-trotters shows how difficult it was for women to be taken seriously in such activities; it also shows "how this more academic or intellectual activity was often considered unfeminine or beyond the female sphere". (Shirley Foster, 11)

As several recent critics have pointed out, by the beginning of the 19 th century certain conventions of travel writing had been established, powerful textual constraints which determined the reconstruction of the foreign experience: "...women writers were defined according to a canon of 'female literature', with its prescriptions of appropriate subject matter and style - topics of romance and home and family life, emphasis on feeling and sentiment, and delicacy and emotionalism of expression. Thus the traveller who employed a masculine voice (and the very act of writing 'factual' material symbolised entry into male discourse) ran the risk of being regarded as unwomanly and presumptuous. On the other hand, to speak consciously as a woman was possibly to devalue her own creation, undermining its authority and indicating its inferiority... It is equally clear that many of them were knowingly conforming to current criteria of literary femininity in order to make their works acceptable. While implementing this strategy they could obliquely overthrow the gender-oriented constraints upon them..." (Shirley Foster, 19-20)

Many of them travelled to several regions and made interesting cross-references between them: Isabella Bird, never well unless she was abroad, in America, Australia and the Far East; Marianne North, painting and collecting botanical specimens throughout southern Europe, the Americas, Africa and the Far East (see Marianne North collection of plants at Kew’s Gardens); and lifelong travellers like Frances Trollope, Frances Kemble, Emily Pfeiffer, Lady Emmeline Stuart-Wortley and Anna Jameson, who visited - and compared - Italy and North America.

I chose these examples of women travellers, further confining the field of my exploration. I have started my research with the North American geographic area, paying attention also to the comparisons that the ladies used to draw between American and European places. Descriptions of landscapes are in my opinion appropriate examples of transdisciplinarity, genre crossing and gender crossing (they are both scientific accounts and literary transpositions of the emotional ties with nature, ethical and aesthetic judgements, fiction and poetry, discovery of foreign spaces and of the self confronted with new, totally different, environments, feminine travel accounts of places that had been the gentlemen’s territory before: high mountains and impressive water falls). Amongst them all Niagara Falls, the symbol of the American freedom and energy, also concentrated the essence of other geographical areas, like Italy, whose symbol was the Vesuvius.

Niagara Falls became in their imagination both a natural monument and a state of mind reminding one of the dream of classical perfection in Italy and the desire of mental and physical escape in America. Niagara was intensely lived intellectually and physically as the free expression of desire after a frustrating existence in Victorian England. It was the step over the boundaries of scientific and literary expression, over the boundaries of gender and social status imposed at home.

The representation of natural scenery shows theoretical influences derived from aesthetic theories and literary tradition, which pretended that originality is not only impossible but perhaps undesirable. Burke's theory of the sublime, taken up by Gothic and Romantic writers in their treatment of landscape, established a convention of 'nature writing' which emphasised the magnificent, the dramatic and the visually striking. At the same time, eighteenth-century notions of the pleasing pictorial quality in the natural environment were still influential. The aesthetic vocabulary of the sublime is often invoked by travellers in the nineteenth century: the sublime moment in a text for the woman traveller is one where the focus is both on the landscape and the emotions which it evokes in the narrator (Sara Mills, 2000). Both terrifying and exhilarating, sublime experience represented one of the most important challenges to the rationalism of Enlightenment thought. "Women writers, notices Amanda Gilroy, challenged the assumptions of aesthetic discourse, especially in their valorisation of the detail". They revised Burke’s model of the sublime (as well as the categories of the picturesque and the beautiful), they personalized it, and invested their landscape descriptions with an "ethic care". ( Joanna Zylinska, "Sublime Speculations: The Economy of the Gift in Feminist Ethics")

The experience of open, apparently infinite space offered the woman traveller a rare chance to enjoy pure "being", as well as a means of self-discovery and self-testing. The environments which made the most dramatic impact in this respect were those of mountains and water, both emblematic of limitlessness and unrestrained power. The sense of new being was felt more urgently in the encounter with water in its more dramatic forms. The most remarkable instance of this is their reaction to Niagara. (See ADDENDA: British Lady Travellers in the 19th Century)

The encounter with Niagara was both passionately desired and anxiously expected by the women travellers. Generally speaking, America was not associated with the same fulfilment of romantic aspiration and youthful dreams as was Italy, but the Falls were an exception. Here, their imagination had already been animated by earlier accounts, and expectation could combine with personal desire. Frances Trollope, finally on her way to Niagara after a disappointing two years in the States, declares that it was "the object, which for years, I had languished to look upon" (p. 284), while for Anna Jameson, craving unhappily in Toronto, it was "a thing to be imagined, hoped, and anticipated, something to live for". (Winter Studies, I, p. 82) The accounts of the long awaited moment burst with enthusiasm, and dramatically recreate the intensity of eagerness.

For Marianne Finch, at Niagara in the 1850s, going behind the Horseshoe Fall was "unspeakably fearful". (Marianne Finch, An Englishwoman's Experience in America, 1969, p. 366) Tightly clinging to the wet rock, she was conscious of a new personality being drawn out of her - "Half drowned and deafened, I emerged with a deeper feeling of awe than I ever experienced before" (p. 367). Matilde Charlotte Houston, making the same trip a few years earlier, nervously comparing the slippery ledge with the unsteady Table Rock suspended over her head, was also caught up in the "wild magnificence" (Hesperos, I, pp. 126-7) despite her fear.

Anna Jameson's prophecies of the curative effects of the Falls were self-fulfilling. Initially disappointed with the spectacle, she found that the physical rigours awakened her torpid spirits. Making her first visit to Niagara during Canadian winter, she strode through the ice and snow to the Table Rock, the very effort totally converting her disillusion to fright at the "wild and wonderful magnificence... [of] the dark-green waters, hurrying with them over the edge of the precipice enormous blocks of ice".

"There is something very exciting in this view; one cannot help investing Niagara with feelings of human agony and apprehension; one feels a new sensation, something neither terror, wonder, nor admiration, as one looks at the phenomena which it displays. I have been surprised to see how a visit to the Falls galvanises the most matter-of-fact person into a brief exercise of the imaginative powers", meditates Isabella Bird before this "terrible majesty". (The Englishwoman in America, 1856, pp. 216- 236)

The travellers' re-creation of their experience of Niagara reveals the ambivalence of their response; on the one hand Niagara induces some of the most highly emotional writing in their texts, as in the case of Emily Pfeiffer: "The shock we feel when we see that this Hercules of falling waters has been set to work by an Omphale, and is patiently turning a paper mill before taking its awful plunge, is at first painful; but I at least am an epicure in enjoyment, and refuse to yield the delight that is left, in storming after that which has been taken away". (Flying Leaves from East and West, 1885, pp. 114-5).

