Journals 14.1. August Hermann Niemeyer (1754-1828) was a German theologian, author of Charakteristik der Bibel (Characteristics of the Bible), who became vice-chancellor of the University of Halle-Wittenberg. In 1807 the city of Halle fell to Napoleon’s forces, Niemeyer was deported to Paris, and the university was closed. A year later, Jérôme-Napoléon Bonaparte re-opened the university and Niemeyer was able to return and take up the position of chancellor. In 1819 he went on a journey to England, and wrote about his experiences there in Travels in Germany, the Netherlands and England. An English translation was published in 1823 under the title Travels on the Continent and in England. The translator says little about Niemeyer other than to make a comparison with other travel writers (some of whom I have covered on this website), and give the following endorsement:
The veteran traveller, Dr. Niemeyer, will neither be found to play the critic or eulogist. He describes honestly what he saw, and, as a book of facts, his work merits respect and attention.
Niemeyer himself paints a picture of a book written by popular demand:
An Opportunity of furnishing this first Volume of my general Travels was afforded me by my Journey to England in the year 1819. The public anxiety evinced for the work, and the participation taken in my feelings, were alike pleasing and affecting to me. Still, the request made to me, that I would furnish the world with something to read upon this Country, gave rise to very serious reflection, and greatly encouraged my own inclinations; for it is far easier to expect, than it is possible to furnish, much matter, at least during the short stay I made in so remarkable a country; and the observations and reflections which strike every one, even during the shortest sojourn, are already known to most people.
He is then keen to stress that his work is unbiased, in the face of claims “in various places, that these Travels had been undertaken by high appointment, for particular purposes, and even at the public expense”, claims that he strongly denies, with a little dig at those who have gone before him, for good measure:
I am just as far from giving my unconditional disapprobation of every thing to be found in those places, as to agree with the eulogiums upon them, made by some of my own countrymen, who were certainly influenced rather by the deception which the appearance of perfect order and morality occasions, than by a profound acquaintance with the whole regulations of the interior.
So why England as a destination?
From early youth no foreign country possessed so high an interest in my mind as England. Many circumstances conspired to awaken and to cherish this favourable predilection.
Niemeyer’s early education was enriched by German translations of English poetry and prose, and at school he had access to a large collection, as wide ranging as the works of Shakespeare, Milton and the English Spectator. He was fascinated by it all, in contrast with the “tasteless” French literature, and longed to be able to read the original texts rather than German translations.
I found every opportunity of speaking and writing the English language in the society of Mr. Samuel Thornton, at that time a young Englishman who was studying with me at the school, and whom, exactly 50 years after our first school acquaintance, I again met with as the first Bank Director of London. Whenever I wrote small notes to him, he gave himself the trouble to correct them, and supplied me occasionally with the lecture of those periodical works, &c. which he was in the habit of receiving from England. Thus my inclination towards every thing which came across the channel found much food in the years I passed at the University from 1771 to 1776, added to which two young people from Calcutta, who were to return to their native country, were given over to my care, in order that I might freshen their memory with the remembrance of their native language, which they had entirely forgotten. Moreover, a young Gentleman of the name of Meyer, from London, who studied at the University, and was frequently my companion, contributed no little to my improvement in the English language; as in his frequent walks with me, it was his delight to speak of his native country, of the life he had led in England, and the friend his heart had left behind, in preference to study and sciences: and this conversation took place in English.
Niemeyer developed such a fascination with Britain that he longed to visit but, as I have mentioned before when looking at other travel writing from the early 19th Century, foreign travel was not something to be taken lightly. This was long before the days of widespread tourism, and travel was expensive and potentially dangerous if not undertaken with considerable planning. In addition, foreign visitors could be looked upon with great suspicion. It didn’t help that the problems tended to get exaggerated when Niemeyer spoke to others about his desire to travel to Britain:
Every other plan of Travels appeared to me more easily to be carried into execution, than a flight over the sea. No inducement offered from companions who were equally inclined; exaggerated representations of the indispensable expenditure of time and money; even the idea which had easily influenced me, that, in order not to be received coolly, it was necessary to be a perfect master of the language – all this moderated my wishes, and weakened my expectations.
What Niemeyer really needed was an experienced traveller to accompany him to Britain, and eventually an opportunity presented itself:
A year later the long wished for company offered itself quite unexpectedly in the person of a gentleman who had been long established in the Bookselling business in London, Mr. Bohte, who was returning to England from the Eastern Fair of Leipsic. What could have been more welcome to me, to whose companionship could my anxious friends have better entrusted me, than to one who had experienced so much in his Travels, both by sea and land, who was moreover in full possession of the language, and who united the most pleasing, the most urbane, and social disposition, with a thorough knowledge of the country and its manners?
They set off together on 26th May, 1819, travelling via Halberstadt, Brunswick, Hanover, Bremen, Oldenburg and East Friesland. On 5th June they reached Holland, arriving in Rotterdam on 11th. The sea crossing to England lasted from 12th to 15th June. Although Niemeyer describes his journey across Europe in some detail, I will be focussing on his time in England for the purposes of this series of articles. We will pick things up next time with his first impressions of England, that wonderful moment where he finally arrives in the country he had always wanted to visit, and his arrival in London.
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