In 1848 Loiterings in Europe was published by Harper & Brothers, New York. Subtitled Sketches of Travel in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, and Ireland, it was written by John W. Corson, MD. It is a magnificent travel journal, and I will explain why: I would estimate that 99% of journals from around this time are little more than emotionless descriptions of landmarks. It is a rarity to find an author who really engaged with the experience of travel and wrote with some depth of feeling, and Corson was one such author. This was Corson’s only book, and that is a great shame.
I always like to provide a little bit of background about journal authors, but this one was a hard nut to crack. Shock, horror, he has no Wikipedia page (that’s a joke – a don’t do all my research on Wikipedia. No really, I don’t!). In fact, type Dr John W Corson into Google and you will find little other than listings of his one and only book. After much searching from one document to another, I have managed to put together a picture of Dr Corson’s life (and after many hours finally found out what the “W” stands for, of which I was nearly despairing!)
John Wesley Corson was born in 1816, in Canada. His father, to whom he dedicates the book (without providing his name, which would have saved me a couple of hours!) was the celebrated minister, Reverend Robert Corson, the subject of a biography Father Corson, or The Old Style Canadian Itinerant by John Carroll (1879). John moved to New York to study medicine, graduated with honours, and became a physician at Brooklyn City Hospital, and subsequently an attending physician at the New York and Eastern Dispensaries.
His book started life as a series of columns in the Christian Advocate and Journal, under the initials JWC, but the articles form only a part of the text of the book. He was married to Susan Condit, four years his junior, and his twilight years were spent in East Orange, New Jersey, until his death in 1882, outliving his father by only four years.
The preface to Loiterings in Europe explains Corson’s ethos behind his writing rather well, and outlines the themes and aims of his writing, which carry through the work.
When about to embark for Europe, on a professional tour, some two years since, he was unexpectedly solicited by friends, to whose kindness he had been previously indebted, to write a few traveling letters for a leading journal, in which they were interested. He consented to serve anonymously, and thus appeared the earlier part of this volume.
Those most interested happened to be persons of strong religious feelings, and he was thus naturally led occasionally to express his more serious thoughts. Shielded by a convenient mask, on the other hand, each letter was a sort of confidential circular to certain friends in the secret. He indulged at will in detailing trifling personal adventures, as a relief to graver matters, and felt little restraint upon innocent playfulness. These buoyant feelings were as balm to spirits before depressed by care and bereavement, and he rather courted them.
Having thus begun, like some people in talking, he found it hard to stop. He journeyed farther, and wrote more than he expected; and a combination of circumstances induced him afterward to finish the series in a small volume.
The free, gossiping style of the commencement was continued from choice. It seemed the most natural. He noted every change of cloud or sunshine that came over him, to convey to others the sensations of traveling. Such things are commonly read as substitutes for the exercise itself; and he treated the reader as an intimate companion, telling him of his joys and sorrows, not to be egotistical, but to make the illusion more complete, and carry him, as it were, to the spot. He hopes such confidence will not be abused. The better to accomplish his purpose, he sometimes designedly “loitered” over the merest trifles. Like a landscape painter, if you please, he tried to make the picture more truthful by interspersing, among greater objects, blades of grass, insects, pebbles, and creeping flowers.
Corson began his voyage in the winter of 1846, sailing across the Atlantic on board the New York packet ship St. Nicholas. Unlike many travellers from America in the 19th Century, his first destination was France, not England, although he was pleased to catch ‘a glimpse of the land of our forefathers’ en route. A common theme of travel journals such as Corson’s was the hardship of sea travel, with its inevitable boredom and sea-sickness.
Who but the initiated can describe the sensation of intolerable weariness — that second sea-sickness in the shape of a sort of subdued salt-water hydrophobia — that is felt in the latter half of a long voyage? Every source of amusement seemed exhausted. Some of us had practiced the wildest and the tamest ship gymnastics; others had desperately turned students, and perpetrated barbarous French and frightful German, or perseveringly worried the poor sailors in learning their alphabet; and several had conspired to torment an inoffensive piano in the cabin, by giving nautical concerts, whose vehemence astonished even the performers.
