The armchair traveller’s virtual Grand Tour seen through the eyes of women

The research I did for last year’s post on the Alhambra awoke my interest in the subject of the Grand Tour, traditionally a rite of passage for wealthy young gentlemen to complete their education, usually involving travel to France and Italy. As more people made the trip to continental Europe during the 18th century there was a proliferation of both guidebooks for grand tourists and books describing the places visited to be consumed by armchair travellers back home. Now in 2020, with many of us unable to travel abroad and missing out on summer holidays, it seems to be a good time to revisit some of these texts, teasing out contrasts and parallels with our time, concentrating on resources that are currently available to view online (by Raven account holders). I have narrowed the focus of this post to women travellers – although the Grand Tour is perhaps still regarded as a male preserve, some women of means did undertake trips abroad. Women made a significant contribution to the flourishing genre of travel writing, offering valuable insights, covering sightseeing highlights, the art, the architecture and the antiquities but just as likely to touch on social customs, domestic life or even shopping.

Lady Montagu in Turkish dress by Liotard via Wikimedia commons

In the spotlight first is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), self-educated at a time when formal schooling was denied to women. As a young woman she accompanied her husband when he became ambassador in Constantinople, and her Turkish embassy letters (contained within The Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu v. 1) influenced future generations of female travellers and writers. She spent most of the last twenty years of her life in continental Europe away from her husband, travelling widely, writing many letters, all of which can be viewed online. Here, writing in 1739, she visits the historic Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan which had remarkably lax access and borrowing rights, comments on the Venetian fashion of mask-wearing and gives a useful opinion, still apt today, on behaviour:

One of the pleasures I found there was the Borromean library, where all strangers have free access; and not only so, but liberty, on giving a note for it, to take any printed book home with them… It is the fashion for the greatest ladies to walk the streets, which are admirably paved; and a mask, price sixpence, with a little cloak, and the head of a domino*, the genteel dress to carry you everywhere… And it is so much the established fashion for everybody to live their own way, that nothing is more ridiculous than censuring the actions of another. This would be terrible in London, where we have little other diversion; but for me, who never found any pleasure in malice, I bless my destiny that has conducted me to a part where people are better employed than in talking of the affairs of their acquaintance.

*See here for more on the domino.

Elizabeth Craven (1750-1828) also travelled alone in 1786. The mother of seven children, she had parted from her first husband in 1780 and wrote letters to her future second husband while travelling. Unlike those of us limited by modern-day baggage allowances she did not travel light, even taking her concert harp with her. In her letters she shared both her delights and disappointments. Here is a typical complaint about unfamiliar food:

Among twenty things served up to my table at supper, I could eat nothing but celery. In Italy cinnamon is an ingredient they put into every dish, which I have a mortal aversion to, woodcocks stewed in sugar, and chickens roasted till they are as hard and as dry as wood.

Portrait of Hester Thrale by Joshua Reynolds via Wikimedia Commons

An alternative account of travels to many of the same places in Europe, also during the 1780s, can be found in the 1789 Observations and reflections made in the course of a journey through France, Italy, and Germany by Hester Lynch Piozzi (Thrale) (1741-1821), a close friend of Samuel Johnson. After her husband died in 1781 she fell in love with and married Piozzi, an Italian music teacher, and it was with him that she travelled for two years through France to Italy and back through Germany. Her account was based on journals rather than letters and with a native Italian by her side, she managed to shed new light on Italian culture, writing in a colloquial style which differed somewhat from men’s writing of the time.

18th century guidebooks for grand tourists tended to be descriptive but Mariana Starke (1761-1838) produced a travel guide containing more practical information which became the model for future guidebooks such as Murray’s handbooks. Her first published advice appeared after a stay in Italy during the 1790s. She then revisited continental Europe from 1817 to 1819, and produced a new work, Travels on the Continent Written for the Use and Particular Information of Travellers, in which she noted changes that she observed which were caused by the Napoleonic wars of the intervening years. In a most comprehensive appendix she included a list of items travellers may wish to take with them as well as details of expenses. As we become accustomed to museums requiring us to book online because of COVID-19, the following observation of hers in Dresden strikes quite a chord:

In order to gain admittance to the Picture Gallery, the Treasury, the Gallery of Antiques, and the Royal Libraries, it is requisite to send, over night, your name, country, and quality, to the respective Directors; together with the number of persons you intend to bring, and the hour at which you mean to come. You may either go from nine till half past ten in the morning, or from half past ten till twelve; from two till half past three in the afternoon, or from half past three till five.

The Diary of an Ennuyée was a travel journal, initially published anonymously in 1826 and believed to be the authentic account of an ill young lady who died shortly after writing her last diary entry. It was, however, fictitious and the identity of the writer was revealed to be Anna Brownell Jameson (1794-1860) who had written it while working as a governess in Europe. Her description of a visit to the opera in Naples is both enticing and frustrating, given that we are currently unable to recreate this experience:

Teatro di San Carlo interior by Giorgio Sommer (click on image to see enlarged version) via Wikimedia Commons

Last night we visited the theatre of San Carlo… It was crowded in every part, and many of the audience were in dominos and fancy dresses: a few were masked. Rossini’s Barbiere di Seviglia, which contains, I think more melody than all his other operas put together was most enchantingly sung, and as admirably acted.

Here is an equally tantalising glimpse of public life, unavailable to us right now, this time in the Louvre in Paris:

There seemed some few good landscapes and still-life pieces, and there were several correct views of Paris, especially that seen from the very windows of the gallery; but the crowds were impenetrable round the best pictures, and vain was the attempt of seeing them to advantage, for in most positions the lights crossed in every possible direction.

This is taken from A Spinster’s Tour in France, the States of Genoa, etc., during the Year 1827 by Elizabeth Strutt (1782-1867). Although married herself she felt the need for a guidebook for unaccompanied lady travellers and like Mariana Starke before her incorporated practical advice.

Frances Trollope by Hervieu via Wikimedia Commons

Our final female traveller is Frances (Fanny) Trollope (1779-1863). She had already written of her time in America in Domestic Manners of the Americans but went on to write extensively about Paris in Paris and the Parisians in 1835. I was especially interested in her descriptions of social distancing observed while visiting a mental institution on the outskirts of Paris:

The ground close adjoining to the house is divided into many small well-enclosed gardens; the women’s apartments opening to some, the men’s to others of them. In several of these gardens I observed neat little tables, such as are used in the restaurans of Paris, with a clean cloth, and all necessary appointments, placed pleasantly and commodiously in the shade, at each of which was seated one person, who was served with a separate dinner, and with every appearance of comfort.

Both the Grand Tour and female travellers have been fruitful areas of research in recent years. Here are links to further online reading of interest:

Two other books which look useful but which are presently less easy to access are:

Katharine Dicks

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