On Laurence Oliphant: The Most Interesting and Banal Travel Writer of All...

On Laurence Oliphant: The Most Interesting and Banal Travel Writer of All Time

Soren A. Gauger is a Canadian writer who has lived for over a decade in Krakow, Poland. He has published two books of fiction in English, a novel in Polish, and several translations of Polish writers (including Jerzy Ficowski, Bruno Jasienski and Wojciech Jagielski).

I invite you, dear reader, to try out the following anthropological experiment the next time you are on a transcontinental flight: wander about the airplane glancing at the films people are watching on their laptops. In the vast majority of cases, you will find that the Koreans will be immersed in viewing films featuring Korean faces. Likewise, people from India will be mesmerized gazing at Indian faces. The Europeans will also prefer to look at people who look like themselves and so and so forth. The conclusion that we might draw from such strikes me as quaint and a bit melancholy – we tend to become bored and restless and perhaps even irate when we do not see a bit of ourselves reflected in what we observe.

Oliphant was a travel writer, self-made man, “sexual mystic,” diplomat, “the most famous of the British gentile proto-Zionists,” and man-about-town extraordinaire. 

It is a principle worth keeping in mind as we consider Laurence Oliphant, also known by his faerie name of “Uncle Woodbine.” Oliphant was a travel writer, self-made man, “sexual mystic,” diplomat, “the most famous of the British gentile proto-Zionists,” and man-about-town extraordinaire. His many books include a rollicking Japanese memoir, a wildly satirical novel of London high society and a piece of ‘automatic writing pleading for a purified sex life,” titled: ‘Sympneumata’ or ‘Evolutionary Forces Now Active in Man’. That book was “dictated” by the ghost of his first wife, Alice le Strange, with whom he lived “without claiming the rights of a husband” (a complaint which was also to be lodged by his second wife). Their divorce occurred after she absconded with a California guru who founded the Brotherhood of New Life. But long before these swashbuckling escapades, as a young man bored with Victorian British life, he made a journey to Odessa and lands more far-flung, which are recounted in his The Russian Shores of the Black Sea.

Given the sheer oddity and, shall we say, panache of Oliphant’s later resume, we justifiably expect a highly eccentric travelogue, filled with strange misadventures and rare observations. Our hopes are only reinforced by the fact that the itinerary – covering Dubrovka, Novo Tcherkask, Taganrog, Kerch, and a host of other places – is tantalizingly unusual; it is a landscape that we would usually find to be quite unimaginable circa 1853. What a blessing, we think, to have this madman’s report on places so seldom visited by English-language writers.

He reminds us of our least favorite uncle, or a pompous windbag we once met drunk at a party. 

It is all the more astonishing, then, to find that Mr. Oliphant is the most unpalatable kind of traveler. His eye picks out only the most tiresome details, and expatiates on those at great length. He reminds us of our least favorite uncle, or a pompous windbag we once met drunk at a party. Long series of pages are devoted to such riveting subjects as industrial production, trade routes and logistics, mineral resources, and – that obsession of imperial envoys ever since Ancient Rome – the quality of roads. He is also a poor traveler because every inconvenience rankles him to the utmost extreme. Almost everything he does not recognize is judged to be barbaric or comical. His chief occupation in the uncharted places he visits is to compare them with British civilization, almost always to their detriment (though he does stoop to enjoying the local tradition of putting lemon in his tea), and to bemoan the difficulties in procuring British amenities. Yet ultimately, dammit, the reader eagerly awaits these rancorous interjections as the only bits that punctuate his endless descriptions of wheat production.

In Nijni Novgorod, he remarks “our ears were dinned by three of the loudest bells that ever called pious worshippers to church, our noses were assailed by the foulest odours that ever a Russian even could imagine, and our skins tortured by more innumerable hosts of fleas than the combined experiences of Eastern travellers ever recounted.”

In Dubrovka he is disgusted by the habit of sparsely-clad river bathing – an “apt illustration of the spirit that pervades Russian society generally, where so much attention is paid to the most hollow conventionalities, and so little to those principles of honour and morality essential to the well-being of a community.”

That sort of thing continues ad nauseum from Novo Tcherkask onwards.

Oliphant does manage to find a couple of benevolent Germans in his travels, and a kind carriage driver whose civility is rationalized by his “Scythian profile.” When he does condescend to compliment a hotel, he does so in the following terms: “At Baidar, on the other hand, we were overwhelmed with attention and civility, and charged for it in a manner that would have done credit to an English hotel-keeper.” This, we understand, is the highest praise he could bestow.

All this considered, it thus comes as no surprise that at the opening of the Odessa chapter, Oliphant is relieved to be finally visiting the city because he has heard such splendid things about it. For having visited it he could “for the future fearlessly condemn Russian hotels, discuss the merits of Russian shops, and depreciate Muscovite civilisation in general, without being told that I was not in a position to judge any of these subjects from never having been at Odessa.” We learn everything worth reading in the first two pages – Odessa’s sterling reputation throughout the Russian empire as a city that combines the virtues of Italy, France, and England. It is the “Russian Florence.” There are some disparaging remarks on transportation that follow a few encouraging and tantalizing remarks on the vast diversity of the population and the sense of freedom in the air, in the cafes. He concludes, however, that this only shows the inconsistency of the people – and we hear no more about it. The streets, we learn, are horribly dusty.

Afterward, apart from an amusing coda concerning the bureaucracy involved in leaving nineteenth century Odessa, the reader groans to find that rest of the chapter is occupied with minute discussions of the logistics of corn exportation and its significance to the economy.

A certain kind of reader might be moved to respond that his aims were different and that Oliphant was writing for pragmatic purposes. This brings us then, to our conclusion – Oliphant ultimately stands as elegant proof that pragmatism and posterity are the most uncomfortable of bedfellows. Travel writing is best done by those who will stoop to bathing in the river with the natives.