Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A history of walking. Granta, 2014. First published 2001

This is a scholarly, well-researched and readable account of walking – its history, and how and why humans go for walks, often with no particular goal in mind.

Rebecca Solnit Wanderlust cover She explores the archaeology and anthropology of bipedalism, and the consequences of our ancient ancestors’ rising from all fours to an upright position that enabled perambulation, and the evolutionary and cultural developments that followed.

Then she has a section on that particularly focused kind of walking: pilgrimages, from those in the Americas, to Compostela and the medieval and later European pilgrim destinations (but I don’t recall a mention of Chaucer and Canterbury, and there’s no such entry in the index; maybe I missed it). She’s astute in summing up the essence of why people feel the impulse to set off on such gruelling trips: often, unlike sturdy hikers, these are walkers who are infirm or frail. Many go on pilgrimage in quest of healing or solace.

Labyrinths are the subject of the next section. She sees these as a means of undertaking pilgrimage in a confined space, a sort of symbolic pilgrimage. I don’t recall any mention of Borges here.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the one that deals with the rise of landscape gardening. In medieval and early modern times, nature was seen by civilised people (ie wealthy urbanites) as chaotic, savage and hostile. Solnit doesn’t mention that our word ‘savage’ derives from the Latin ‘silva’, meaning wood, forest, or by extension any wild, uncultivated (and therefore potentially dangerous) place. It’s the opposite of civilised (a word derived from the Latin for ‘relating to a citizen’, ie a dweller in a city).

Gardens, and then country estates of the gentry, were developed as oases of ordered tranquillity; ‘nature needs to be dressed and adorned, at least in the garden.’ By the 18C this had become a pre-Romantic fashion for more natural-looking (less geometrically sculpted) gardens, and the era of the famous landscape gardeners like Capability Brown arrived.

I’d have liked a bit more on Jane Austen’s contribution to the literature of this period. When her heroines ‘take a turn’ round the park of their own estate, or more often that of the wealthier young man on whom they’d set their sights, they set out on what was to be an opportunity to flirt and escape the watchful eyes of chaperones. The gentlemen could show off the ostentation of their wealth; the ladies could legitimately display how well they looked when flushed by exertion and the country air. Solnit astutely quotes Mr Darcy saying (playfully but also meanly) to the young ladies vying for his attention and suggesting a walk: ‘Your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking’.

Although she writes interestingly about the importance and frequency of walks in Austen’s fiction, especially in Pride and Prejudice, she could have made far more of the symbolic, literary and cultural significance of her characters’ ventures out into the natural (and cultivated to look natural) world of gardens, country estates and beauty spots like Lyme Regis.

Behind all this was a concept of nature as being in need of human intervention to remove its imperfections, to enhance and improve it. The garden should look like a landscape painting, something to be aesthetically appreciated by the tourist or visitor.

Then we come to Wordsworth and the rest of the serious walkers of the Romantic era. They went beyond the cosy confines of the country estate: all of nature was their garden, and they thought nothing of walking hundreds of miles on a tour. WW clocked up thousands of miles of pedestrianism in his lifetime.

He broadened the educated person’s appreciation of walking to include pleasure as well as suffering, ‘politics and scenery’:

He had taken the walk out of the garden, with its refined and restricted possibilities, but most of his successors wanted the world in which they walked to nothing but a larger garden.

The concept of urban walking forms another of the most interesting sections of this book. I’d read studies by Solnit and others of the rise of the Parisian (and other cities’) flâneur (and flâneuses – women walking alone in the city were sadly usually associated with street walkers, aka prostitutes, lorettes, and so on). I’ve posted on this topic before, on Walter Benjamin, psychogeography, Breton, and so on; links HERE). I must read Lauren Elkin’s full-length study of this subject.

Unlike Rousseau, who avoided crowds, Baudelaire and other gentlemanly urban strollers were ‘men of the crowd’; they sought out crowded places, even while indulging in their dérives, or drifting, aimless wanderings through the thronged city. Dickens is another famous literary figure who was a prodigious walker, and Solnit perceptively assesses his motives for and accounts of walking.

There is a brief section on the literature of walking, but Solnit sees this as mostly in essay and other non-fiction forms. The likes of Hazlitt and RL Stevenson see walking as a sort of circumscribed activity: ‘the walking essay and the kind of walking described in it have much in common: however much they meander, they must come home at the end essentially unchanged.’ Walking offers an uplifting opportunity to reflect, collect one’s thoughts. ‘And then moralizing sneaks in…Few of the canonical essayists can resist telling us that we should walk because it is good for us, nor from providing directions on how to walk.’

(She’s less stringent and dismissive of Rousseau, in an earlier part of the book. His take on (usually solitary) walking represents what she calls the philosophical kind. Her assessment sums it up as a cross between meditation and escape from the rigours and stresses of urban life, a flight into simplicity, away from crowds.)

Then this intriguing history started, for me, to fizzle out, apart from the section on mountaineering. I found most of the final sections a drag. There was too much digression into Solnit’s experience of demos and street events. Here she veered dangerously close to a kind of right-on Californian pretentiousness. She touches on other modes of transport in the modern age – but not, strangely, sailing; I read most of this book while on a sailing holiday with family on the Croatian-Dalmatian coast. Sailing seems to go beyond the confines of her area of study. There’s also far too much for my taste on the lurid phenomenon of Las Vegas.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Solnit’s writing is mostly elegantly and intelligently done (apart from an annoying habit of starting sentences with ‘Too’). I may have been a bit unfair for wanting to see more of the aspects of this subject that interest me than she was prepared to provide.