A curiously engrossing collection of travel writings from the 17th and 18th centuries, collected by the deceased author of the Aubrey/Maturin series.
The writings, grouped in a somewhat forced fashion by travels pleasant, unpleasant or exotic, preserve their antiquated spelling and stylistic flourishes, providing readers both challenge and hilarity. The purpose of the collection is to inform and edify, as well as entertain and titillate, yet some extracts are so fantastic—such as the description of the queen’s jewel-laden outfit in “The Nabob’s Lady” (1745) or the decision by the starving crew in “The Distresses of the Unfortunate Crew of the Ship Anne and Mary in the Year 1759” to cast lots to eat one passenger in order to support the rest—that they stretch credulity. Lady Craven’s percolating letters to her second husband, the Margrave of Anspach, recording her extensive travels from Vienna to the relatively unknown Crimea, form a marvelous account of provincial and courtly mores, as well as a reflection of her egotism. Dr. Gemelli-Careri’s descriptions of carnival in Venice (“Travels Through Europe,” 1686) are ironical and pedantic. Philip Thicknesse gives some precious “General Hints to Strangers Who Travel Through France”—e.g., “Never let a Frenchman with whom you live, or with whom you travel, be master. An Englishman cannot possibly live twenty-four hours with a Frenchman who commands.” For sheer strange reading, there are ambassador Sir Thomas Roe’s depictions of Eastern courts in “The Mogul’s Birthday” and John Bell’s elaborate “Hunting with the Emperor K’Ang Hsi,” recording a long day of killing everything from hares to tigers. Plenty of shipwrecks, from the Arctic to Virginia, round out the adventures.
O’Brian’s fans and armchair travelers will naturally gravitate to this eclectic work.