On the other hand, however, Niagara could produce in the observer a fear of uncertainty, and some commentators found it hard to come to terms with its powerful and often distressing influence. Many responded initially with panic or confusion; and their images reflect not only Frances Kemble's recognition that it was "nonsense" to write about it "because it is quite unspeakable... words cannot describe it nor can any imagination, I think, suggest even an approximate idea of its terrible loveliness", ( Frances Kemble, Record of a Girlhood, III, pp. 308, 304-5) but also their inability to realize entirely their own reactions. Thus they perform various literary strategies in an effort to familiarise it and smooth out some of its troubling power.

A method of taming the disturbing or indescribable is to employ conventional literary terminology. Thus Niagara is variously described in terms of its "sublimity", "helpless terror", "inevitable doom", "mysterious chasm", "awful beauty", "terrible majesty" and "manifold perfections and glories", "sullen dignity", "soft thunderous music", "wonder of nature", "wild and wonderful magnificence", "magnificently mysterious"; the Falls themselves are "stupendously magnificent" and "fearfully beautiful" with their "silvery torrents". (Frances Kemble, 1878; Frances Trollope, p. 286; Bird, p. 223; Stuart-Wortley, I, pp. 22, 20; Houston, Hesperos, I, p. 129; Trollope, p. 286; Frances Wright, p. 126; Finch, p. 367)

Niagara is openly associated with physical love that brings about both fear and delight to Frances Kemble, while Emily Pfeiffer imagines a passionate embrace: "The torrent here flings itself full-breasted over the precipice, and as we watch it, descends, a sea of diamonds, into the arms of a rainbow, not now a lunar, but a solar one, a triumphal arch of light and colour". (Flying Leaves from East and West, 1885, pp. 114-5) and Frances Wright invokes the "coldly kiss" of death. (Views of Society and Manners in America in a series of letters from that country to a friend in England, during the years 1818, 1819, and 1820, pp. 124-135.)

Finally Niagara brought the much desired peace of mind and body to the ladies who travelled to see it. The moments of fear and torment elapsed as by miracle, leaving behind a feeling of relief and harmony with God and with themselves.

These are only glimpses into the legacy of the 19 th century British travel around the world, particularly the lady travellers’ accounts. It is a fascinating and rewarding subject that has been very seriously explored recently. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the critical works and anthologies of texts dedicated to travel and exploration in the 19 th century leave out Eastern Europe from the destinations of the women travellers as if interesting writers and scientists like the Victorian Lady Emily Gerard Laszowska, who spent several years in Transylvania and wrote two volumes on the people, folklore and beauties of the province did not exist! Border crossing between Eastern and Western Europe is still a difficult endeavour! Much more difficult than genre and gender crossing!

What really matters in fact is not the geography covered by these pioneer travellers, but the way they made their voices listened to all over the world. For, as Emily Pfeiffer puts it metaphorically, "The lion has for so long been the painter, that he is apt too wholly to ignore the aspect which his favourite subject may take from the point of view of the lioness. If the latter will sometimes tell the truth, and tell, not what she thinks she ought to see, but what she really sees, many an intellectual picture which has hitherto satisfied the sense of mankind, may be found to be somewhat out of focus". (Emily Pfeiffer, Flying Leaves from East and West)

ADDENDA: British Lady Travellers in the 19th Century

Harriet Martineau: Society in America.
Observations made during a Stay in 1837

NEW YORK. October 1834. Appearance of Forest Cabins; the Labors of Families who live in the Wilderness.

One day, at Niagara, I had spent hours at the Falls, till, longing for the stillness of the forest, I wandered deep into its wild paths, meeting nothing but the belled heifer, grazing, and the slim, clean swine which live on the mast and roots they can find for themselves. I saw some motion in a thicket, a little way from the path, and went to see what it was. I found a little boy and girl, working away, by turns, with an axe, at the branches of a huge hickory, which had been lately felled. " Father " had felled the hickory the day before, and had sent the children to make faggots from the branches. They were heated and out of breath. I had heard of the toughness of hickory, and longed to know what the labour of wood-cutting really was. Here was an irresistible opportunity for an experiment. I made the children sit down on the fallen tree, and find out the use of my ear- trumpet, while I helped to make their faggot. When I had hewn through one stout branch, I was quite sufficiently warmed, and glad to sit down to hear the children's story. Their father had been a weaver and a preacher in England. He had brought out his wife and six children. During the week, he worked at his land, finding some employment or another for all of his children who could walk alone; and going some distance on Sundays to preach. This last particular told volumes.

Isabella Bird, The Englishwoman in America, 1856, pp. 216- 236.

"I've seen nothing" - A disappointment - Incongruities - Hotel gaieties and "doing Niagara" - Irish drosky-drivers - "The Hell of Waters" - Beauties of Niagara - The picnic party - The White Canoe-A cold shower-bath - "The Thunder of Waters" - A magic word - "The Whirlpool" - Story of "Bloody Run" - Yankee opinions of English ladies - A metamorphosis - The nigger guide - A terrible situation - Termination Rock - Impressions of Niagara - Juvenile precocity - A midnight journey - Street adventures in Hamilton.

