Correspondence: exploration and travel from manuscript to print 1768-1848

Project Details


The project examined the history and the writing of geographical exploration - explorers' accounts and the published versions of them - in the period c.1768-c.1848, looking particularly at the manuscript and printed material held within the John Murray Archive (National Library of Scotland). The proposal brought together research interests in book history, the history of geographical exploration and historical geography to examine a range of new mss material. The term 'correspondence' was taken to have three interrelated meanings. First, it relates to the discursive conventions through which explorers frame geographical narrative - in the form of letters, diaries, or as continuous narratives. Second, correspondence conerns the means by which explorers and geographical travellers assured themselves of the truth of what they were told - that is, the correspondence between what they were told/saw/heard and their experience of the world. This is significant since a central and problematic feature of the making of 'the modern fact' is whether travel makes truth. Third, correspondence relates to the concordance between mss as written and the printed narrative and between the variant editions of that printed account. In sum, 'correspondence' is a matter of EPISTOLARY CONVENTION, EPISTEMOLOGICAL PRACTICE and EDITORIAL AGENCY.

Layman's description

The projects examined travel narratives produced by the British publisher John Murray between the late eighteenth century (the voyages of Cook and others then 'opening'up' the Oceanic worlds to European view) and the Arctic narratives surrounding the death of Franklin and polar discovery in the mid nineteenth century. The project focused on a variety of unpublished mss derived from the work of the John Murray publishing house and the printed versions of these mss accounts, held in the National Library of Scotland. This matters because we know that travel narratives were of great interest and of great importance and we know, too, that publishers and authors modified their work after they returned: to suit audiences, to modify their own role as 'explorer-author' and so on. But we know little about how and why and when this happened: for different authors, for fifferent periods, for different places in the world. The project looked at questions of epistolarity (how did people write), at matters of epistemology (how did authors convience themselves and others of the truth claims of what they wrote about), and at editing, how and why Murray (and others) modified the words of explorers before and after they got into print.

Key findings

Our original aims and objectives were three-fold. With reference ot the mss correspondence and printed works of books of travel published by the leading publisher John Murray in the period c.1768-1848, we set out, first, to examine questions of epistolarity (how and were different styles of writing were undertaken and to consider the connection between narrative form in mss and printed version and in different printed form); second, to examine the epistemological bases to the truth claims made by the authors of travel narratives; and third, to examine questions of editing/editorship and editorial redaction, using these terms to mean both the detailed individual actions taken by Murray staff over singhle works and, more generally, to identify the roles played by 'non-authors' in the authorial and publishing process. We made significant advances in each respect.
It is clear, for example, that what one nineteenth-century explorer and Murray author, Hugh Clapperton, called 'on-the-spot' writing was widely undertaken and in a varieyt of ways: daily journals were often (in his case and more widely) transposed/copied into a log book (or vice versa) in which records of events were, later and elsewhere, then given narrative form wherein events (chronology) became a travel narrative (as a sequence of actions later reflected upon). In may instances, however - and this did not vary by period or by geographical region - the work was then redacted further by the author and/or by a further person (sometimes Murray, sometimes his 'agent' John Barrow where travels were sponsored by the British Admiralty) before publication. In this context, we commonly found that what was undertaken as 'in-the-field' travel writing was altered later and elsewhere: to make the sequence of events clearer, or to advertise the arduousness of the travel, or to minimise the authorial 'voice' - in one case (George Bacvk, the polar explorer), at Murray's insistence over audience expectations.
The truth claims to travel writing were determined most often by authorial claims to personal immediacy and observatioin, proficiency in instrument use, and survey: this is what we came to think of as 'authorial warrant and credibility' by direct encounter. Direct encounter included seeing things for yourself, talking to natives, collecting, mapping and so on. Different parts of the world required different strategies here. Polar work was often restricted by the ships' and authors' immobility. In the Near East and in areas of Central Asia, travel in disguise was vital but this raised (and authors knew this), problems over the moral bases to their tales. [How can you trust someone to tell the truth when they have disguised themselves, and so deceived others, in securing the facts of that truth?]. To convince audiences/readers of the validity of their experience, many authors chose to 'write themselves out' as it were: that is, to effect a strategy of authorial effacement which diminished them as 'authors' and gave authorial agency to others. We are thus presnted with interesting questions as to who, and on what grounds, we may call the author of these travel narratives and works of exploration.
It is clear that Murray the publisher was also Murray the editor and, even, Murray the author. The findings show numerous instances of Murray advising about content order, emphasis to be placed on certain order/content and in one rich instance (concerning the publication of the archaeologist Austen Henry Layard), we have evidence of sequential amendments from mss to first proof, from first proof to first print, from first edition to later editions - as well as audience reaction in reviews.
Effective start/end date1/03/0830/06/10


  • AHRC: £209,308.00


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