Sara Wheeler

Northern lights | 2 June 2016

In The Lure of the North, three 19th-century travellers vividly recall their adventures sailing, camping and birdwatching in the wilds of the fjords

‘The only use of a gentleman in travelling,’ Emmeline Lowe wrote in 1857, ‘is to take care of the luggage.’ My sentiments entirely. The extract from Unprotected Females in Norway reprinted in this book recounts Lowe’s travels with her mother round the Dovrefjeld in the centre of the long country. Tramping through the valleys wearing mosquito veils, ‘solid plaid skirts’ and hobnail shoes, the pair reckoned that the only essentials were a driving whip and a fishing rod.

Lowe (who published anonymously) is a spirited companion on the verdant plains and the snowy peaks, and her pleasure in the long boreal gloaming leaps infectiously from the page. She and Mother dine observed by a circle of spectators, climb ladders to bed and keep their calm when one coach driver turns out to be — or so she says — five years old. Like all good writers, Lowe understands that specificity is the key — a breakfast involves a communal bowl of porridge and another of cream, ‘each [person] dipping his spoon in succession into the first one, then the other’. Despite the outdated terminology (‘My peasant was most chatty’), Lowe is gracious, and no little Englander. She writes:

We felt that deep confidence in the people established, which never for a moment forsook us during the whole of our journey; and which would have made us follow a Norwegian guide round the world, had he known the way.

This slim volume is one of a series — ‘Found on the Shelves’ — of extracts from the stacks of the London Library, an institution which celebrates its 175th anniversary this year. I have spent some of the happiest days of my life idling in the topography collection, but it’s a time-consuming business, and so it’s an inspired idea to let a publisher do the spadework.

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