"HAVE you seen the Falls?".- "No" "Then you've seen nothing of America." I might have seen Trenton Falls, Gennessee Falls, the Falls of Montmorenci and Lorette; but I had seen nothing if I had not seen the Falls (par excellence) of Niagara. There were divers reasons why my friends in the States were anxious that I should see Niagara. One was, as I was frequently told, that all I had seen, even to the "Prayer Eyes," would go for nothing on my return; for in England, America was supposed to be a vast tract of country containing one town -New York; and one astonishing natural phenomenon, called Niagara. "See New York, Quebec, and Niagara," was the direction I received when I started upon my travels. I never could make out how, but somehow or other, from my earliest infancy, I had been familiar with the name of Niagara, and, from the numerous pictures I had seen of it, I could, I suppose, have sketched a very accurate likeness of the Horse-shoe Fall. Since I landed at Portland, I had continually met with people who went into ecstatic raptures with Niagara; and after passing within sight of its spray, and within hearing of its roar-after seeing it the great centre of attraction to all persons of every class - my desire to see it for myself became absorbing... The cloudy morning had given place to a glorious day, abounding in varieties of light and shade; a slight shower had fallen, and the sparkling rain-drops hung from every leaf and twig; a rainbow spanned the Niagara river, and the leaves wore the glorious scarlet and crimson tints of the American autumn. Sun and sky were propitious; it was the season and the day in which to see Niagara. Quarrelsome drosky drivers, incongruous mills, and the thousand trumperies of the place, were all forgotten in the perfect beauty of the scene-in the full, the joyous realisation of my ideas of Niagara. Beauty and terror here formed a perfect combination. Around islets covered with fair foliage of trees and vines, and carpeted with moss un-trodden by the foot of man, the waters, in wild turmoil, rage and foam: rushing on recklessly beneath the trembling bridge on which we stood to their doomed fall. This place is called" The Hell of Waters," and has been the scene of more than one terrible tragedy.

This bridge took us to Iris Island, so named from the rainbows which perpetually hover round its base. Everything of terrestrial beauty may be found in Iris Island. It stands amid the eternal din of the waters, a barrier between the Canadian and American Falls. It is not more than sixty-two acres in extent, yet it has groves of huge forest trees, and secluded roads underneath them in the deepest shade, far apparently from the busy world, yet thousands from every part of the globe yearly tread its walks of beauty. We stopped at the top of a dizzy pathway, and, leaving the Walrences to purchase some curiosities, I descended it, crossed a trembling footbridge, and stood alone on Luna Island, between the Crescent and American Falls. This beauteous and richly-embowered little spot, which is said to tremble and looks as if any wave might sweep it away, has a view of matchless magnificence. From it can be seen the whole expanse of the American rapids, rolling and struggling down, chafing the sunny islets, as if jealous of their beauty. The Canadian Fall was on my left; away in front stretched the scarlet woods; the incongruities of the place were out of sight; and at my feet the broad sheet of the American Fall tumbled down in terrible majesty. The violence of the rapids cannot be imagined by one who has not seen their resistless force. The turbulent waters are flung upwards, as if infuriated against the sky. The rocks, whose jagged points are seen among them, fling off the hurried and foamy waves, as if with supernatural strength. Nearer and nearer they come to the Fall, becoming every instant more agitated; they seem to recoil as they approach its verge; a momentary calm follows, and then, like all their predecessors, they go down the abyss together. There is something very exciting in this view; one cannot help investing Niagara with feelings of human agony and apprehension; one feels a new sensation, something neither terror, wonder, nor admiration, as one looks at the phenomena which it displays. I have been surprised to see how a visit to the Falls galvanises the most matter-of-fact person into a brief exercise of the imaginative powers.

: "Well, stranger, I guess that's the finest water-power you’ve ever set eyes on." My thoughts were likewise recalled to the fact that it was necessary to put on an oilskin dress, and scramble down a very dilapidated staircase to the Cave of the Winds, in order to "do" Niagara in the "regulation manner." This cave is partly behind the American Fall, and is the abode of howling wind and ceaseless eddies of spray. It is an extremely good shower-bath, but the day was rather too cold to make that luxury enjoyable. I went down another steep path, and, after crossing a shaky foot-bridge over part of the Grand Rapids, ascended Prospect Tower, a stone erection 45 feet high, built on the very verge of the Horse-shoe Fall. It is said that people feel involuntary suicidal intentions while standing on the balcony round this tower. I did not experience them myself, possibly because my only companion was the half-tipsy Irish drosky-driver. The view from this tower is awful: the edifice has been twice swept away, and probably no strength of masonry could permanently endure the wear of the rushing water at its base.

Down come those beauteous billows, as if eager for their terrible leap. Along the ledge over which they fall they are still for one moment in a sheet of clear, brilliant green; another, and down they fall like cataracts of driven snow, chasing each other, till, roaring and hissing, they reach the abyss, sending up a column of spray 100 feet in height. No existing words can describe it, no painter can give the remotest idea of it; it is the voice of the Great Creator, its name signifying, in the beautiful language of the Iroquois, " The Thunder of Waters." Looking from this tower, above you see the Grand Rapids, one dizzy sheet of leaping foamy billows, and below you look, if you can, into the very caldron itself, and see how the bright-green waves are lost in foam and mist; and behind you look to shore, and shudder to think how the frail bridge by which you came in another moment may be washed away, I felt as I came down the trembling staircase that one wish of my life had been gratified in seeing Niagara.

... Leaving this staircase, I followed the guide along a narrow path covered with fragments of shale, with Table Rock above and the deep abyss below. A cold, damp wind blew against me, succeeded by a sharp pelting rain, and the path became more slippery and difficult. Still I was not near the sheet of water, and felt not the slightest dizziness. I speedily arrived at the difficult point of my progress: heavy gusts almost blew me away; showers of spray nearly blinded me; I was quite deafened and half drowned; I wished to retreat, and essayed to use my voice to stop the progress of my guide. I raised it to a scream, but it was lost in the thunder of the cataract. The negro saw my incertitude and extended his hand. I shuddered even there as I took hold of it, not quite free from the juvenile idea that" the black comes off." He seemed at that moment to wear the aspect of a black imp leading me to destruction.

The path is a narrow, slippery ledge of rock. I am blinded with spray, the darkening sheet of water is before me. Shall I go on? The spray beats against my face, driven by the contending gusts of wind which rush into the eyes, nostrils, and mouth, and almost prevent my progress; the narrowing ledge is not more than a foot wide, and the boiling gulf is seventy feet below. Yet thousands have pursued this way before, so why should not l? I grasp tighter hold of the guide's hand, and proceed step by step holding down my head. The water heats against me, the path narrows, and will only hold my two feet abreast. I ask the guide to stop, but my voice is drowned by the" Thunder of Waters." He guesses what I would say, and shrieks in my ear, "It's worse going back." I make a desperate attempt: four steps more and I am at the end of the ledge; my breath is taken away, and I can only just stand against the gusts of wind which arc driving the water against me. The gulf is but a few inches from me, and, gasping for breath, and drenched to the skin, I become conscious that I have reached Termination Rock.

