Comparisons between two travel accounts, Helen Maria Williams' A Tour in Switzerland and Lady Morgan's Italy

Jasmina Odor

Both Helen Maria Williams and Lady Morgan are important representatives of the genre of Romantic travel literature. These two accounts were published more than twenty years apart, and while they regard different countries, thematic and stylistic parallels and contrasts can, not surprisingly, be established between the two works. Social and cultural commentary, as well political and historical criticism, are prominent in these two accounts. Another point of comparison is the theme of the relation of man with nature. Williams' style leans toward the sentimental tradition in travel writing; it is personalized and her perceptions tend to be mediated through the emotions. Lady Morgan's descriptions rely more on intellectual rather than emotional elements, and are often polemical, while also remaining self-consciously subjective.

Both writers register powerful emotion at seeing the Alps for the first time. Both also make an effort to give this important moment a particular context. Williams stresses the subjective, that is, the importance of the Alps in her own personal 'narrative,' and in this way contextualizes for the reader the emotional rapture, or 'transport,' which she relates to us of the moment of the first view: "It was not without the most powerful emotion that, for the first time, I cast my eyes on that solemn, that majestic vision, the Alps! - how often had the idea of those stupendous mountains filled my heart with enthusiastic awe! - so long, so eagerly, had I desired to contemplate that scene of wonders, that I was unable to trace when first the wish was awakened in my bosom - it seemed from childhood to have made a part of my existence" (56). Lady Morgan contextualizes her own observations of the Alps somewhat differently. She stresses previous travel accounts of the passage of the Alps, and contrasts her own experience against them - accounts by Benvenuto Cellini, Lady Montagu, Horace Walpole, and others. While their accounts of the journey describe terrors and struggles, using "terms which seem to exhaust the details of possible danger" (31), her own passage was remarkably easy and comfortable. Unlike the personal dramatization of the encounter with the Alps that we find in Williams, Lady Morgan's encounter, though emotionally powerful, is situated as one in a series of travel accounts, continuing in an established tradition of travel writing. It is these previous descriptions rather than personal sensibilities that make it "a dreary thing to rise with the dawn" (32) on the day she is to cross the Alps.

Despite, or rather following from, this initial contextualizing, Morgan goes on to praise the immediacy of nature, and firsthand experience of nature, as against the unreliability of second-hand descriptions of that experience. She asserts that nature always surpasses whatever descriptions writers may grant it; she also seems to be reacting against previous travel accounts when she says, "Whoever has wandered far, and seen much, has learned to distrust the promises of books; and (in respect of the most splendid efforts of human labour) must have often felt how far the unworn expectation starts beyond its possible accomplishment. But nature never disappoints" (33). In this passage there is an echo of Williams, who expresses disappointment in the character of the people of Switzerland, but not in landscape: "the scenery of the country more than fulfilled the glowing promise of imagination. With respect to the character and manners of the people, a residence of several weeks at Basil somewhat chilled my enthusisasm" (5). She continues on the next page, "But if I was disappointed, it was perhaps my own fault, or rather the fault of former travellers….Imagination places stock-jobbers and usurers with as much reluctance amidst the grandeur of Swiss scenery, as it would fill with a misshapen Gothic image the niche of a Grecian temple" (6).

An important difference shows up between these two authors' impressions of the relation of man to nature. Williams expresses the belief found in a number of other Romantic texts, that the mind is elevated by contemplation of natural wonders, and through it transcends its 'earthly' limitations. She writes of seeing the Rhine Falls at Schaffhausen, that "such objects appear to belong to immortality; they 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). Lady Morgan, face to face with the Alps, expresses a sharply contradicting view: "Here experience teaches the falsity of the trite maxim, that the mind becomes elevated by the contemplation of nature in the midst of her grandest works, and engenders thoughts 'that wander through eternity.' The mind in such scenes is not raised. It is stricken back upon its own insignificance" (34).

Yet this decisive stand of Lady Morgan's blurs with some other features that do resemble those of Williams as to effects of nature on man. A notion of 'transport,' of being emotionally overwhelmed by contemplating something in nature, similar to that of Williams (and characteristic of much Romantic travel writing) is evidenced in Morgan's writing as well. One example is a description of an occurence that took place on her and her party's ascent to Vesuvius. Once arrived at the summit, they encounter a "group of English dandies" (290), a coincidence at which Lady Morgan expresses her not-manevolent chagrin:"This was very pleasant, but it was very provoking! To have travelled so far! - to have endured all the exhaustion of inordinate fatigue, and other annoyances equally out of the sphere of daily habits of ease, in the vain hope of snatching at a new and a strong sensation (the great spell of existence) - of meeting nature, all solitary and sublime, in the awful process of one her profoundest mysteries! - and then, to be put off with a rechaussee fo the St. Carlos party of the preceding evening" (290; 19). The passage relates a desire for emotional transport, but also hints at adopting a participatory ethic toward nature (one that would contradict her earlier stance), suggested by 'snatching the spell of existence' and 'meeting nature.'

