Alexander Kinglake warns the reader in the preface to Eothen (1844), his travel classic, that it is quite superficial in its character and thoroughly free of geographical discovery, antiquarian research, politics or historical and scientific illustrations. Instead, Kinglake explains to his unnamed friend, that he is attempting in his “scrawl” to write about the sentimental truth of his journey rather than a quotidian catalogue of his travels. Like many works that convey a sense of effortlessness in their telling, this was far from the truth – in fact his account of a nine-month journey on horseback from Belgrade to Cairo was only published after much revision, nearly a decade later. This casualness and whimsy perhaps explains why it feels so contemporary and should be considered as the very first Modern Travel Book.

John Murray turned it down, because of what he termed its “wicked spirit of jesting at everything.” In the end, Kinglake had to pay £50 to get it published and its first reviewer commented on its puzzling and daring indifference to the prejudices of society. Such hostility is rarer now, save the lone voice of Edward Said, the progressive Palestinian academic, who accused Eothen of being “a pathetic catalogue of pompous ethnocentrisms and tangled nondescript accounts of the Englishman’s East.”

The early editions didn’t even mention the authors name, as he was making his way as a barrister and thought it might offend potential clients. I only became aware of it in my Thirties, even though it has been in and out of print since publication. It is centred around Kinglake and his travelling companions and servants, one of whom is always on the lookout for “gentlemen’s seats” while Kinglake makes constant comparisons to how a river reminds him of the Thames at Eton or a discourse about Dr. Keate, the flogging headmaster there.

At the beginning of his journey, the Ottoman Empire is suffering from the Plague, so once his party travel to Belgrade, they are forbidden to return without undergoing a fortnight’s quarantine. They are invited to an audience with the local pasha in his castle and this is where Kinglake’s flights of fancy take over. Rather than describe the routine events, he goes off on an hilarious tangent about an imaginary meeting between an English traveller and the potentate. He complains when his dragoman mentions he comes from London as the pasha will think he is a mere cockney and then boasts he should have been the Member for Boughton-Soldborough in the last election and deputy lieutenant of the country but for some skulduggery. In return the dragoman describes him as “this possible policeman of Bedfordshire”. I can well imagine some of the more backwoods MPs of my acquaintance uttering similar sentiments today…

There are many hilarious encounters that make it so memorable, such as his description of the drinking habits of the Monks of Damascus: “… of all the holy brethren in Palestine there are none who hold fast to this gladsome rite so strenuously as the monks of Damascus; not that they are more zealous Christians than the rest of their fellows in the Holy Land, but that they have better wine… Dear old fellows!” Despite these warm words, Kinglake was a self-proclaimed atheist and once remarked “I dislike churches, and had I my way, I would write in every church, chapel and cathedral only one line: ‘Important if True.’”

When passing through Galilee, Kinglake is taken by the enormous variety of fleas to be found in a church in Tiberias: “It was a carnal, self-seeking congregation, wholly inattentive to the service which was going on and devote to the one object of having my blood. The fleas of all nations were there. The smug, steady importunate fleas from Holywell Street- the pert jumping ‘puce’ from hungry France – the wary, watchful ‘pulce’ with his poisoned stiletto – the vengeful pulga’ of Castille with his ugly knife – the German ‘floh’ with his knife and fork, insatiate, not rising from table – whole swarms from all Russias and Asiatic hordes unnumbered-  all these were there, and all rejoiced in one great international feast.”

Certain passages would not pass muster in the Modern World, especially his adoring words about the “romping girls of Bethlehem” – not in a carnal sense, but more as if they were like a flock of timid gazelles, “this gushing spring of fresh and joyous girlhood.” Another memorable encounter is his description of Lady Hester Stanhope, the eccentric niece of Pitt the Younger, who dressed as a Bedouin and lived in an abandoned monastery near Sidon.  Lady Hester had been a friend of Kinglake’s mother, so he was granted an audience, where he was bombarded with warnings of an imminent cataclysm plus her penchant for magic and sorcery. According to Kinglake, she would veer from this to “the sort of woman that you sometimes see, I am told, in London drawing-rooms – cool, decisive in manner, unsparing of enemies, full of audacious fun, and saying the downright things that the sheepish society around her is afraid to utter.”

The climax of the book is Kinglake’s description of the Plague in Cairo, which is written in the same detached ironic style though a certain terror pervades it. He is warned not to go near the place by an impassioned Frenchman: “I thanked him most sincerely for his kindly meant warning. In hot countries it is very unusual indeed for a man to go out in the glare of the sun and give free advice to a stranger.” A week after his arrival he notices the silence descending on the city, with around 1200 Cairenes succumbing daily out of a population of 200,000. He admits that most people he had any dealings with, such as his doctor, banker, landlord and magician – even one of his servants and his donkey boy – all died of the plague. He never explains in a satisfactory way why he took such huge risks and instead notes that pipes and arms are cheaper in the local bazaar than in Constantinople before going sightseeing at the Pyramids and Sphinx.

Kinglake was a Liberal MP from 1857 to 1868 and well known in London literary circles. He mixed with the likes of Thackeray, Dickens, Tennyson and Henry James, who remarked just before Kinglake’s death in 1891, “such a character, such a figure, as the generations appear pretty well to have ceased to produce.”

It is ironic that this so-called superficial account of a journey in his twenties has lasted for nearly two centuries – in fact, a new edition has just been published by Eland Books, (though curiously they call the author William Kinglake). It would never have occurred to Kinglake that this would be what he is remembered for rather than his magnum opus, which was a highly regarded (but now unread) eight volume history of the Crimean War, which took him more than 30 years to complete.