Dedicated editors/biographers and small presses sometimes turn up the most exciting books. This post concerns the three books of travel edited and compiled by Gerald Brisch from the travel diaries of Mabel Bent, née Mabel Hall-Dare.
Brisch’s website expertly lays out not only the journeys of Theodore Bent and his wife Mabel, but also brings the reader closer to the family circle of the Bents. I first found the website through the Photo Album, for Alice Tupper is among Mabel’s relatives, and she’s also among the Smith and Gosling relatives (by the 1860s). Had Mary Gosling lived beyond the early 1840s, she would have had Alice’s brother Gaspard Le Marchant Tupper as her son-in-law. So it was a thrill to find Mabel’s Aunt Alice, and to find more of Mabel herself, for it is obviously that the two were known to the Spencer-Smith family.
But back to Mabel Bent, as she became after her marriage in 1877.
‘I must begin my Chronicle somewhere if I am to write one at all and as in this matter I am selfish enough to consider myself of the first consideration because I write to remind myself in my old age of pleasant things (or the contrary) I will begin now.’
The place was “Room 2 of the Hôtel de Byzance, Constantinople, in February 1886.”
The three volumes in the series The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent (1883-1898) are:
- World Enough, and Time: Greece and the Levantine Littoral (volume I)
- Make Our Sun Stand Still: The African Journeys (volume II)
- Deserts of Vast Eternity: Southern Arabia and Persia (volume III)
As you can see just from the titles, the Bents were not the “average Victorian traveler.” They ventured far from their Ireland and England homes. Theodore’s writings exist, published in his lifetime, but it’s Mabel’s eye-witness accounts of life on the road that interests me. Who could resist this opening, written in Cairo in 1885 (from vol. II):
“I did not think the journey here would have given me anything to write about, but it was so bad that I will begin by saying that it was snowing when we embarked at Dover, and so dark and thick that we had to stop for sounding near Calais as the pier head could not be seen. … We were 4 English in the corners [of the compartment] and in the middle a French lady for Monte Carlo who scolded us well in good English and French for not giving up a corner…. [W]ith relief we parted from her in Paris.”
These delightful journals are in the archives of the Joint Library of the Hellenic and Roman Societies, University of London. Brisch has admirably fleshed out the journals, with introductions, photos and maps, and generous footnotes. These are big volumes, each well over 350 pages. Other texts, concerning the couple’s travels and published writings, are best outlined on Brisch’s website.
In volume III, on Arabia and Persia, is reproduced a rather surprising snippet from none other than a newspaper in Salt Lake City (in 1901), writing about Mabel herself as
“one of the most prominent members of that little band of eminent ladies who, fearing nothing, spend the greater portion of their time exploring uncivilized lands in the pursuit of knowledge. For years now Mrs. Bent has been engaged in travel. In the company of her distinguished husband she risked her life a hundred times, and since his death she has been no less active…”
A unique life brought again to life because of surviving journals. Reading about the diaries – how clear the writing is, for instance – and seeing samples (even of doodles) is part of the delight in these books. The Bents were early members of the Hellenic Society (founded in 1879). The Society has a treasure in these journals. Mabel was an avid photographer (the Photo Album includes a picture of Mabel behind the camera!), so it is interesting to hear Mabel discuss this rather new art (in Greece, in 1885): “All the women here are terrified at the idea of being photographed and my camera is rather a ‘white elephant’.” The inhabitants should have been equally wary of her pen. Thankfully, they did not realize the extent of her journalizing.