Other parallels can be drawn between the two writers' conceptions of the relation of man with nature. Morgan's assertion that "masses like these sublime deformities [speaking of the Alps], starting out of the ordinary proportions of nature, in their contemplation reduce man to what he is - an atom" (34) echoes Williams' "comparative littleness of fleeting man, busy with his trivial occupations, contrasted with the view of nature in all her vast, eternal, uncontrollable grandeur" (63). Morgan goes on to articulate the relation of man to nature as an alienated one: "In such regions nothing is in conformity with him, all is at variance with his end and being" (34); the characteristics of man's existence are in conflict with nature. This sentiment is expressed by Williams in several passages; in contemplating the Alps she speaks of "solitudes of nature, where her eternal laws seem at all seasons to forbid more than the temporary visits of man" (57). She describes journeying through the Reuss valley, which is plagued by avalanches, as "advancing into a country where man is obliged to be continually at war with nature" (154).

William's commentary on the burghers and peasants at the city of Basil is motivated by a social consciousness and a politically liberal disposition, not unlike the disposition that comes through in Lady Morgan's accounts of Italy. Williams' style, however, is less polemical than Lady Morgan's. Of the city/canton of Basil, Williams notes that "[t]his latter class [peasants] is in a state of complete degradation, excluded from all political rights, can exercise no trade" (97). She further decries that the manufacturer of cottons and ribbons "has no right over the produce of his labour, no power to dispose of what he has acquired by the sweat of his brow and the toil of his hands" (104). Her description of the situation gives recognition to the oppressed class and criticizes the burghers and governors who perpetrate these injustices. Her view is somewhat particularized, but also sentimentalized: "in vain the father of a family may cultivate his field of flax…in vain his wife may spin, his infants turn the wheel which winds the thread, and he himself weave the woof; the web when woven is not at his disposition" (104). This sentimentalizing is present in other instances of Williams' socio-political critique. In describing the government of the Levantine Valley, as in her description of the town of Basil, Williams is sensitive to the plight of the people, the ruled rather than the rulers. She notes that the inhabitants, "who are all Italians….are under complete subjection to the democracy of the Canton of Uri" (198). Faithful to her style, she uses dramatic conventions to give an expression to their plight: "Once in four years the inhabitants of this Valley behold the cortege of their new sovereign descending from St. Gothard, perhaps with somewhat of the same sensations as the defenceless timid bird views the downward flight of the pouncing hawk, darting on his prey" (199).

Morgan's social commentary, however, tends more towards intellectualizing than toward emotion and sensibility. In Genoa she sees a band of galley-slaves; her reaction to the sight initially describes emotion - she calls it "a heart-striking and deplorable exhibition" (235). However, she quickly moves beyond the emotional to a more sweeping/cerebral view; from this point of view, which stems from a socio/historical context as Morgan sees it, the horror of this 'exhibition' is lessened by comparison to a more deplorable Continental practice, that of solitary confinement in dungeons. In this comparison, the galley-slave emerges as "an object of envy" (236). External objects observed by Morgan often serve as little more than starting points for general observation or a historical argument. The expression of enjoyment at the comfort of "that broad, smooth, magnificent road" (32) leads her to arguments about the benefits of road-making, and criticism of the Church's monopolizing of it. She supplants her own constructs, both imaginative and intellectual/polemical, in the place of that which she is contemplating - the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the palaces of Genoa, the Tarpeian rock, the band of galley-slaves. In observing the houses of Pompeii, she instructs us on how to interpret their appearance: "The inference to be drawn from the smallness and incommodiousness of the private houses is, that the ancients, like the modern population of Rome and Naples, lived more abroad than in the house" (292). The painting on the facades of the palaces of Genoa are not described in visual detail, which may have been one approach, but instead prompt an argument about the institutes of art and the nature of public demand (306). A visit to the Museo Capitolino in Rome breeds the remark that "plunder was ever the principle of the Romans" (115). She solidifies the Coliseum in the reader's memory as "the last and noblest monument of Roman grandeur, and Roman crime" (125). A memorable representation of Naples, encountered as her first view of the city from some distance, is Morgan's imaginative construct of it as "some fabled city of the east, the dream of Arabian poets" (278). In this way her Italy is very much a mediated Italy.