Once arrived at this place, the clouds of driving spray are a little thinner, and, though it is still very difficult either to see or breathe, the magnificence of the temple, which is here formed by the natural bend of the cataract and the backward shelve of the precipice, makes a lasting impression on the mind. The temple seems a fit and awful shrine for Him who" rides on the wings of mighty winds," and, completely shut out from man's puny works, the mind rises naturally in adoring contemplation to Him whose voice is heard in the "thunder of waters"... On the whole, this achievement is pleasanter in the remembrance than in the act. There is nothing whatever to boast of in having accomplished it, and nothing to regret in leaving it undone. I knew the danger and disagreeableness of the exploit before I went, and, had I known that" going behind the sheet" was synonymous with " going to Termination Rock," I should never have gone.

... As I sat watching them, a the sublimity of the Falls far exceeded my expectations, and I appreciated them the more perhaps from having been disappointed with the first view. complete oblivion. of everything but the falls themselves stole over me. A person may be very learned in statistics-he may tell you that the falls are 160 feet high-that their whole width is nearly four-fifths of a mile-that, according to estimate, ninety million tons of water pass over them every hour-that they are the outlet of several bodies of water covering one hundred and fifty thousand square miles; but unless he has seen Niagara, he cannot form the faintest conception of it. It was so very like what I had expected, and yet so totally different. I sat there watching that sea-green curve against the sky till sunset, and. then the crimson rays just fell upon the column of spray above the Canadian Fall, turning it a most beautiful rose-colour. The sun set; a young moon arose, and brilliant stars shone through the light veil of mist, and in the darkness the cataract looked like drifted snow. I rose at length, perfectly unconscious that I had been watching the Falls for nearly four hours and that my clothes were saturated with the damp and mist. It would be out of place to enter upon the numerous geological speculations which have arisen upon the structure and recession of Niagara, It seems as if the faint light which science has shed upon the abyss of bygone ages were but to show that its depths must remain for ever unlighted by human reason and research.


Anna Jameson

At the Falls of St. Mary’s, July 1838; Sketches in Canada and Rambles Among the Red Men, London: Longman, 1852, pp. 241-2

"The more I looked upon these glancing, dancing rapids, the more resolute I grew to venture myself in the midst of them....The canoe being ready, I went up to the top of the portage and we launched into the river. It was a small fishing canoe about ten feet long, quite new, and light and elegant and buoyant as a bird on the waters. ... in a minute we were within the verge of the rapids, and down we went, with a whirl and splash! - the white surge leaping around me - over me. The Indian with astonishing dexterity kept the head of the canoe to the breakers, and somehow or other we danced through them. I could see, as I looked over the edge of the canoe, that the passage between the rocks was sometimes not more than two feet in width, and we had to turn sharp angles - a touch of which would have sent us to destruction - all this I could see through the transparent eddying waters, but I can truly say, I had not even a momentary sensation of fear, but rather of giddy, breathless, delicious excitement. I could even admire the beautiful attitude of a fisher, past whom we swept as we came to the bottom".

Winter Studies, I, p. 82

"We now prepared to walk to the Crescent fall, and I bound some crampons to my feet, like those they use among the Alps, without which I could not for a moment have kept my footing on the frozen surface of the snow. As we approached the Table Rock, the whole scene assumed a wild and wonderful magnificence ; down came the dark-green waters, hurrying with them over the edge of the precipice enormous blocks of ice brought down from Lake Erie. On each side of the Falls, from the ledges and overhanging cliffs, were suspended huge icicles, some twenty, some thirty feet in length, thicker than the body of a man, and in colour of a paly green, like the glaciers of the Alps ; and all the crags below, which projected from the boiling eddying waters, were encrusted, and in a manner built round with ice, which had formed into immense crystals, like basaltic columns, such as I have seen in the pictures of Staffa and the Giant’s Causeway ; and every tree, and leaf, and branch, fringing the rocks and ravines, was wrought in ice. On them, and on the wooden buildings erected near the Table Rock, the spray from the cataract had accumulated and formed into the most beautiful crystals and tracery work; they looked like houses of glass, welted and moulded into regular and ornamental shapes, and hung round with a rich fringe of icy points. Wherever we stood we were on unsafe ground, for the snow, when heaped up as now to the height of three of four feet, frequently slipped in masses from the bare rock, and on its surface the spray, for ever falling, was converted into a sheet of ice, smooth, compact, and glassy..."

....The moment I was alone, I hurried down to the Table Rock. The body of water was more full and tremendous than in the winter. The spray rose, densely falling again in thick showers, and behind those rolling volumes of vapour the last gleams of the evening light shone in lurid brightness, amid amber and crimson clouds; on the other side, night was rapidly coming on, and all was black, impenetrable gloom, and "boundless contiguity of shade." It was very, very beautiful, and strangely awful too! For now it was late, and as I stood there, lost in a thousand reveries, there was no human being near, no light but that reflected from the leaping, whirling foam; and in spite of the deep-voiced continuous thunder of the cataract, there was such a stillness that I could hear my own heart's pulse throb-or did I mistake feeling for hearing? - so I strayed homewards, or housewards I should say, through the leafy, gloomy, pathways - wet with the spray, and fairly tired out.

....We drove along the road above the Falls. There was the wide river spreading like a vast lake, then narrowing, then boiling, foaming along in a current of eighteen miles an hour, till it swept over the Crescent Rock in a sheet of emerald green, and threw up the silver clouds of spray into the clear blue sky. The fresh luxurious verdure of the woods, relieved p. 106 against the dark pine forest, added to the beauty of the scene. I wished more than ever for those I love most!-for some one who would share all this rapture of admiration and delight, without the necessity of speaking-for, after all, what are words! They express nothing, reveal nothing, avail nothing. So it all sinks back into my own heart, there to be kept quiet. After a pleasant dinner and music, I returned to the hotel by the light of a full moon, beneath which the Falls looked magnificently mysterious, part glancing silver light, and part dark shadow, mingled with fleecy folds of spray, over which floated a soft, sleepy gleam; and in the midst of this tremendous velocity of motion and eternity of sound, there was deep, deep repose, as in a dream. It impressed me for the time like something supernatural-a vision, not a reality..

