Male and Female Travelers

Heather Mah

While reading Helen Maria Williams' "A Tour in Switzerland" and William Coxe's "Sketches of the Natural, Civil, and Political State of Swisserland," I find myself captivated by Williams' description of the Rhine Falls, while feeling indifferent by Coxe's account of the same landscape. It strikes me how much the Rhine Falls influences Williams' emotions and her avid imagination, yet it seems to have a subtle effect on Coxe. In her introduction, Williams mentions that "the descriptive parts of this journal were rapidly traced with the ardour of a fond imagination, eager to seize the vivid colouring of the moment ere it fled, and give permanence to the emotions of admiration, while the solemn enthusiasm beat high in [her] bosom" (vol. I, i). Coxe, on the other hand, seems to approach all that he sees with a detached attitude - he is simply there to observe the scenery, not dwell emotionally and spiritually within it. The obvious differences between Williams' and Coxe's approach towards the Rhine Falls show the contrast between what female and male writers value the most in their travels. Williams easily immerses herself into the magic of the moment in front of the Rhine Falls, while Coxe shows a more aloof reaction towards the Rhine Falls, preferring, instead, to observe the Rhine Falls and its surrounding areas as a whole.

Both Williams and Coxe approach Switzerland differently. Before traveling to the Rhine Falls, Williams already has preconceived expectations and fantasies about what Switzerland is like: "I [am] going to contemplate that interesting country, of which I have never heard without emotion! - I am going to gaze upon images of nature, images of which the idea has so often swelled my imagination, but which my eyes have never yet beheld" (4). Meanwhile, Coxe's purpose to travel to Switzerland is mostly to explore and to discover the mysteries of nature. Unlike Williams, Coxe does not appear to have any expectations prior to visiting Switzerland and the Rhine Falls. Rather, he takes in the view of Switzerland and the Rhine Falls with fresh eyes, noting every detail as it is presented in front of him. For Williams, she also hopes that Switzerland is the right medicine to rid her memories of the social turmoil that is occurring in Paris: "I am going to repose my wearied spirit on those sublime objects - to sooth my desponding heart with the hope that the moral disorder I have witnessed shall be rectified" (4). To Williams, Switzerland is akin to the Garden of Eden where Williams "shall no longer see liberty profaned and violated" (4), but rather delight "in the picture of social happiness which Switzerland presents" (4). With Coxe, however, he did not go to Switzerland to escape the political upheaval occurring back home. Thus, he does not expect Switzerland to provide him with a comforting haven to sooth his mind, but rather new sights to delight his eyes.

Both Williams and Coxe react to the Rhine Falls differently. Williams develops an emotional attachment to the Rhine Falls while Coxe maintains a distant connection with it.

Williams' visit to the Rhine Falls in Schaffhausen begins with a dramatic, almost suspenseful opening. The anticipated revealing of the Rhine Falls is prolonged by Williams' gradual description of the steps they took getting there: "When we reached the summit of the hill which leads to the fall of the Rhine, we alighted from the carriage, and walked down the steep bank" (Vol. I, 59). Before the dramatic revealing of the falls, Williams teased our senses by describing the sight of "the river rolling turbulently over its bed of rocks" just before reaching the cataract, and the sound of "of the torrent, towards which [they] were descending, increasing as [they] drew near" (Vol. I, 59). From here, Williams moved into describing her inner emotions and her thoughts on the presence of each natural object that makes up the scenery leading up to the much anticipated falls:

My heart swelled with expectation - our path, as if formed to give the scene its full effect, concealed for some time the river from our view; till we reached a wooden balcony, projecting on the edge of the water, and whence, just sheltered from the torrent, it bursts in all its overwhelming wonders on the astonished sight. (Vol. I, 59)

As a reader reading this passage, I experienced a feeling of nostalgia as I recalled my first visit to Niagara Falls some years ago. Like Williams, as I was approaching the falls and hearing its powerful roar, my anticipation influenced my imagination to try to create a semblance of a picture, that could explain the enormity of the violent sounds, before my eyes could witness the actual phenomena. Upon describing the spectacle of the cataract, Williams launches into incoherent descriptions that mirror the chaotic tumult of the cataract:

That stupendous cataract, rushing with wild impetuosity over those broken, unequal rocks, which, lifting up their sharp points amidst its sea of foam, disturb its headlong course, multiply its falls, and make the afflicted water roar - that cadence of tumultuous sound, which had never till now struck upon my ear - those long feathery surges, giving the element a new aspect - that spray rising into clouds of vapour, and reflecting the prismatic colours, while it disperses itself over the hills-never, never can I forget the sensations of that moment! (60)

Through this passage, one can almost feel the excitement and the enchantment that overwhelms Williams. This excitement is poured into her dramatic reflection of the relationship between nature and human beings as she marvels at how the cataract's "course is coeval with time, and [how it will continue to] rush down [the] rocky walls when [her] bosom, which throbs with admiration of [the falls'] greatness, shall beat no longer!" (61). The phenomena of the cataract inspire Williams to view it as something akin to a supreme being. To Williams, the cataract is "such [an] object [that] appear to belong to immortality" (61), and it has the power to "call the musing mind from all its little cares and vanities, to higher destinies and regions, more congenial than this world to the feelings they excite" (61). The power of the cataract succeeds in enchanting its audience into "a transient glimpse" where it is very difficult to 'tear [oneself] away" (61) from the spectacle before them. As Williams continues to espouse, "the cataract had for me a sort of fascinating power, which, if I withdrew my eyes for a moment, again fastened them on its impetuous waters" (62). All in all, Williams develops an emotional attachment to the cataract which is difficult for her to ignore.

