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Brian Dolan leads us into the hearts and minds of thise privileged women, through their stories, thoughts, and court gossip recorded in journals, letters, and diaries. As ...
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Brian Dolan leads us into the hearts and minds of thise privileged women, through their stories, thoughts, and court gossip recorded in journals, letters, and diaries. As engrossing as the finest fiction, Ladies of the Grand Tour creates a mesmerizing portrait of a previously overlooked slice of 18th-century life.
Unbeknown to Mary Berry, two days before she wrote to her confidant Bertie Greatheed in Göttingen, Admiral Nelson's fleet had destroyed Napoleon Bonaparte's army in the battle of the Nile, quashing the French Egyptian expedition and effectively ending French plans to aggravate Britain further by thrusting at India. As far as Mary Berry was concerned, writing from her home in Mayfair on 2 August 1798, Napoleon was still running riot in Europe; the prospect of a French invasion of Britain was on everyone's lips, and the Continent was closed off to travellers. Twelve months earlier, Mary thought she would by now be on the Continent — her much looked forward to third trip there — conversing personally with Bertie Greatheed. But, alas, she was stranded, left to lament through correspondence her inability to escape. 'Most thoroughly,' she wrote, 'do I begin to feel the want of that shake out of English ways, English whims, and English prejudices, which nothing but leaving England gives one.'
This was hardly an appropriate time to condemn 'English ways' and a desire for the continental lifestyle. Mary Berry could have been accused of being a French sympathiser — a Jacobin (a radical activist in support of the principles of the French Revolution), or, with equivalent indignity, a Catholic. Mary was politically aware, but her restlessness with forced domestic residence overrode her sense of discretion. And anyway, she could have claimed with some justification, when was there a good time for a woman to talk about shaking loose 'English prejudices' and broadening herintellectual horizons? By 'English prejudices' she was in part referring to a deep-rooted antagonism towards women's enlightenment. Mary felt confined, both physically and intellectually. The world seemed to be shrinking around her and without a change of air, and marooned in England she feared intellectual suffocation:
After a residence of four or five years we all begin to forget the existence of the Continent of Europe, till we touch it again with our feet. The whole world to me, that is to say the whole circle of my ideas, begins to be confined between N. Audley-Street and Twickenham. I know no great men but Pitt and Fox, no king and queen but George and Charlotte, no towns but London. All the other cities, and courts, and great men of the world may be very good sort of places and of people, for aught we know or care; except they are coming to invade us, we think no more of them than of the inhabitants of another planet.
Just a few years earlier, before relations with France disintegrated completely, another English woman abandoned London and headed for Paris. Mary Wollstonecraft had longed to visit the Continent for some time. She had dreamt about it for over a decade, while pursuing a catalogue of occupations open to middle-class women, before taking pen in hand and daringly writing herself into a new career as an author. By 1792, with her authorial voice and confidence gathering strength, she published the work for which she is most well known: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written while intoxicated on the champagne fizz of the French Revolution. In this work she expressed a desire to see the revolutionary principles of liberté, égalité and fraternité apply to women as well as to men. Things were happening abroad; the Continent was a model of change and liberation. 'In France or Italy, have women confined themselves to domestic life?,' she asked her readers. 'No!' England was behind the times. 'I long for independence!,' she cried. 'I will certainly visit France, it has long been a desire floating in my brain.' Within months of the publication and immediate success of her book, she had embarked on her journey.
Mary Berry and Mary Wollstonecraft had much in common. Both were from middle-class backgrounds, but had seen the prospects of family wealth squandered by rogue relatives. At the time of their travels, neither was married. Both had overcome prejudices against female advancement and become published authors. And both would find the experience of foreign travel stimulating and cathartic. It is no accident that the metaphor of travel has long been used to represent the twists and turns, discoveries and drudgery of intellectual and psychological development.
Travel and the knowledge collected along the way gave currency to the metaphor of 'the path to enlightenment'. By the end of the eighteenth century, the term was taken much more literally, and directed many women in their quests for improvement to the Continent. Letters and journals recorded their responses to life abroad, and in turn their discoveries about themselves. Travel writing, which included letters written home, presented a rare opportunity for Georgian women to articulate views on the world around them and their responses to it. Partly personal, biographical and intimate, their writings were often also political, descriptive, forthright and polemical. Through travel women of a certain status could fashion themselves into informed, discriminating observers, acute social commentators and listened-to cultural critics.
Berry and Wollstonecraft were but two of a wide range of women determined to elevate themselves through travel. By the end of the eighteenth century, 'ladies of letters' had begun to settle into their pursuit of a 'life of the mind': continental travel allowed them to carve out niches in the intellectual geography of Enlightenment England. Many women who had the chance to travel were changing the course of common assumptions and showing others how travel could help them arrive at a new position — personally and socially — in polite society.
A number of 'bluestocking' women, noted for their intellectual accomplishments, also left the droning world of polite drawing-room conversation to exercise their minds, enjoy social independence and cultivate new tastes, and romances, abroad. Travel helped women to develop views on the opportunities and rights to education; it guided those seeking separation from unhappy domestic circumstances; it worked to improve mental and physical health...
Ladies of the Grand Tour. Copyright © by Brian Dolan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted November 6, 2001
This book recovers a history of women's experiences of travel in the eighteenth century which has been dominated by stories of heroic male adventurers, and does so by successfully balancing the nuance of historical debate with a prose style that makes it a very pleasurable read. True, the stories revealed about each woman stimulated in me a desire to know more about each one, but this is less a criticism than testimony of its engaging topic. I didn't find the organisation confusing, but I did sometimes wish that fewer women were brought up in some chapters so as not to drown out the voice of the one focused on.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.