European travelogues in context

11 June 2018

Dr. Sandra Vlasta joined the Gutenberg Institute for World Literature and Written Media of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in October 2017 with a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship.  Here, the Viennese expert in comparative literature is currently working on her research project on European Travelogues in Context. The Socio-Political Dimension of Travelogues in Europe: 1760-1850.

At the moment, she is reading A Winter in Mallorca by French author George Sand. "In November 1838, Sand – an emancipated woman from Paris – travelled to the island with her lover Chopin and her two children," Dr. Sandra Vlasta explains the background. "Back then, Mallorca was not yet a tourism spot and there was not much infrastructure. Sand reports on her everyday travels, on how difficult it is to find accommodation. In short, although she finds the landscape of the island wonderful, she is repelled by the locals. She bemoans the low standard of living of the peasantry and the aristocracy. Criticism of religion is also a key theme. She recounts how superstitious the Catholic population is. The underlying implication is perfectly obvious: we are different, it is not like this in our case."

Sand's decision to sojourn on Mallorca was certainly ill-fated. "Nobody on the island knew she was a famous author. She was living with a man to whom she was not married. Chopin suffered from tuberculosis and the Mallorcans noted the fact that despite his illness, he still had contact with the children. They were concerned he would infect them." After 98 days, Sand and Chopin left the island, disappointed with what they had found there. They had hoped for more from the trip. However, the book about it, Un Hiver à Majorque, proved to be a best-seller – like so many travelogues from this era.

Literary travel reports

Dr. Sandra Vlasta joined Mainz University in October 2017. The expert in comparative literature had received a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship for her European Travelogues in Context project at the Department of General and Comparative Literature of the Gutenberg Institute for World Literature and Written Media at JGU. Now she sits in the newly opened cafeteria of the Philosophicum building and tells us about it. Vlasta hails from Vienna and you can hear it. Smiling, she remarks that her typical accent can be a real bonus in the Rhineland, where they like to hear Viennese dialect spoken.

Over the next two and a half years – and then most likely way beyond her fellowship – Vlasta will be focusing on travel literature produced in the years 1760 to 1850. "Before this period, most travelogues were compiled by diplomats and explorers. They focused on gathering and recording information. Their approach was mainly based on a positivist outlook."

However, this would subsequently change. Authors discovered the travelogue for themselves. "In 1800, the genre was immensely popular and publishers wanted to give the audience the widest possible choice. " It was no longer enough to simply write a travel description without skill or artistic flair. Authors increasingly came to ask themselves exactly how they should write it when they decided to write a travelogue. They tried to make their own inroads into the genre." They explored the possibilities of form and content, summarized events and observations using literary techniques, and even smuggled the fictitious into the factual.

Nation building und civic individuality

The authors also brought their own individual personality and social background into play. "There are frequent discourses on identity," says Vlasta. And this is precisely what she finds interesting. She sees travel writing as an important factor impinging on the process of political and societal changes of that era.

"Around 1800, travel writing was so popular not least because it accompanied and helped to shape the political process of nation building and the concomitant development of collective identities so effectively, but also because it did precisely the same in the case of the process of the evolution of the bourgeoisie and the formation of individual identities. A travelogue describes these identities, but it also negotiates them. I am interested in how this is done as well as the language, form, and content that the authors employ to achieve this."

For her project, Vlasta is examining a large number of extensive texts and is practicing reading the material with a specific focus on the corresponding discourse. She intends to determine what it is that characterizes these texts, how they are structured, and what their generic features are. "How do they handle multilingualism or other texts that they quote?" she asks, picking out a specific detail.

Given the abundance of material, Vlasta focuses on works by authors. "In this context I can count on certain levels of linguistic awareness and skills, and that the writing will be conscious with a relatively high level of reflection. It makes these texts even more informative."

Hugo, Dickens, Schlegel

Her comparative approach is something that makes Vlasta's project truly unique. Many scholars focus on texts from a particular country or cultural group, whereas Vlasta compares texts by a wide range of different European authors. "I recently read Heinrich Heine's Harzreise," she says. Books by Fanny Lewald, Victor Hugo, and Charles Dickens are also on her agenda. "I am about to hold a seminar with Professor Eckel on the topic of my project. This will be about Friedrich Schlegel’s Reise nach Frankreich."

Professor Winfried Eckel is Vlasta's mentor at the JGU Gutenberg Institute for World Literature and Written Media.  He helped her prepare her application for the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship. Vlasta chose to come to Mainz to conduct her research here because Comparative Literature at JGU has its own department. "The intercultural approach of JGU is something that also appealed to me. Here they have the Center for Intercultural Studies, for example."

Just over four months ago, Vlasta decided to give a lecture and workshop in order to present her project at JGU. Professor Tim Youngs from Nottingham Trent University came as a guest. "He is an internationally recognized specialist in the field of travelogues and a partner in the project." He is also in charge of the Center for Travel Writing Studies at his university, which is where Vlasta will be working for a few months.

Thoughts on German unification

Vlasta plans to record the results of her work in a comprehensive publication. "The first chapters will be ready in two and a half years," she hopes. "I'm planning a general overview for the first part, then I will take a closer look at five or six travelogues." A conference will also be held at the end of her fellowship.

But that's way off in the future. Now it's time for the seminar. Schlegel’s Reise nach Frankreich is on today's program. "It begins in Dresden and tells us a great deal about Germany’s mythical roots, about Wartburg," she quickly adds. "Just like many German intellectuals around 1800, he too reflects on the possibility of German unification."