a canterbury pilgrimage

Reviewed by Duncan Jamieson, Ashland University

3 october 2016       archive

In 1884 they became the first cycling couple because they were the only cycling couple; today despite stiff competition from their contemporaries William Hunter and Fanny Bullock Workman or H. Darwin and Hattie Boyer McIlrath, or our contemporaries Larry and Barbara Savage, they remain the first cycling couple. Who were they and how did they achieve such fame? Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell never risked life and limb riding through the wilds of late 19th century China nor did they explore the architectural wonders of India. They did not surrender an enviable life style as young successful professionals to suffer sexual harassment in Egypt while bicycling around the world in the 1980s. Rather the Pennells limited their cycling to the beaten tracks of Great Britain and Europe. They travelled on what equaled well-paved roads, never wandering lost, finding themselves being used as moving targets for the Chinese army. The Pennells enjoyed lunch and dinner in cozy pubs, never going without food for twenty-four hours for the lack of places to stop and eat. They rested each night in clean, comfortable inns, awakening safe and refreshed, never having to sleep in a ditch or share quarters with barnyard animals. Over a quarter century cycling career their total mileage pales in comparison to the around the world journeys of either the McIlraths or the Savages, and is significantly less than total of the Workman's two jaunts through India. Still, without dispute the Pennells retain the title, with no competition on the horizon.

Their lasting fame among cyclists comes not from where they rode or what they saw, but from how they described their experiences. Each of these couples reported on their journeys, but the books and articles penned by the Pennells rise to the level of literature. Elizabeth did most of the writing, while Joseph, a lithographer, contributed detailed illustrations of their wanderings. Together they produced five books on their tandem tricycle treks and later on single safety bicycles. Collectively and individually wrote and illustrated dozens of articles for a variety of literary, cycle and popular magazines. Unfortunately, though their books are readily available in public and university libraries, they have slipped from view for most of the reading public. Fortunately, Dave Buchanan, who teaches English at MacEwan University, Edmonton, Alberta, has edited two of the Pennells most delightful books, A Canterbury Pilgrimage and An Italian Pilgrimage.

Joseph Pennell (1857-1926), best remembered today as an outstanding lithographer, had been commissioned by Scribner's to do sketches of Philadelphia. The editor asked Charles Godfrey Leland to write the accompanying article he recommended his niece, Elizabeth Robins (1855-1936), a budding author, who later wrote biographies of English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and American painter James Whistler. She accepted and met Joseph, and thus began their collaboration. When Century commissioned him to go to England to do more sketches, he wanted Elizabeth to accompany him. Social convention would not permit such a journey among single people, so they married and set off, planning to cycle from London to Rome for their wedding journey. A cholera epidemic on the continent put that plan on hold, and instead they completed a ninety mile journey to Canterbury, following the route of Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims.

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Joseph. A Canterbury Pilgrimage and An Italian Pilgrimage. Edited and with an Introduction by Dave Buchanan. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2015. Xliii + 149 pp. Ill., Notes, Works Cited, and Bibliography. $29.95 ppb.

Copyright © 2016 by Duncan Jamieson

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