The good people, travellers, describers, poets, and others, who seem to have hunted through the dictionary for words in which to depict these cataracts under every aspect, have never said enough of the rapids above-even for which reason, perhaps, they have struck me the more; not that any words in any language would have prepared me for what I now feel in this wondrous scene. Standing to-day on the banks above the Crescent Fall, near Mr. Street's mill, gazing on the rapids, they left in my fancy two impressions which seldom meet together-that of the sublime and terrible, and that of the elegant and graceful-like a tiger at play. I could not withdraw my eyes; it was like a fascination.

The verge of the rapids is considerably above the eye; the whole mighty river comes rushing over the brow of a hill, and as you look up, it seems coming down to overwhelm you. Then meeting with the rocks, as it pours down the declivity, it boils and frets like the breakers of the ocean. Huge mounds of water, smooth, transparent, and gleaming like the emerald, or rather like the more delicate hue of the chrysopaz, rise up and bound over some unseen impediment, then break into silver foam, which leaps into the air in the most graceful fantastic forms; and so it rushes on, whirling, boiling, dancing, sparkling along, with a playful impatience, rather than overwhelming fury, rejoicing as if escaped from bondage, rather than raging in angry might-wildly, magnificently beautiful! The idea, too, of the immediate danger, the consciousness that anything caught within their verge is inevitably hurried to a swift destination, swallowed up, annihilated, thrills the blood; the immensity of the picture, spreading a mile at least each way, and framed in by the interminable forests, adds to the feeling of grandeur; while the giddy, infinite motion of the headlong waters, dancing and leaping, and revelling and roaring, in their mad glee, gave me a sensation of rapturous terror, and at last caused a tension of the nerves in my head, which obliged me to turn away.

The great ocean, when thus agitated by conflicting winds or opposing rocks, is a more tremendous thing, but it is merely tremendous-it makes us think of our prayers; whereas, while I was looking on these rapids, beauty and terror, and power and joy, were blended, and so thoroughly, that even while I trembled and admired, I could have burst into a wild laugh, and joined the dancing billows in their glorious, fearful mirth­

Leaping like Bacchanals from rock to rock,

Flinging the frantic Thyrsus wild and high!

I shall never see again, or feel again, aught like it-never! I did not think there was an object in nature, animate or inanimate, that could thus overset me now!


Emily Pfeiffer, Flying Leaves from East and West, 1885, pp. 114-5.

Niagara Falls (1884)

"I awake at the call, the soft thunderous music of the Falls, and, half ashamed of what I am about, pass the time between waking and getting up in framing an answer in sonnet form. Neither of us certainly has shared the common feeling of disappointment at the first meeting with this wonder of nature, although merely as a wonder it is perhaps easy to imagine that it could be something more. Figures and bold description will prepare the mind for anything in the matter of height and size; but the great cataract, as seen on this September morning, is so crowned with beauty, that one falls wholly subdued before it.

The shock we feel when we see that this Hercules of falling waters has been set to work by an Omphale, and is patiently turning a paper mill before taking its awful plunge, is at first painful; but I at least am an epicure in enjoyment, and refuse to yield the delight that is left, in storming after that which has been taken away.

In all the pictorial representations I have seen of Niagara, the object aimed at has apparently been to justify the figures. The artists have been crushed beneath the weight of the hundred million tons of water said to pass over the rock in the course of an hour, and have given no notion of the grace and apparent ease with which this task for a Titan has been achieved.

All the surroundings, if we except the paper mill, the horrible little railways, and the "elevators" which take you up and put you down in places where you never need to be, are of the tenderest sylvan beauty...

From the observatory overtopping the museum one looks down upon the mass of water, churned to a snow-white foam, seething and boiling in the turbulent unrest of ages, of what are called the Canadian Falls. No tree or shrub, no crag or dark rock, no hint of a definite unchanging line, or note of colour, occurs to break the uniform pallor, as the vast mass of the united lakes leaps from rapid to rapid to its last mad plunge over the horse-shoe shaped height, and a part of it ascending in a vapoury mist, hovers as a white cloud, a departing ghost, over the wan, fiercely struggling waters...

The side view of the falls from Luna Island, so called from the effects of Luna rainbow got from it, surpasses all. The torrent here flings itself full-breasted over the precipice, and as we watch it, descends, a sea of diamonds, into the arms of a rainbow, not now a lunar, but a solar one, a triumphal arch of light and colour.

It was curious to feel one’s self in safety so near this vast and deadly power; but about Niagara there is a siren beauty which charms away all sense of terror...The elements of the scene were in themselves anything but peaceful, and yet a strange peace seemed to fall upon us as we looked. Was it that the final catastrophe was so near at hand? I could not think that these rapids, so fresh to the sense, so musically fresh to the ear, carrying forward the thought to the final plunge, would offer a great temptation to one who was weary of life.


Frances Kemble, Journal (1835)

My mind was eagerly dwelling on what we were going to see: that sight which-said was the only one in the world which had not disappointed him. I felt absolutely nervous with expectation. The sound of the cataract is, they say, heard within fifteen miles when the wind sets favourably: today, however, there was no wind; the whole air was breathless with the heat of midsummer, and, though we stopped our waggon once or twice to listen as we approached, all was profoundest silence. There was no motion in the leaves of the trees, not a cloud sailing in the sky; every thing was as though in a bright, warm death. When we were within about three miles of the Falls, just before entering the village of Niagara,-stopped the waggon; and then we heard distinctly, though far off, the voice of the mighty cataract. Looking over the woods, which appeared to overhang the course of the river, we beheld one silver cloud rising slowly into the sky,-the everlasting incense of the waters. A perfect frenzy of impatience seized upon me: I could have set off and run the whole way; and when at length the carriage stopped at the door of the Niagara house, waiting neither for my father, D-, nor-, I rushed through the hall, and the garden, down the steep footpath cut in the rocks. I heard steps behind me;-was following me: down, down I sprang, and along the narrow footpath, divided only by a thicket from the tumultuous rapids. I saw through the boughs the white glimmer of that sea of foam. "Go on, go on; don't stop," shouted-, and in another minute the thicket was passed: I stood upon Table Rock - seized me by the arm, and, without speaking a word, dragged me to the edge of the rapids, to the brink of the abyss. I saw Niagara.-Oh, God! who can describe that sight?


Frances Kemble, Records of a Girlhood (1878)

You must not expect any description of Niagara from me, because it is quite unspeakable, and, moreover, if it were not, it would still be quite unimaginable. The circumstances under which I saw it I can tell you, but of the great cataract itself, what can be told except that it is water?

