Book Review: Eothen – Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East – by William Kinglake

Eothen – Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East by William Kinglake

My thanks to Eland Publishing for a copy of this book – parts of it I loved with a passion, other parts I wanted to tear out and jump on. But I never wanted to give up.

William Kinglake is so young and opinionated that it’s a shock to meet him, especially with two centuries of hindsight. It’s like meeting the worst of the British Empire in one person. His voice is brilliant, bizarre, unbelievable in places, and stunningly arrogant in others.

I recommend reading the preface of the book before setting off with the 25-year-old, because here he makes it clear that he is writing Eothen for his close, slightly younger friend, Eliot Warburton, who has similar travels planned. (Warburton was born in 1810, and Kinglake in 1809).

“Heaven forbid that I should talk to my own genial friend as though he were a great and enlightened Community or any other respectable Aggregate!”

Kinglake tells us that his focus will not be on the sights and statistics of the places he visits, for those have been covered by others, but rather on impressions and experiences en route.

” … it seems to me that this egotism of a traveller, however incessant, however shameless and obtrusive, must still convey some true idea of the country through which he has passed …”

His trip includes Turkey, Cyprus, the Holy Land, and the cities of Cairo and Damascus. We’re in for a ride, and most of it uncomfortable. Here’s his description of the morning after a flea-infested night:

“… After passing a night like this you are glad to gather up the remains of your body long, long before morning dawns. Your skin is scorched, your temples throb, your lips feel withered and dried, your burning eyeballs are screwed inwards against the brain …”

The plague proves to be another major inconvenience, and even he has to admit to being unnerved by the situation in Cairo. He writes the following in a footnote:

“*There is some semblance of bravado in my manner of talking about the Plague. I have been more careful to describe the terrors of other people than my own. The truth is, that during the whole period of my stay at Cairo I remained thoroughly impressed with a sense of my danger …”

He does have some interesting observations on the differences in the quarantine arrangements that he comes across, and in the various theories of how the plague was spread. Reading it I had the strange sensation of rushing forward into today’s situation.

“… Mr Banker received me with a sad and dejected look, and not ‘with open arms’, or with any arms at all, but with – a pair of tongs!”

Everywhere his opinions on others  are unflinching. Here is his description of some Bedouin women:

“… the truth is that except when we refer to the beautiful devotion of the mother to her child, all the fine things we say and think about women apply only to those who are tolerably good-looking or graceful. These Arab women were not within the scope of the privilege …”

There are some encounters that impress him, but only one that makes him hold his cheek.

“You dare not mock at the Sphynx.”

She gets a whole chapter. It is brief.

So … do I recommend the book? Yes! But be warned, you will be in the company of an entitled old-Etonian, abroad in the age of Empire. Perhaps that is the point – he is the real subject of Kinglake’s book. The man on the cover will give you a feel for just how supercilious it’s all going to get.

I found it an uncomfortable, fascinating read.

There is some useful information at the end of the book on the historical landscape in 1834, and on the author and those he mentions.

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2020


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