More gems from Thomas Atkinson’s diaries

I have now transcribed most of Thomas Atkinson’s diary that covers the long journey he made with Lucy and their son Alatau in the summer of 1851 into the mountains of Buryatia and Northern Mongolia, including the area around the Jombolok Volcano Field in the Eastern Sayan Mountains – the area I visited in July along with four of Thomas’ and Lucy’s descendants.

The diary contains much that is new and not included in either of his published books. He reveals, for example, that he drew a plan of the volcanoes in the Jombolok Volcano Field. Sadly, like most of the hundreds of sketches he drew, there is now no trace of it. More surprisingly, reading the diaries shows just how much Lucy relied on them in writing her own account of their travels together.

Their journey started on 23 May – as soon as the roads were open following the spring thaw. Almost exactly three months later they arrived back at the Archbishop’s house with its hot springs, near Kultuk on Lake Baikal. They were exhausted, but had seen some amazing sights, including the Jombolok volcanoes, Kara Noor Lake, the twin lakes that are the source of the Oka and Irkout Rivers, Mongu Seran Xardick – the tallest mountain in the region – and even Lake Khovsgul in northern Mongolia, about which Thomas wrote in his diary: “This lake is truly beautiful. I have seen nothing finer in the whole of my travels,” (emphasis in original).

Lake Khovsgol in northern Mongolia: “This lake is truly beautiful”

They had endured a soaking wet summer that had seen the River Oka rise 31 feet in a night and had often left them drenched to the skin. On other days it had snowed heavily. They had put up with endless bogs, clouds of very unpleasant mosquitoes and a very basic diet that often consisted of what they could shoot and little else. It was, yet again, another epic journey, carried out with a less-than-three-year-old baby in tow.

The extent to which Lucy’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes (1863), relies on Thomas’ diaries is indisputable. It is unlikely that Lucy ever intended to write a book, but was persuaded to do so by the publisher John Murray, who mentored her and suggested she should write it in the form of a series of long letters to a friend. The book provided her with an income following Thomas’s death in 1861, when she had no other source of money.

Examples of the closeness with which Lucy’s book follows Thomas’ diaries abound. Here is one clear example taken from the entry for 13th July in Thomas’ 1851 diary, where he writes about a visit to the yurt of a Buriat family on the Oka River:

Lucy, Alatau and I, with one Cossack as talmash (translator-ed), went to visit the Bouriats. We found a very pretty woman at one of the yourts and were much interested with the picture of their god, very well printed on silk. They have in each yourt an altar on which is placed many brass cups and a brass ornament. The cups are often filled with the articles offered up to the Deity, for instance wine (which they make from milk, a very strong spirit), butter, milk, tea, coffee and sugar. At the bottom of the altar they frequently burn their offerings on little wooden blocks. The master of the yourt gave us a cup of the wine, very little of which we drank, but they old man soon became quite tipsy. They drink a great deal. We paid another visit and was treated in a similar manner. We then bade adieu to them and started on our way.

Here is Lucy’s account of the same event, as published in her book:

We entered their yourts, in one of which we found a very pretty black-eyed young woman, with cheeks like roses, not ruddy like a milkmaid’s, but of a delicate tint; she wore a closely fitting black velvet jacket, which became her amazingly; and her head was adorned with the usual ornaments. Saluting me after the fashion of the country, she asked us to enter.

“We were much interested with the picture of their Deity, very nicely painted on silk. In each yourt we found an altar, on which is placed a number of brass cups or small basins, filled with the articles offered up to the Deity. For instance, wine (or rather a strong spirit made from milk), butter, tea, coffee, milk, and sugar. At the bottom of the altar they frequently burn their offerings on little wooden blocks. The master of the yourt handed us a cup of the wine, which I declined, and passed it to Mr. Atkinson, who merely tasted it, but the old man soon became quite tipsy. I think he had a little before we entered. They drink it in large quantities. In each dwelling we were treated in a similar manner. Having bid adieu to the good people, we were once more on our way.”

The similarity is clear. Lucy’s reliance on Thomas’ unpublished diaries in no way detracts from her book, which is a remarkable achievement. It is quite possibly the earliest serious travel book written by a woman in the English – or for that matter, any other – language. It is also extremely good, a forgotten classic. The Cambridge academic Anthony Cross, who wrote an introduction to a new edition (1972) of Lucy’s book, says both of Thomas’ books “pale before the fresh and unpretentious work of his wife”, little realising just how much of it was based on Thomas’ words.

Thomas’ diaries are an indispensible guide to understanding his itineraries, timescales and, most importantly, his relationship with his wife and son, which his bigamous marriage prevented him from mentioning in his books. More’s the pity, as the unexpurgated versions of events found in the diaries are often far more dramatic than those contained in his published books.