I confess the sight of it reminded me, with additional admiration, of Sir Charles Bagot's daring denial of its existence; having failed to make his pilgrimage thither during his stay in the United States, he declared on his return to England that he had never been able to find it, that he didn't believe there was any such thing, and that it was nothing but a bragging boast of the Americans.


We reached Queenstown, on the Niagara river, below the falls, at about twelve o' clock, and had three more miles to drive to reach them. The day was serenely bright and warm, without a cloud in the sky, or a shade in the earth, or a breath in the air. We were in an open carriage, and I felt almost nervously oppressed with the expectation of what we were presently to see. We stopped the carriage occasionally to listen for the giant's roaring, but the sound did not reach us until, within three miles over the thick woods which skirted the river, we saw a vapoury silver cloud rising into the blue sky. It was the spray, the breath of the toiling waters ascending to heaven. When we reached what is called the Niagara House, a large tavern by the roadside, I sprang out of the carriage and ran through the house, down flights of steps cut in the rock, and along a path skirted with low thickets, through the boughs of which I saw the rapids running a race with me, as it seemed, and hardly faster than I did. Then there was a broad, flashing sea of furious foam, a deafening rush and roar, through which I heard Mr. Trelawney, who was following me, shout, "Go on, go on; don't stop!" I reached an open floor of broad, flat rock, over which the water was pouring. Trelawney seized me by the arm, and all but carried me to the very brink; my feet were in the water and on the edge of the precipice, and then I looked down. I could not speak, and I could hardly breathe; I felt as if I had an iron band across my breast. I watched the green, glassy, swollen heaps go plunging down, down, down; each mountainous mass of water, as it reached the dreadful brink, recoiling, as in horror, from the abyss; and after rearing backwards in helpless terror, as it were, hurling itself down to be shattered in the inevitable doom over which eternal clouds of foam and spray spread an impenetrable curtain. The mysterious chasm, with its uproar of voices, seemed like the watery mouth of hell. I looked and listened till the wild excitement of the scene took such possession of me that, but for the strong arm that held me back, I really think I should have let myself slide down into the gulf. It was long before I could utter, and as I began to draw my breath I could only gasp out, "O God! O God!" No words can describe either the scene itself, or its effect upon me.

We stayed three days at Niagara, the greater part of which I spent by the water, under the water, on the water, and more than half in the water. Wherever foot could stand I stood, and wherever foot could go I went. I crept, clung, hung, and waded; I lay upon the rocks, upon the very edge of the boiling cauldron, and I stood alone under the huge arch over which the water pours with the whole mass of it, thundering over my rocky ceiling, and falling down before me like an immeasurable curtain, the noonday sun looking like a pale spot, a white wafer, through the dense thickness. Drenched through, and almost blown from my slippery footing by the whirling gusts that rush under the fall, with my feet naked for better safety, grasping the shale broken from the precipice against which I pressed myself, my delight was so intense that I really could hardly bear to come away.

The rock over which the rapids run is already scooped and hollowed out to a great extent by the action of the water; the edge of the precipice, too, is constantly crumbling and breaking off under the spurn of its downward leap. At the very brink the rock is not much more than two feet thick, and when I stood under it and thought of the enormous mass of water rushing over and pouring from it, it did not seem at all improbable that at any moment the roof might give way, the rock break off fifteen or twenty feet, and the whole huge cataract, retreating back, leave a still wider basin for its floods to pour themselves into. You must come and see it before you die, dear H-.

After our short stay at Niagara, we came down Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence to Montreal and Quebec. Before I leave off speaking of that wonderful cataract, I must tell you that the impression of awe and terror it produced at first upon me completely wore away, and as I became familiar with it, its dazzling brightness, its soothing voice, its gliding motion, its soft, thick, furry beds of foam, its veils and draperies of floating light, and gleaming, wavering diadems of vivid colours, made it to me the perfection of loveliness and the mere magnificence of beauty. It was certainly not the "familiarity" that "breeds contempt," but more akin to the "perfect love" which "casteth out fear;" and I began at last to understand Mr. Trelawney's saying that the only impression it produced on him was that of perfect repose; but perhaps it takes Niagara to mesmerize him.

[The first time I attempted to go under the cataract of Niagara I had a companion with me, and one of the local guides, who undertook to pilot us safely. On reaching the edge of the sheet of water, however, we encountered a blast of wind so violent that we were almost beaten back by it. The spray was driven against us like a furious hailstorm, and it was impossible to open our eyes or draw our breath, and we were obliged to relinquish the expedition. The next morning, going down to the falls alone, I was seduced by the comparative quietness and calm, the absence of wind or atmospheric disturbance, to approach gradually the entrance to the cave behind the water, and finding no such difficulty as on the previous day, crept on, step by step, beneath the sheet, till I reached the impassable jutting forward of the rock where it meets the full body of the cataract. My first success emboldened me to two subsequent visits, the small eels being the only unpleasant incident I encountered. The narrow path I followed was a mere ledge of shale and broken particles of the rock, which is so frayable and crumbling, either in its own nature, or from the constant action of the water, that as I passed along and pressed myself close against it, 1 broke off in my hands the portions of it that I grasped.]

A few miles below the falls is a place called the whirlpool, which, in its own kind, is almost as fine as the fall itself. The river makes an abrupt angle in its course, when it is shut in by very high and rocky cliffs-walls, in fact-almost inaccessible from below. Black fir trees are anchored here and there in their cracks and fissures, and hang over the dismal pool below, most of them scathed and contorted by the fires or the blasts of heaven. The water itself is of a strange colour, not transparent, but a pale blue-green, like a discoloured turquoise, or a stream of verdigris, streaked with long veins and angry swirls of white, as if the angry creature couldn't get out of that hole, and was foaming at the mouth; for, before pursuing its course, the river churns round and round in the sullen, savage, dark basin it has worn for itself, and then, as if it had suddenly found an outlet, rushes on its foaming, furious way down to Ontario. We had ridden there and alighted from our horses, and sat on the brink for some time. It was the most dismal place I ever beheld, and seemed to me to grow horribler every moment I looked at it: drowning in that deep, dark, wicked-looking whirlpool would be hideous, compared to being dashed to death amid the dazzling spray and triumphant thunder of Niagara.

