It is well-nigh impossible to imagine a more interesting document than Viscount Bryce's posthumously published "Memories of Travel." As the title would suggest, the book is a series of essays or sketches describing some of the places visited by the author during his long and busy life. Ranging from the account of a youthful adventure in Iceland, written in 1872, to a bird's-eye view of "The Scenery of America" as gained in his last visit to this country in 1921, the book not only gives us delightful descriptions of peoples and places, but also traces Viscount Bryce's development as a writer.
Even in his very early essay, we find an astonishing amount of knowledge about the lands in which he journeys, and a power of description which marks all the pieces. He does not attempt to give "an account of the country" either physically, or socially, or statistico-economically, or politically, or from any of the other points of view of a gazetteer. Yet, once done with Viscount Bryce's articles, the reader has a perfectly definite idea of the peoples, of their languages and literatures, of their industries and habits of life, and of the countries in which they live. If the author discusses the geological formation of a certain mountain range or the flora of a valley, he uses scientific terms with as much naturalness as he employs exact epithets in describing a moonlit night in Tahiti.
Mountains seem to attract him more than anything else. In fact, the book might be called "Memories of Mountains", for there is not one essay which, sooner or later, does not describe the peculiarities of the country's mountain ranges. At times their purple majesty awed him, but generally craggy heights and shining glaciers were obstacles to surmount, in record time, if possible. I strongly suspect that Suvaroff's Alpine Campaign, which he tells of in an essay by that name, interested him mainly because it took place in the most beautiful part of Helvetia, and because he admired the courage of those Russian lowlanders who bravely followed their general over unknown mountain trails in the darkness of the winter night.
Besides an ability to present a scene, Viscount Bryce has the power of describing people. An unbounded sympathy and a keen sense of humor gave him those qualities essential to the portrait painter. His picture of the Polish guide is unforgettable. "He was a strange wild creature, tall, stalwart, and handsome, with bold features, dark hair hanging in long locks round his cheeks and an expression in his eyes like that of a startled fawn. Not that I can remember ever to have seen a startled fawn: however, his expression, was just that which the startled fawn is supposed to wear."
In his earlier work, his style seems a trifle smart. There is a niceness of phrase and a care for scientific accuracy which makes part of his writing seem artificial. This irritating quality disappears in the later essays, or rather, it is transformed into a convincing sureness. At no time does his writing lack vigor or interest. A study of the subtle changes in his style will go far to show the difference between the writer of promise and the author sure of himself.
To the would-be writer, "Memories of Travel" is an excellent text book. To others, it is a series of travel essays, full of delightful anecdotes and unforgettable description.