Friday, 15 January 2016

From London to Land's End by Daniel Defoe.

This is a book I went into blind: I'm not sure how I came across it, but it was over a year ago and I dare say it was when I was compiling the first Reading England challenge. I knew it was about Defoe's travels from London to Land's End (Cornwall: the most westerly point of England) from the title obviously, but it wasn't until I picked it up and started reading it a few days ago that I realised From London to Land's End is a section of Daniel Defoe's great travelogue: A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain, which was published between 1724 to 1727. The whole book, from what I've read, is divided into three volumes:
  • Volume I
    • Containing a Description of the Sea-Coasts of the Counties of Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, etc., as Also of Part of Cambridge-Shire
    • Containing a Description of the Sea-Coasts of Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, and of Part of Surrey
    • Containing a Description of the South Coasts of Hampshire, Wilts, Dorsetshire, Somersetshire, Devonshire, and Cornwall
  • Volume II
    • Containing a Description of the North Shore of the Counties of Cornwall, and Devon, and Some Parts of Somersetshire, Wiltshire, Dorsetshire, Gloucestershire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire
    • Containing a Description of the City of London, as Taking in the City of Westminster, Borough of Southwark, and the Buildings Circumjacent
    • Containing a Description of Part of the Counties of Middlesex, Hertford, Bucks, Oxford, Wilts, Somerset, Gloucester, Warwick, Worcester, Hereford, Monmouth, and the Several Counties of South and North-Wales
    • Containing a Description of Part of Cheshire, Shropshire, Wales, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Rutlandshire, and Bedfordshire.
  • Volume III
    • Letter VIII
    • Letter IX
    • Introduction To The Account And Description of Scotland
    • Letter XI
    • Containing a Description of the South-Western Part of Scotland; Including the City of Glasgow
    • Containing a Description of the North of Scotland
The section I read is in the final part of Volume I: Defoe begins in Middlesex, which was then London, and works his way west through Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall. It is a very interesting read - learning about pre-industrial England from one of England's own great writers. He begins in Kingston, which incidentally is where the Three Men in a Boat (Jerome K. Jerome, 1889) began:
The palace of Hampton-Court was first founded, and built from the ground, by that great statesman, and favourite of King Henry VIII. Cardinal Wolsey; and if it be a just observation any where, as is made from the situation of the old abbies and monasteries, the clergy were excellent judges of the beauty and pleasantness of the country, and chose always to plant in the best; I say, if it was a just observation in any case, it was in this; for if there be a situation on the whole river between Stanes-Bridge and Windsor-Bridge, pleasanter than another, it is this of Hampton; close to the river, yet not offended by the rising of its waters in floods, or storms, near to the reflux of the tides, but not quite so near as to be affected with any foulness of the water, which the flowing of the tides generally is the occasion of. The gardens extend almost to the bank of the river, yet are never overflow’d; nor are there any marshes on either side the river to make the waters stagnate, or the air unwholesome on that account. The river is high enough to be navigable, and low enough to be a little pleasantly rapid; so that the stream looks always chearful, not slow and sleeping, like a pond. This keeps the waters always clear and clean, the bottom in view, the fish playing, and in sight; and, in a word, it has every thing that can make an inland; or, as I may call it, a country river, pleasant and agreeable.
I shall sing you no songs here of the river in the first person of a water nymph, a goddess, (and I know not what) according to the humour of the ancient poets. I shall talk nothing of the marriage of old Isis, the male river, with the beautiful Thame, the female river, a whimsy as simple as the subject was empty, but I shall speak of the river as occasion presents, as it really is made glorious by the splendor of its shores, gilded with noble palaces, strong fortifications, large hospitals, and publick buildings; with the greatest bridge, and the greatest city in the world, made famous by the opulence of its merchants, the encrease and extensiveness of its commerce; by its invincible navies, and by the innumerable fleets of ships sailing upon it, to and from all parts of the world.
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable (1831).
And on he goes, writing of the towns and villages he passes through, adding vivid descriptions and little histories along the way. There's an interesting description of Salisbury Cathedral, which may interest Anthony Trollope fans (the cathedral inspired his Chronicles of Barchester series):
The cathedral is famous for the height of its spire, which is without exception the highest, and the handsomest in England, being from the ground 410 foot, and yet the walls so exceeding thin, that at the upper part of the spire upon a view made by the late Christopher Wren, the wall was found to be less than five inches thick; upon which a consultation was had, whether the spire, or at least the upper part of it should be taken down, it being suppos’d to have receiv’d some damage by the great storm in the year 1703; but it was resolv’d in the negative, and Sir Christopher order’d it to be so strengthened with bands of iron plates, as has effectually secur’d it; and I have heard some of the best architects say, it is stronger now than when it was first built.
Then there are his descriptions of Dorset - the pre-Thomas Hardy Dorset, for example:
The ladies here do not want the help of assemblies to assist in match-making; or half-pay officers to run away with their daughters, which the meetings, call’d assemblies in some other parts of England, are recommended for: Here’s no Bury Fair, where the women are scandalously said to carry themselves to market, and where every night they meet at the play, or at the assembly for intreague, and yet I observ’d that the women do not seem to stick on hand so much in this country, as in those countries, where those assemblies are so lately set up; the reason of which I cannot help saying, if my opinion may bear any weight, is, that the Dorsetshire ladies are equal in beauty, and may be superiour in reputation; In a word, their reputation seems here to be better kept; guarded by better conduct, and manag’d with more prudence, and yet the Dorsetshire ladies, I assure you, are not nuns, they do not go vail’d about streets, or hide themselves when visited; but a general freedom of conversation, agreeable, mannerly, kind, and good runs thro’ the whole body of the gentry of both sexes, mix’d with the best of behaviour, and yet govern’d by prudence and modesty; such as I no where see better in all my observation, thro’ the whole isle of Britain.
From London to Land's End (which was about 80 or 90 pages in my edition; I'm not certain, the pages weren't numbered) is fascinating, and it's been particularly interesting for me because of my participation in the Reading England challenge: I know some of the novels set in these various parts, but as I read more 19th Century literature I had a good opportunity to learn of the 18th Century landscape and imagine how some of it has changed these past 290 years. No doubt this letter of Defoe's is a good introduction to the whole A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain. And, another interesting detail; it was revised and printed by Samuel Richardson, the author of Clarissa, Pamela, and The History of Sir Charles Grandison, although his revisions did attract some criticism (Richardson's biographers Eaves and Kimpel, for example, wrote that a "travel book seems an odd thing for Richardson to have worked on, since few men were less travelled"). I'm hoping to get a hold of the entire Tour: it's not the easiest read, but it is a good one!


  1. i have a copy: it's a penguin. i've just dabbled in it a bit but i want to read it entire(time does fly) some time. you might be interested in Cobbet's "rural rides": a similar review of england but from a more economic pov. written in the early 19th c. as an analysis of how parliament needed to change it's corn laws and labor punitive practices. i've also only dabbled about in it, but what i've read is pretty fascinating.

    1. I'll definitely look out for that - thanks! :)

  2. I have his whole Tour of Great Britain book. It's intrigued me and scared me at the same time. I don't think he's an easy read, so perhaps it feels like it would be a task rather than a joy. In any case, thanks for the great review of part of it to get me considering it again. I'm thinking that with the Reading England challenge I need to watch a few travel shows to get the counties more visual active in my mind.

    1. Maybe it's worth just reading sections at a time - I don't know if I could sit and read the whole thing in one go! I'm going to get the whole book, but only read sections at a time. Think that would be more palatable :)


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