[There are but three places I have ever visited that produced upon me the appalling impression of being accursed, and empty of the presence of the God of nature, the Divine Creator, the All-loving Father: this whirlpool of Niagara, that fiery, sulphurous, vile-smelling wound in the earth's bosom, the crater of Vesuvius, and the upper part of the Mer de Glace at Chamouni. These places impressed me with horror, and the impression is always renewed in my mind when I remember them: God-forsaken is what they looked to me.]


Frances Wright, Views of Society and Manners in America in a series of letters from that country to a friend in England, during the years 1818, 1819, and 1820, pp. 124-135.

...Never shall I forget the moment when, throwing down my eyes, I first beheld the deep, solemn tide, clear as crystal and green as the ocean, sweeping through its channel of rocks with a sullen dignity of motion and sound, far beyond all that I had heard or could ever have conceived. You saw and felt immediately that it was no river you beheld, but an impressive sea, for such indeed are the lakes of this region. The velocity of the waters, after the leap, until they issue from the chasm at Queenston, flowing over a rough and shelving bed, must actually be great, but from their vast depth they move with apparent majesty that seems to temper their vehemence, rolling onwards in heavy volumes and with a hollow sound as if labouring and groaning with their own weight. I can convey to you no idea of the solemnity of this moving ocean....Nothing here denotes the dreadful commotion so soon to take place; the thunder, indeed, is behind you, and the rapids are rolling and dashing on either hand, but before, the vast river comes sweeping down its broad and smooth waters between banks low and gentle as those of the Thames. Returning, we again stood long on the bridges, gazing on the rapids that rolled above and beneath us, the waters of the deepest sea-green, crested with silver, shooting under our feet with the velocity of lightning, till, reaching the brink, the vast waves seemed to pause as if gathering their strength for the tremendous plunge.

...Descending the ladder (now easy steps) and approaching to the foot of this lesser fall, we were driven away blinded, breathless, and smarting, the wind being high and blowing right on us...The sun’s rays glancing on these big drops, and sometimes on feathery streams thrown fantastically from the main body of the water, transformed them into silvery stars or beams of light, while the graceful rainbow, now arching over our heads and now circling in the vapour at our feet, still flew before us as we moved... The wind at length having somewhat abated, and the ferryman being willing to attempt the passage, we were crossed in a little boat to the Canada side...Being landed two thirds of a mile below the cataract, a scramble, at first very intricate, through and over and under huge masses of rock, which occasionally seemed to deny all passage and among which our guide often disappeared from our wandering eyes, placed us at the foot of the ladder by which the traveller descends the Canada side. From hence a rough walk along a shelving ledge over which the water rolls and which is known by the name of the Table Rock.

The gloom of this vast cavern, the whirlwind that ever plays in it, the deafening roar, the vast abyss of convulsed waters beneath you, the falling columns that hang over your head, all strike, not upon the ears and eyes only, but upon the heart. For the firs few moments the Sublime is wrought to the terrible (p. 127)... From this spot (beneath the Table Rock) you feel, more than from any other, the height of the cataract and the weight of its water. It seems a tumbling ocean, and you yourself what a helpless atom amid these vast and eternal workings of gigantic nature!,,, Never surely did nature throw together so fantastically so much beauty with such terrific grandeur...We have again visited this wonder of nature in our return from lake Erie, and have now gazed upon it in all lights and at all hours - under the rising, meridian, and setting sun, and under the pale moon when

Riding in her highest noon.

The edge of the Table Rock is not approached without terror at the latter hour. The fairy hues are now all gone, excepting, indeed, the rainbow, which, the ghost of what it was, now spans a dark impervious abyss. The rays of the sweet planet but feebly pierce the chill dense vapour that clogs the atmosphere; the only kiss, and coldly kiss, the waters at the brink, and faintly show the upper half of the columns, now black as ebony, plunging into a storm-tossed sea of murky clouds, whose depth and boundaries are alike unseen. It is the storm of the elements in chaos. The shivering mortal stands on the brink like the startled fiend

On the bare outside of this world,
Uncertain which, in ocean or in air...


A fragment of Charles Dickens' letter to his friend, John Forster, describing a visit to Niagara Falls (Winter, 1842)

I never in my life was in such a state of excitement as coming from Buffalo here, this morning. You come by railroad; and are nigh two hours upon the way. I looked out for the spray, and listened for the roar, as far beyond the bounds of possibility, as though, landing in Liverpool, I were to listen for the music of your pleasant voice in Lincoln's Inn Fields. At last, when the train stopped, I saw two great white clouds rising up from the depths of the earth -- nothing more. They rose up slowly, gently, majestically, into the air. I dragged Kate down a deep and slippery path leading to the ferry boat; bullied Anne for not coming fast enough; perspired at every pore; and felt, it is impossible to say how, as the sound grew louder and louder in my ears, and yet nothing could be seen for the mist.

"There were two English officers with us (ah! what gentlemen, what noblemen of nature they seemed), and they hurried off with me; leaving Kate and Anne on a crag of ice; and clambered after me over the rocks at the foot of the small Fall, while the ferryman was getting the boat ready. I was not disappointed -- but I could make out nothing. In an instant, I was blinded by the spray, and wet to the skin. I saw the water tearing madly down from some immense height, but could get no idea of shape, or situation, or anything but vague immensity. But when we were seated in the boat, and crossing at the very foot of the cataract -- then I began to feel what it was. Directly I had changed my clothes at the inn I went out again, taking Kate with me; and hurried to the Horseshoe Fall. I went down alone, into the very basin. It would be hard for a man to stand nearer God than he does there. There was a bright rainbow at my feet; and from that I looked up to -- great Heaven! to what a fall of bright green water! The broad, deep, mighty stream seems to die in the act of falling; and, from its unfathomable grave, arises that tremendous ghost of spray and mist which is never laid, and has been haunting this place with the same dread solemnity -- perhaps from the creation of the world. "We purpose remaining here a week. In my next, I will try to give you some idea of my impressions, and to tell you how they change with every day. At present it is impossible. I can only say that the first effect of this tremendous spectacle on me, was peace of mind -- tranquillity -- great thoughts of eternal rest and happiness -- nothing of terror. I can shudder at the recollection of Glencoe (dear friend, with Heaven's leave we must see Glencoe together), but whenever I think of Niagara, I shall think of its beauty".


