Updated: Mar 15
“It so happened that most of the people with whom I had anything to do during my stay at Cairo were seized with plague, and all these died.”
Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake, must be one of the most quotable books I’ve read in recent years. It took Kinglake almost a decade to complete it and after reading it any reader will see why, it’s a perfectly crafted classic of the travel writing world replete with tales of derring-do, of adventure and a narrative rich with brag and bombast lampooning the travellers of the time who sought to establish themselves as experts in all manner of life. With the rakish verbosity of a Victorian cad, his utterly ruthless depiction of expatriate Lady Hester Stanhope is not only vital reading for its comedic value but also establishes his own character having misadventures reminiscent of those written over a hundred years later in George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books. The character Kinglake creates for himself is one that in many respects is the classic bully, bearing the air of superiority, but completely ignorant of the seriousness of the situation around him (the plague in Cairo being the most obvious example) or out of his depth in almost every situation, relying on his Dragoman to do his bullying and trading on his behalf.
Kinglake is not only lampooning travellers of his era, his commentary on religion and culture is just as relevant as it was then. Looking at recent events in the Middle East we can see elements of their origins set out in Eothen, the echoes of which are prevalent in the world today. However, amid the narrative and bombast is a stylish and elegant book that understands the nature of the travellers Kinglake describes. Passages such as “for wherever man wanders, he still remains tethered by the chain that links him to his kind” offer a view so obvious that it could almost be missed, but such is the power of Kinglake’s writing that it explains, simply, the attitude of many of the travellers who take ‘Queen and Country’ wherever they go, something synonymous with the imperialistic culture of the nineteenth century where many felt that ‘Britain ruled the world’.
Receiving my copy of Eothen was a perfect way to begin my 2020 reading for The Pilgrim. If you’re not already aware of Alexander William Kinglake’s classic tale of his travels through Europe, Asia and the Middle East it’s not surprising given the vast array of travel writing from that era, however, Eothen stands as a Jewel in the Crown of nineteenth-century travel writing.
• Eothen by Alexander William Kinglake is published by Eland (£12.99). To order a copy go to www.travelbooks.co.uk