Matters were always made far worse in the event of a storm at sea. The ship carrying Corson across the Atlantic had been met with poor weather conditions for the whole passage, with rain or snow every day, but about two-thirds through the voyage things took a definite turn for the worse.
In the edge of the evening the wind increased, the clouds grew blacker, and on came our last and most terrific storm. I had often read of such things, but I confess the reality far surpassed all my former conceptions. There seemed something ominous in the trumpet-voice of the captain giving orders amid the din of the tempest — the seamen hurrying in gangs about the decks, hastily furling the sails and dangling wildly among the slippery yards and rigging. The uproar increased, and as you timidly staggered toward some object for support, you felt the ship heaving, rolling, and plunging like a thing of life, contending with a merciless enemy; and suddenly, with a booming crash, a sea flooded her decks — you looked hastily around to see if any were swept overboard, and you felt beneath your feet a recoiling tremor, that seemed to run through every panel and timber. You strove to look abroad, but all was impenetrable darkness, relieved only by fitful flashes of lightning, and the foam of the angry waves; you essayed to listen, and a continuous stunning roar, as of a hundred cataracts, added fearfully to a scene that was enough to make the stoutest hearts to quail. Below, our ladies shrieked; the most boisterous became thoughtful and sad; and faces that a few hours before were wreathed in smiles, grew horror-stricken and pale. Death is terrible enough on the softest couch, and soothed by those we love; but the prospect of suddenly sinking far from friends — of gasping and buffeting with mountain waves — of having your limbs mangled by the shark, or your requiem sung by howling winds, and the sea-weed for a winding-sheet, has in it something peculiarly appalling. While the storm still raged, a little group might be seen in one part of the cabin, drinking in, with strange earnestness, the beautiful and consoling passages which, in a voice faltering with emotion, one of their number read from the ninety-first Psalm.
Eventually the weather improved, and the ‘sunny hills of Normandy’ came in sight after just eighteen days at sea, a rapid crossing at the time. Corson’s first impressions of France were not overwhelmingly positive, although he was determined to find the best of every situation and every race of people he met. He found the French ‘well-meaning’ and ‘good-natured’, but he had to run the gauntlet of that great bugbear of tourists for so many years: customs.
As we came alongside of the dock, there was a rush of porters vociferating the names of the hotels, and a scramble for our baggage that would have done credit to the Roman imperial amusement of throwing silver among a crowd, or the invasion of a North River steamboat. Directly, a tall gendarme, in a blue uniform, with a sword and mustache, touched his formidable military hat, pronounced the significant words, “Passports, messieurs!” and walked off with our papers. When we went on shore, another important personage, who might have been mistaken for one of the light-fingered gentry, but for the circumstances, with that inimitable politeness peculiar to a well-bred Frenchman, went through the delicate operation of searching our pockets. There were also cool philosophical investigations as to the quality of our linen, and the state of domestic affairs in our trunks generally, at the custom-house.
France at the time had an internal passport system, from travelling between cantons. This was eventually abolished in 1862, when the popularity of rail travel had made the system too impractical to continue. The interesting thing about these documents, long before the use of photographs in international passports, is that they included a drawing a description of the traveller. Yes, really. As amazing as it sounds, somebody was actually employed to provide a quick sketch of a person for his passport. The problem was that tourists such as Corson were about as happy with their passport sketches as people are nowadays with their passport photos!
One feels rather queer in being stared out of countenance while having his likeness taken by artists who (not being well paid for it) flatter so little. I feared that mine was alarmingly faithful, and so, without scanning it, hastily put it safely into my pocket. A youthful fellow-passenger, however, afterwards kindly obliged me with a glance at his, and I found that they had taken an exact inventory of his flowing locks, forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, and features generally. As illustrating their singular minuteness, I may mention that, for want of other amusement on ship, and perhaps to prepare for the continent, he had been cultivating the downy symptoms of a mustache; and the passport described his beard by the use of a glowing French term usually applied to the birth of flowers.
The second part of this article, in which Corson takes a tour of France and then travels across to England, will follow next Monday. In the meantime, there will be another “snippet” to enjoy. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the “follow” button on the right of the screen.