Rasselas.

London: J. Bretell for Hector McLean, 1819.

Quarto (270 x 210mm), pp. [2 (title, imprint on verso)], i-iii, [1 (blank)], 197, [1 (imprint)]; engraved frontispiece, headpiece and 3 engravings by Abraham Raimbach after Robert Smirke; occasional spotting and some light browning, bound without half-title; closely-contemporary British full straight-grained green morocco [one endpaper watermarked with date ‘1818’], boards with broad borders of gilt and blind rolls, spine gilt in compartments, lettered directly in one, others decorated in gilt and blind, board edges and turn-ins roll-tooled in gilt, blue endpapers, all edges gilt; boards lightly scuffed, extremities lightly rubbed and bumped, skilfully re-backed retaining original spine.

£300

Approximately:
US $387€355

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Third Smirke edition, ordinary-paper issue. ‘All travel has its advantages,’ the lexicographer, essayist and critic Samuel Johnson (1709-84) wrote in his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. ‘If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own, and if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.’ Although Johnson himself never travelled more than five hundred miles from his London home, he was an indefatigable planner of distant voyages; his writings on travel began with the translation from the Fench edition of Father Jerónimo Lobo’s A Voyage to Abyssinia in 1735 (first published in French as Voyage historique d’Abbysinie, 1728), followed by numerous articles and essays on the subject in his middle years, and culminated in the publication of his own description of the Highlands. Johnson’s attitude towards travel literature itself was a complex one; in his preface to Lobo’s Voyage, Johnson showed a dislike for fantastical accounts of far-off locations published merely for entertainment, and repeatedly praised Lobo for not yielding to ‘romantick absurdities or incredible fictions’. Johnson scorned the unsophisticated travel literature foisted upon an naïve public, noting that it was the kind of writing that could be done by those who had not journeyed beyond their booksellers’ stalls.

Instead, influenced by the vogue for exotic locations and his work on Lobo’s narrative, Johnson produced his own travel work based on a strong moral didacticism and the Horation principle of dulce et utile. This work, an apologue about happiness, was Rasselas, first published in 1759 under the title The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. The narrative follows the literal and figurative quest of Prince Rasselas, his sister Nekayah, and their teacher and guide, Imlac, as they escape the anodyne captivity of the ‘Happy Valley’ to explore the possibilities of happiness in the outside world, with descriptions of their time in Egypt, and Imlac’s travels in Persia, Syria, and Palestine. In Samuel Johnson and the Age of Travel (1976), Thomas M. Curley describes Rasselas as ‘the archetypal human quest played out for the last and greatest time in [Johnson’s] fiction’ (p.4), continuing that ‘the relationship between Rasselas and travel literature is complex and intimate. Not only did its generalized setting originate in the topographical details of travel reports, but its plot also paralleled the format of geographical literature’ (p.159). Its main expression is one of an empirical Lockean theme of travel and experience summed up in Imlac’s words: ‘We grow more happy as our minds take a wider range’ (p.46).

The engravings made by Raimbach after Smirke’s paintings were originally used in the first edition, issued by McLean in 1803, and they reveal the allure of the romantic Middle East to the Georgian sensibility. Raimbach and Smirke had earlier gained recognition for depicting exotic narratives with their engravings for E. Forster’s illustrated Arabian Nights (1802), a translation from Gallmand’s edition. The collection of Scheherazade’s tales had been extraordinarily popular since its translation into English at the beginning of the eighteenth century and became the epitome of the Western view of the Middle East as a glamorous and mysterious location – while Johnson’s Rasselas positioned itself firmly apart from fantastical fiction as a new sort of factual and philosophical travel account, Raimbach and Smirke’s illustrations link it to and anticipate the Orientalism of the first half of the nineteenth century.

Fleeman, 59.4R/90a

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