A website devoted to H.V. Morton and his works describes "In Search of England" as "the best-loved travel book of the 20th century." I'm not sure on what they base that judgment, but I for one am inclined to go along with it. I've read and reviewed a number of Morton's books, written both before and after this one, and while I enjoyed them all none of them were quite as entertaining, enlightening, and enthralling (a word I don't think I've ever used in an Amazon.com review before) as this one.
Following an almost crushing bout of homesickness in the Holy Land, Morton (who was 34 when he wrote this, incidentally) asked himself why, when Englishmen abroad think of England they -- even city-dwellers like himself -- picture green villages, hedge-lined roads, and other icons of rural life. Returning home, Morton sets out on a light-hearted and impulsive driving tour of villages, countryside, and cathedral and market towns. While the "In Search Of..." title might later become a conceit or even a cliché, in this, the first of his books to employ that phrase, he is literally in search this semi-mythical "England," if it still exists.
Morton's tour is a remarkable one, and along the way he meets practitioners of dying arts like bowl-turners and flint-chippers, all sorts of interesting people from nobility to tramps and "wayfarers," and a surprising number of American tourists (whose habits and slangy lingo I hope Morton is exaggerating, to save us a good deal of embarrassment). Morton's descriptions of architecture and landscape are excellent, but it's his ability to capture personalities and draw word-portraits that really shines. It's this aspect, as well as his clear love for his subject, that really drew me in. I read "In Search of England" cover to cover during the long Presidents' Day weekend, and got so into it I admit to actually being a little surprised to raise my head after the last page and discover (to paraphrase a famous movie line) "Seattle ... [expletive], I'm still only in Seattle."
I happened to read a third-printing of this book published in 1930, but I've also seen the contemporary Da Capo Press edition, and I have to say that if there's one thing "In Search of England" could use these days, it's an annotated version. Morton makes many references, comments, and asides that while understandable to readers in 1927 are largely lost to those in 2008. And then, of course, there's the question that kept haunting me as I read this, "How much of this survived the war and the subsequent half-century?" I read this book with an open Internet connection by my side for just such impulsive searches, and plan on someday going back through my copy and adding some notations of that sort myself, to the extent I can.
That issue aside, "In Search of England" is a remarkable book about a remarkable journey. You don't need to be a nostalgia-ridden Anglophile to get a lot out of it or appreciate the author's observant eye and skilled pen. But in my case, it helped.
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About the reviewer
Andrew S. Rogers (Cascadian)
Mostly, I'm a moderately prolific Amazon.com reviewer who's giving Lunch a try as another venue for my reviews.
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From the travel writer whom Jan Morris has called "the much-loved master of the genre, often imitated but never matched." H. V. Morton peerlessly evokes the sights, the splendors, and the drama of history for tourists and armchair travelers alike.
Currently in its 40th printing with its original publisher in the UK, this is the book that one British newspaper has called "travel writing at its best. Bill Bryson must weep when he reads it." Whether describing ruined gothic arches at Glastonbury or hilarious encounters with the inhabitants of Norfolk, Morton recalls a way of life far from gone even at the beginning of a new century.