Yosemite Falls: Constance Gordon Cumming

"Well, I for one have wondered far enough over the wide world to know a unique glory when I am blessed by the sight of one, and the first glimpse of this extraordinary combination of granite crags and stupendous waterfalls showed me plainly enough that it would take me weeks to make acquaintance with them, and that if I fail to do so, I shall regret it all my life....Here and there a vertical cloud of spray on the face of the huge crags told where some snow-fed stream from the upper levels had found its way to the brink of the chasm - a perpendicular fall of from 2000 to 3000 feet. The fall nearest to where we stood, yet at a distance of several miles, was pointed out as the Bridal Veil. It seemed a floating film of finest mist, on which played the loveliest rainbow lights.

...Each step in this strange valley affords a study for weeks, whether to an artist, a geologist, or any other lover of beautiful and wonderful scenes......No wonder the Indians reverence the beautiful Yo-semite Falls. Even the white settlers in the valley cannot resist their influence, but speak of them with an admiration that amounts to love. Some of them have spent the winter here, and seem almost to have enjoyed it! They say that if I could see the falls in their winter robes, all fringed with icicles, I should gain a glimpse of fairyland. At the base of the great fall the fairies build a real ice-palace, something more than a hundred feet high. It is formed by the ever falling, freezing spray; and the bright sun gleams on this glittering palace of crystal, and the falling water, striking upon it, shoots off in showers like myriad opals and diamonds....Truly these Californian Alps hold treasures of delight for lovers of all beautiful nature who, on their parts, can bring strength and energy for mountaineering - a sure foot, a steady head, and any amount of endurance". (Granite Crags, Edinburgh and London, Blackwood, 1884, I< pp. 91-5; 120-1)


Maria Theresa Longworth, Teresina in America, New York, Arno Press, 1974, Vol. I, p. 229

"One of the most stupendous marvels of the North American continent is the valley of the Yo Semite; attractive alike to the geologist, the naturalist, the artist, and the wonder-loving tourist; in a word, to mankind generally, both civilized and savage. .... For two days we rode, from early morning to dewy eve, through the most glorious country it has ever been my good fortune to traverse. Mountain rose above mountain, peak above peak; and away up, mingling with the snowy clouds, peered the no less snowy caps of the distant Sierra Nevada; and yet, looking down here and there, we could descry green valleys nestling among the mountains, and deep canons filled with dark pines...It requires at least three weeks to visit the whole of these marvellous regions; for, besides the valley, there is a twin sister, called Hetch-Hetchy, with waterfalls averaging one thousand feet in height; also the little Yo Semite, called my valley, from the fact that I was the first white woman who ever scaled its rugged fastness; and I went through the necessary formula of planting my stick and throwing up my hat, which gives me a claim to several hundred acres of land. It is six thousand feet above the great Yo Semite, and seems like a reflection of it cast up in the sky".

Vol. II, pp. 80-90

(Lost in the mountains on horseback, after a night spent in a hollow tree): We crawled on for a few paces, not knowing whether to turn to the right or to the left. Snow mountains above us, snow precipices below us, snow in front of us, snow in the rear. Snow everywhere; nothing but snow between earth and heaven! I, in my blue riding-habit, being the only dark speck upon the great white expanse, when suddenly the sun came out - and oh! The glorious sight that burst upon me!

I forgot my hunger; I forgot my danger. I seemed to escape for a moment from that spectre of death whose clammy shadow had enfolded me closer and closer during the vigils of the night.

Who amongst us has not felt something of rapturous exhilaration upon beholding the first fall of snow in the country? But here was a whole world of snow-clad beauty and grandeur. For miles and miles - yes, for fifty miles away - I could see dome after dome rise glistening up to heaven, as slanting bars of pink and amber coruscated on their sides like scintillations from morning angels’ wings...

I had to give up trying to ride, and led the horse by the bridle; and I struggled for an hour or two with nothing worse than slips and bruises, when, on a sudden, I heard a sound - oh! Joy it was! - the panting of a horse: and surely he must have a rider! We had been the last party in the Valley; but there might be some one leaving for the winter months. I raised my voice and shouted, "Help! Help!" with all the wild delirium of rapture with which this sudden promise of rescue filled my soul.


I rounded the corner with a beating heart and exultant hope, and found myself face to face with a - grizzly bear - so near that our eyes actually met; and I shall carry the memory of his expression to my dying day.

I do believe that beast saw the agony of my soul when this horrible crisis of my fate assailed me. He never attempted to touch me. He never moved the almost pitying eyes with which he regarded me.

I turned to fly - missed my footing - fell over the precipice - was caught for a moment by some Manzanita bushes growing to the rocks; then, bounding down, I struck upon a cliff, and scaur, and bramble, and rock now and again, until I lost consciousness. Of course it was the work of a second.

When I came to myself, the sun was high in heaven: I was lying in a deep ravine, the snow crimsoned with blood: and the fierce precipice looming ominously above me.

The Manzanita and the deep snow-bed had saved my life.

She starts her way home, saved "at the close of the second day, frozen and insensible, by a hunter; was carried to a shelter and cared for with all that true Christian charity which we often find in the roughest natures...

This was the end of my visit to the Great Yo-Semite.


Isabella Bird: Rocky Mountains

Isabella Bird (1831-1904), whose first visit to the United States was in 1854 (Bird, Isabella Lucy. (1879) A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. London: John Murray. pp. 91-7), returned in 1873, much improved in health and vitality after a long trip to the Sandwich Islands. She spent the summer and autumn in the West. Her goal was Estes Park, Colorado. She had made her way as far as Fort Collins, hoping to get a horse she could ride through the mountains.


Canyon, Colorado, September 12, 1873

The solitude was becoming sombre, when, after driving for nine hours, and travelling at the least forty-five miles, without any sign of fatigue on the part of the broncos, we came to a stream by the side of which we drove along a definite track, till we came to a sort of tri-partite valley, with a majestic crooked canyon 2,000 feet deep opening upon it. A rushing stream roared through it, and the Rocky Mountains, with pines scattered over them, came down upon it.

A little farther, and the canyon became utterly inaccessible. This was exciting; here was an inner world...

© Carmen Andraş (The "Gheorghe Sincai" Institute for Social Sciences and the Humanities of the Romanian Academy Targu-Mures)



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9.6. Spreading the Word: Texts and the Text

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For quotation purposes:
Carmen Andraş (The "Gheorghe Sincai" Institute for Social Sciences and the Humanities of the Romanian Academy Targu-Mures): British Travel Literature in the 19th Century. Transdisciplinarity, Genre and Gender Crossing
. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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