Pleasure and Guilt on the Grand Tour

This review originally appeared on the ASECS website in 1999.

Chloe Chard. Pleasure and Guilt on the Grand Tour: Travel writing and imaginative geography 1600-1830. Manchester University Press, 1999. Pp. 278.

This book is a study not of the pleasures of travel but of the pleasures of travel writing. As Chloe Chard makes clear from the beginning, her interest lies ‘not with what was thought or felt about the foreign, but with what it was possible to say and write about it.’ (p. 13) This important distinction signals a new approach to reading and imagining the written history of travel, and it lifts this study well above the by-now familiar run of social histories of the Grand Tour. Although the Grand Tour, in all its variously contested manifestations, has been a beacon for a generation of social historians, what has so far been lacking is any sustained attention to the discourses of foreign travel that it generated: what has been lacking is an engagement with the imaginative geographies of the past. This book answers the lack, and in so doing it brings us closer to understanding what ‘the foreign’ meant to northern Europeans of the period.

This is where the guilt comes in. What, after all, was travel to the warm South actually for: Intellectual promiscuity? Idle curiosity? Sexual licence? The pleasures of travel are guilty pleasures, for travel almost always entails the gratification of desire. So in positioning itself as an account of gratification, travel writing will always be shaped by the dangerous pressures of guilt.

Chloe Chard is a trustworthy guide to the territory. She has mapped out the discourse of foreign travel into five rhetorical zones, each of which she takes us through in turn. The first rhetorical zone is the opposition to the familiar, a place where ‘the foreign and the familiar are placed in a relation of rivalry to each other’ (p. 42). It is a place of conflict and indulgence, where home is both longed for and despised against the discomforts and novelties of the foreign. It is the place where the writer affirms his presence as a traveller. Next comes the zone of hyperbole and observation, a place where ‘description must ever fall short’, as Patrick Brydone worded it in 1773 during his encounter with the summit of Mount Etna (p. 84). Things that are ‘impossible to describe’ are nonetheless described at length by travel writers, who seem unafraid or unaware of the dangers that ‘tedious repetition and diminished hyperbole’ afford to their prose. Our dependable guide leads us to the precise spot where we, the reader, begin to weary of the rehearsed spontaneity of the traveller.

It was in this area, too, that a new worry began to emerge in the period: was a ‘feminized effusiveness’ over foreign landscapes replacing a rhetoric of ‘manly sincerity’ and restraint (p. 103)? This worry takes us over the border into the neighboring rhetorical zone of spectator and spectacle, the place where, according to Chard’s itinerary, women writers began to redefine their problematic relationship to the antique. This central chapter contains one of the highlights of the book, a close reading of Madame de Staël’s novel Corinne; ou, l’Italie (1807), in which the travelling heroine, beset by sorrows, comes to make a strong identification with the Sibyls of antiquity. But hers, as Chard points out, is an affirming female identification with a figure from the past, not a feminized elision with antiquity.

There are dangerous forces at work within all these imaginative topographies of the foreign, but it is only in the next zone, the zone of destabilized travel, that the dangers reveal themselves for what they are: the wages of transgression and excess. Laurence Sterne’s Yorick is not alone in crossing more boundaries than the Alps while on his travels through France and Italy, and the dangers inherent in exceeding all social and familial limits can draw down destabilizing consequences on the traveller. Freud, for example, connected the desire to travel with the desire to go ‘further than one’s father’, yet to succeed in doing so is to perform a still forbidden act (p. 180). Travel, both for Freud and for Yorick (the original of the Sentimental Traveller), is a dangerous voyage into the self.

Chard’s last zone is the zone of tourism, the zone that most of us now inhabit, a carefully controlled and delimited form of exposure, wherein the dangers of the foreign (disease, crime, culture shock) have been all but eliminated. Much of our rhetorical pleasure is now drawn not from hyperbole or destabilization, but from observing the inadequacies of our fellow tourists. Take, for example, Elaine Dundy’s ‘Eager-Beaver-Culture-Vulture with the list ten yards long, who just manages to get it all crossed off before she collapses of aesthetic indigestion and has to be carried back to her hotel’ (p. 210). Here is a kind of empty vitality, both in the act and in the observation. Three hundred years of travel writing have led to the genial antics of Bill Bryson: the rhetoric of tourism honing itself on the evacuated distractions of travel.

This journey into rhetoric makes a fascinating read, and in mapping out the five-fold path of its career, Chloe Chard performs a great historical service.

Richard Hamblyn

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