Brian Dolan, Ladies of the Grand Tour

Well, I got this book for my last birthday and it’s already almost my birthday again. It doesn’t often take me that long to read a book but this is a great book for dipping in and out of.

For those who are not entirely sure what the Grand Tour is or was, this term describes the journey British men of the upper classes made through Europe after they finished their formal schooling. The Tour was supposed to finish off their education, give them a chance to experience other cultures and make them into better politicians and members of society. In reality, the Tourists often returned having spread their seed and gathered up the art and memorabilia from famous sights in France, Italy and Germany – the main stopping points of the time.

This book is a great introduction to female travellers and travel writers in the 18th and early 19th century. Famous names include Mary Wollstonecraft, Fanny Burney, Georgiana Devonshire and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. All the women come from fairly different backgrounds, although obviously they are from what the British have termed the upper middle class or aristocracy. Nevertheless, their upbringing and their reasons for travelling are often wholly different. One woman travelled with her sister and her father, who wanted to show Europe to his daughters. Another travelled to escape a loveless and humiliating marriage. Yet others were widowed and journeyed because they finally had the freedom and the means to do so. All these women are united in the fact that they wrote about their journeys – what they enjoyed, what they saw, whom they met and what they did not like. The letters, journals and books capture contemporary events such as the French Revolution, often in more detail and more focussed on the actual surroundings than men’s writings of the period, which often focus on the politics and the less visible ideas behind it all.

The chapters themselves focus on different aspects of the Grand Tour – art, travel, society, sickness, relationships, politics and others. Whilst some might say that the Grand Tour must have been different for men and women, Dolan shows a fair amount of similarity between the two. Both collected art, socialised and endured the difficulties of travel in those years. Women focussed on sketching famous paintings and a well-educated and skilled female traveller would win as much admiration for her drawings as she would for her writing and perhaps more so, as drawing was an accepted feminine pastime. British women also used their travels to get to know French salon culture, a world where the women held court, presided over the intellectual scene of the day and encourage the development of the arts. Salons were places for politicians, artists and intellectuals looking for stimulating conversations – places where the woman was accepted as often the first among equals. Such as situation was unthinkable in Britain before the female Tourists introduced their countrymen to it and their writings and gatherings contributed so much to the emancipation of women in the time.

Travels also brought about interesting conflicts between politics, patriotism and personal interests. Hester Piozzi was shunned by her British friends for converting to Catholicism when she married her second husband, an Italian. Other women were accused of losing their place, of transgressing boundaries and of putting themselves in needless danger without considering their husbands or children. Yet many of the women were also unmarried spinsters or widowed – women who were often marginalised by society who found a purpose in their travels. For these women, travelling became a sort of career, replacing housekeeping and childbearing.

Attentive readers will have noticed that I do not name many women. That is because sometimes this book feels like a Russian novel – too many characters with very similar names. I often felt that as long as I called a woman Mary Elizabeth I’d probably got half of her name right. Few women stood out as Mary Montagu or Hester Piozzi did and I feel let down by my own memory that I can not remember more details about these remarkable women. Perhaps the book would have been better served with biographical chapters. Despite the short biographies at the end of the book I got inordinately confused between the women and their often similar travels. But then, I suppose, I can always go back and re-read because no doubt there are many details which I have failed to pick up this time.

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