Coxe, on the other hand, begins his journey to the Rhine Falls in a very carefree manner as he and his companions "set out on horseback, in order to see the fall of the Rhine at Lauffen, about a league from this place" (16). There is neither hint of unrestrained anticipation nor excitement for the Rhine Falls. Rather, Coxe takes his time describing the "[layout] of the road," the "fine views of the town and castle of Schaffhausen," and the "river beautifully winding through the vale" (16). Unlike Williams, Coxe does not create suspense in his writing for the Rhine Falls. There is no description of the sound of the cataract rushing down the mountain. Instead, he only mentions how he "saw the river tumbling over the sides of the rock with amazing violence and precipitation" (16), and he uses phrases such as "the sea of foam tumbling down" and "the continual cloud of spray scattered around at a great distance" (16) to further reiterate the "magnificence of the whole scenery" (16) before him. Unlike Williams, who has trouble tearing herself away from the Rhine Falls, Coxe explores all angles of the cataract. First he stands on the edge of the precipice overhanging the Rhine to "look down perpendicularly upon the cataract" (16). Then he "descended till [he is] somewhat below the upper bed of the river, and [standing] close to the fall" (16). Finally, Coxe and his companions descended "below the fall [to] cross the river" (18). While following Coxe's excursions around the Rhine Falls, I feel as if I am watching a map of the Rhine Falls unfold before my eyes. He makes a thorough account of all that he witnesses around the Rhine Falls at every angle:

On the side we came from, a castle, erected upon the very edge of the precipice, and overhanging the river; near it, a church and some cottages; on the side where I was sitting, a clump of cottages close to the fall; in the back ground, rising hills, planted with vines, or tufted with hanging woods; a beautiful little hamlet upon the summit, skirted with trees; the great body of water, that seemed as it were to rush out from the bottom of these hills. (19)

All in all, Coxe shows a very detached reaction towards the Rhine Falls. To Coxe, the Rhine Falls is only one of the objects that make up the "sublimity of this wonderful landscape" (17).

Both Williams and Coxe also differ when it comes to what part of the scenery they value the most. Williams values the scenery's natural elements more while Coxe appears to value the buildings that line the landscape more. In her observations of the Rhine Falls, Williams seems to pay extra attention on the massiveness of nature's spectacles rather than on the tiny details that also contribute to the surroundings. Beside dedicating entire paragraphs praising the majesty of the cataract, Williams also mentions how the "bare mountain lifts its head encircled with blue vapours," and how "on the right rises a steep cliff, of an enormous height, covered with wood, upon its summit stands the Castle of Lauffen" (62). In contrast to nature's "vast eternal, uncontrollable grandeur" (63), Williams is struck by the fact that, despite the imposing landscape, human industry still flourishes with their "foundries, mills, and wheels" built so close to the cataract. In relations to the cataract, Williams marvelled at how "the thundering sounds which seem calculated to suspend all human activity in solemn and awful astonishment; while the imagination of the spectator is struck with the comparative littleness of fleeting man" (63). Coxe, on the other hand, spends a great deal of time admiring the "pleasing view [of an] iron foundry close to the river" (20), the "castle, church, and cottages" (19) that overhangs the river, and "a beautiful little hamlet" (19) that sits upon the summit. To Coxe, both man-made objects and natural objects are equally important to create a harmonious, beautiful landscape.

All in all, female and male travel writers are affected differently by landscapes. Female writers focus more on how the landscape affects them emotionally, whereas male writers focus more on how the landscape will benefit them intellectually. For example, William' encounter with the Rhine Falls results in her developing an attachment to the majestic grandeur of the cataract, and she feels the cataract possesses a power that is far beyond the comprehension of mankind. Coxe, on the other hand, maintains a detached attitude towards the Rhine Falls. To Coxe, the Rhine Falls is only one of the objects that make up the sublimity of the landscape.

Works Cited

Coxe, William. Sketches of the Natural, Civil, and Political State of Swisserland. A Series of Letters to William Melmoth, Esq. London: J. Dodsley, 1779.

Williams, Helen Maria. A Tour in Switzerland. A View of the Present State of the Government and Manners of Those Cantons: With Comparative Sketches of the Present State of Paris, 2 vols. London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1798.