115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Riding on the Peripheries: Spectatorship and the Tourist's Gaze in the Pennells' Nineteenth-Century Cycling Memoirs

Heidi Rennert, "University of Victoria, British Columbia"

This paper will consider how the tandem tricycle in Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell’s nineteenth-century cycling memoris both adopts and challenges what John Urry calls the “tourist’s gaze” and essentially disrupts traditional modes of spectatorship to achieve a more “authentic” experience of Italian travel and literary pilgrimage experiences.


In 1884, American expatriates and journalists Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell rode across Italy on a tandem tricycle, later published in An Italian Pilgrimage (1886), the second of several cycling “pilgrimages” that gained widespread success in both England and America. Illustrated by Joseph and written by Elizabeth, An Italian Pilgrimage capitalizes on the bicycle’s controversial status as public spectacle, as well as its exclusive appropriation by a young, upper-class male elite, to argue for cycling as a fundamentally aesthetic and political form of travel. Cycling, most fundamentally, mediates for the Pennells a distinctive aesthetic and literary sensitivity, notable in the Pennells’ nod to other famous pilgrimages such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, and Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through Italy and France. As Elizabeth argues, cycling is “[by] far the best way to see Italy” (228), because it offers an immediacy to the Italian landscape and culture no longer possible by railroad or guided tour. During the 1880s, the Victorian bicycle was a paradoxical symbol of progressive, technological enterprise as well as a nostalgic return to a slower time of travel before the railroad and popularized travel and other forms of literary tourism. While leisure cycling and cycling tourism were emerging and popular forms of nineteenth-century tourism, the Pennells uniquely blend cycling with the literary pilgrimage to argue that cycling is a fundamentally aesthetic, and not merely leisurely or sports, practice. The tandem tricycle for the Pennells is an essentially disruptive symbol that satirizes Victorian tourism while also recuperating, more than other forms of travel, the aesthetic and spiritual dimensions of traditional pilgrimages.

This paper will consider how the Pennells use the tricycle to disrupt conventions of tourism and access a more “authentic” and immediate experience of Italy. These literary and aesthetic dimensions of cycling, achieved through its disruptive status, ultimately forms a social critique of tourism and elitist cycling practices. I argue, moreover, that the possibility of these disruptive practices relies on the tricycle’s ability to reverse modes of spectatorship in tourism. The tricycle is a disruptive and paradoxical symbol that challenges tourist practices and enables what the Pennells sees as a more “authentic” engagement with Italian culture. Self-proclaimed as the “first tandem tricycl[ists] ever to be seen in Italy,” the Pennells repeatedly become a public spectacle and “foreign other” in their own roles as tourists, as the tricycle invites public comment and becomes an attraction in each place that it visits, both among Italians and other European tourists. In reverting the “tourist’s gaze” and becoming foreign objects themselves, the Pennells use this position to comment on Italian culture and tourist practices. This paper will thus consider how the Pennells’ cycling memoirs performs spectatorship and tourism, as the tricycle both conceals the Pennells as tourists in the very act of “outing” them as public spectacle.