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May 06, 2008

The Writing of the Grand Tour - Jeremy Black considers eighteenth century travel writing

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black - Professor of History at the University of Exeter - considers eighteenth century travel writing and what it says about the world of the Grand Tourist.

Eighteenth-century travel writing is conventionally treated as a specialised form of literature that is of most concern because of its relationship with the Grand Tour, both in the sense of the accuracy of what was reported and with reference to how far the literature shaped the tourist experience.

This, however, is too narrow an account, because the literature was also of importance in influencing (and reflecting) more general ideological currents and indeed was given a prominent role, as a result, in Tony Claydon's thoughtful and ambitious Europe and the Making of England 1660-1760 (Cambridge, 2007).

Secondly, and related to this, travel writing is of interest because of what it indicates about the role of the interaction with the outside world in shaping British thought in the age of Enlightenment, with this writing seen as a particularly important form of the discovery of enlightenment.

Ranging to include Captain Cook indicates the extent and variety of travel writing, as well as a context within which Grand Tour literature was located: the exposition of the outer world and discussion of the relationship with it of travellers, representative noble Britons. This was a classification that included factual as well as imaginative responses, and indeed one that located the writing about tourism alongside the depiction of it in other forms, most obviously paintings.

Another element of range is provided by the purpose of writing. In particular, there was a contrast between writing for the anonymous market of strangers, who purchased copies (or viewed paintings), and writing for oneself or for select relatives and friends.

The former, the views expressed in travel literature, are more accessible, through being printed, and the texts themselves are easier and more attractive to read than subsequently published accounts that were never intended for publication. In addition, much of the work on tourism has been done by amateurs lacking the time or resources to search for manuscript sources, and by scholars of literature whose forte has generally lain elsewhere. Both groups have concentrated on readily-accessible published material by prominent figures, without appreciating that such accounts should be regarded not as necessarily typical of the writings and views of tourists, but as works of literature.

Travel literature can be seen to be removed from the experiences of ordinary tourists, not least because, in some cases, it is probable that it was written to be read, as much as a form of fiction, as interesting works at times similar to picaresque novels, rather than as objective descriptions of the travels of individual tourists. Travel literature indeed provided an opportunity for autobiography and literary amateurism, often in the readable context of a heroic or mock-heroic journey. Such literature, however, was not uniform and, in the later eighteenth century, there was a move from the supposedly objective to the frankly subjective, in, for example, the writings of William Beckford.

At the same time, there was a degree of continuity because new works were in many senses explicitly or, more commonly, implicitly commenting on what had come before. Thus, in her Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany (1789), Hester Piozzi, who visited Italy in 1784-6, cited Addison, Brydone, Burney, Chesterfield, Cook and Orrery, Hamilton, Howell and Moore.

If borrowing was common, it also was in other aspects of the culture of print, such as cartography. The well-travelled John, 3rd Earl of Bute, who visited Italy in 1768-71, noted that travel writers drew heavily on other works, and was unhappy with what he found in their books. He thought many of the subjects useless or improper, which he blamed on the fact that "writing is become a trade".

As a trade, the frequency of publications suggested that there was a considerable market for such works. This can be atomised, not least between the often very factual nature of guidebooks and the more fluent accounts of travellers. In the former, the narrator was in the background, while, in the latter, he was to the fore, most obviously with Tobias Smollett's Travels through France and Italy (1766). There was clearly a market for both, but the latter enjoyed more attention in the culture of print in Britain.

Authorial intention was not the sole issue. The conventions expected by the market, reviewers and readers, as well as of writers themselves in this context, had to be respected in published work. This can be seen in the correspondence of James Russel, whose Letters from a Young Painter Abroad to his Friends in England (1748-50) were, in part, influenced by the demands of his family, specifically his father and his bookseller brother. Demands upon James, who was in Italy from 1740 until his death, included for a description of a trip to Herculaneum, as well as

some short account of Loreto, Bologna, Ancona and Venice: and some relations of diverting events,
and, later, details of the ceremonies in which the Jacobite Pretender James "III"'s younger son, Henry, became a priest and a cardinal, and more material on the Jubilee Year. James Russel thanked his father for his role in improving the letters:
I am truly sensible of the favour you have done me in touching them up, in such a manner, as has made them so acceptable to the public.
He also referred to
writing letters, in order to supply matter for a second volume.
Such were not the pressures affecting aristocratic tourists, whose writings indeed tended to be published by descendants. The process by which these were selected and organised for publication is not one that has attracted much attention, which is a grave deficiency, as, where the originals survive, they suggest that there was a process of selection. This remained the case into the twentieth century. For example, Brian Connell, in his Portrait of a Whig Peer. Compiled from The Papers of the Second Viscount Palmerston, 1759-1802 (1957), cited Palmerston's discussion of the arbitrary quality of the government, but made no reference either to Palmerston's remarks on the limits to this arbitrariness nor to his assessment of the government's popularity.

Studying the writing of the Grand Tour has, thus, to confront the limitations of the sources. There is also the question of the agenda-setting by previous commentators, the effect of which was noted in 1763 by Margaret, Lady Spencer:

The chief things thought worth seeing at Turin were, the King’s Palace, the great Theatre, a hunting house of the King’s, and the Church of the Superga from whence there is a glorious view…
This element leads to a certain repetitiveness in the literature, but then that is also the case today. Furthermore, this repetition played a number of roles including asserting authority for the account, and thus legitimacy for the source, as well as plugging into what were assumed to be automatic responses. The absence of pictures was also important in that a degree of detail that might seem unnecessary today was required in order to depict what could not be presented through photographs. Indeed, this could lead to a distinctly pictorial quality to the writing, as in the accounts of the passage of the Alps or the prospect of major cities.

This pictorial quality was capable of different moods: there was a contrast between the emphasis on precise accuracy and that on the emotions conjured up by the scene, in short between the narrator as photographer and the narrator as painter. In the former, the writer was in the background and in the latter in the foreground. Each style had an appeal, although the former is less apparent to our post-Romantic sensibility. We are more engaged with the individual response, which make the accounts that sought that approach more interesting than those concerned to provide a uniformly-pertinent response.

Both aspects can also be seen in the social, political, cultural and other reflections of tourists. To take the last, the former are apt to provide a listing of prominent paintings and sculptures, while the latter focus on the individual response. The varied nature of the literature thus serve the different purposes of response.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade, A Short History of Britain, The Holocaust, and The Curse of History.


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