'Frolics in the Face of Europe, Sir Walter Scott, Continental Travel and the Tradition of the Grand Tour', by Iain Gordon Brown (published by Fonthill)
A quotation from a letter of 1824, the initial phrase in this somewhat cumbersome title, appealed perhaps to Iain Brown because it hints at Scott's ambivalent attitude towards European travel. The following reference to the Grand Tour indicates that his book is not solely about Scott's own travels.
In his Preface
, Brown provides further evidence of the nature of the book he has written. It 'is really an extended, discursive essay' and 'it does not tell the story of Scott's continental travels in every last detail'. Rather, 'it looks at Scott's travels from, I think, an imaginative viewpoint'. Given this admission – and there is much more of the same – I am encouraged to write a review from what might be called an equally imaginative viewpoint.
What the book's title suggests is that it has a kind of twin focus: on Scott on the one hand, on the Grand Tour on the other. And indeed, this turns out to be perfectly accurate. Professor Brown's scholarship concerning the Grand Tour and its history is both meticulous and wide-ranging – occasionally excessively so. The reader learns how in Scott's lifetime the tour lost its original exclusively classical cultural focus and moved in a more romantic direction. As he puts it, in the post-Napoleonic period, 'Romantic experiences, things, people, were preferred to the traditional diet of the old Grand Tour, with its circumscribed itineraries and its preferred canon of art, architecture and set-piece sites and sights'.
Then again, Brown has read and absorbed a huge range of travel books by grand tourists. Scott's Abbotsford library contains many of these works – and characteristically Brown goes on to describe other popular works that Scott did not own. The telling point he makes is that Scott throughout his career was fully able to imagine exactly what the Europe he had yet to visit was like. So when it comes to Scott's actual trips to France and Paris in 1815, to Dublin and Ireland in 1825, to Naples and Malta in 1831-2 just before he died, his experiences and attitudes are likened – or more frequently contrasted – to those of traditional grand tourists. Hence on the face of it, the book's title, cumbersome or not, is fully justified.
And yet, and yet. Reading the book something strange begins to happen. As its story is told, the figure of Scott becomes increasingly dominant. The Grand Tour becomes less and less important, and Scott becomes what really matters. In the end, it is only his story that counts. In fact, Scott wrote only a single travel book – Paul's Letters to his Kinsfolk
– about his trip to France, published in 1816. But here it is as though he is writing a second account of his later travels. What I mean is that Iain Brown succeeds brilliantly in bringing to life the Scott who throughout his life talked endlessly to friends and relatives about trips beyond Scotland he was thinking about making – but so rarely actually did.
Over and over again, we find ourselves inside Scott's mind as he weighs the pros and cons of actually leaving Abbotsford for Spain or France or Italy and the Mediterranean. By time we reach the closing chapters, when the physically and mentally exhausted Scott finally sets off for the Mediterranean, we are as it were there at his side. It is a deeply moving experience.
Writing a book about the apparently narrow subject of Scott and his continental travels, Professor Brown has achieved something that is anything but narrow. In his Preface
, he suggests that what he has written investigates 'what some would see as unfashionable aspects of an unfashionable man'. His book represents an admirable challenge to those who believe that Sir Walter Scott deserves to remain unfashionable.
Let me draw attention to what I see as major moments in Scott's travels. At an early point in his literary career, he thought seriously of a winter-long visit to Spain. In 1808, the year in which Marmion
was published, he seems to have become obsessed with the ongoing Peninsular War involving Spain, Portugal and France. The thought of being of being able to observe close-up an actual war appealed strongly to a writer who seems always to have been fascinated by warfare and warriors.
A few years earlier, at a time when Great Britain was fearing a Napoleonic invasion, Scott had been an enthusiastic Quartermaster of the Royal Edinburgh Volunteer Light Dragoons. But Spain would be the real thing, and happily also provide him with material which could inform and perhaps feature in his subsequent writing. However, the 1808 trip was soon postponed and never happened. Scott told a correspondent: 'I found the idea gave Mrs Scott more distress than I am entitled to do for the mere gratification of my own curiosity'.
In fact, a pattern had been established which would be repeated again and again. Scott's family, or friends, or editors or publishers would learn that he had plans to go abroad, but always there would be delays or postponements and in the end there would be no trip. As his writing career became more and more successful, and particularly after the purchase of Abbotsford, this pattern of event became increasingly typical. In 1833, looking back on his role in the closing months of Scott's life, Basil Hall provided us with the best summation of Scott's permanent ambivalence over the issue of travel. It arose, he says, from a 'secret reluctance to root himself up from his house and home, his dearly beloved black-lettered library, his musty papers, and his cherished plantations, in which he took infinitely more delight than in all the society and scenery of the rest of the world besides'.
It was Napoleon Bonaparte who inspired Scott's first visit to mainland Europe. Having escaped from Elba, Napoleon returned to power in France in March, 1815. In the so-called Hundred Days War that followed, he was finally defeated by British and Prussian forces at Waterloo in Flanders on 18 June 1815. Characteristically driven by these events, 9 August saw Scott inspecting the field of Waterloo, before moving on to Paris. Paul's Letters to his Kinsfolk
, his account of this initial European visit, would be published a few months later, and proved a popular success.
In Paris, Scott was particularly struck by the presence of soldiers of the Scottish Highlander regiments everywhere in the streets of the city. 'It was something,' he wrote, 'to hear the bagpipes playing before the Thuilleries & to see the highlanders broiling on the cuirasses of the French Imperial guards their rations of beef & mutton'.
In the museum of the Louvre, he saw two Highland soldiers and their wives 'admiring the Venus de' Medici
' and 'criticising the works of Titian and Raphael' – the Louvre was still packed with major works of art looted from all over Europe by Napoleon and his armies. In Paris too Scott met his contemporary, James Fenimore Cooper, the American novelist often – and not unreasonably – called the American Scott. Both writers found themselves lionised in the French city.
In the summer of 1825 – after having planned and postponed it several times in previous years – Scott finally made it to Ireland. He travelled to Dublin to visit his newly-married son who was an officer in the British garrison. He was also eager to pursue his studies of Dublin's Jonathan Swift whose works he was publishing in a multi-volumed edition. He remained in Ireland for over a month and was able to travel widely across the country. His status as a major writer – the unacknowledged but widely recognised author of the fantastically popular Waverley Novels – was now on a hugely grander scale than it had been in 1815. As a result, his progress across Ireland, in Brown's words, 'assumed the character of a quasi-royal progress, as Scott was honoured and feted wherever he went'.
From 1816 onwards, Scott spoke repeatedly about his desire to travel to the Mediterranean and visit the classical scenes of Italy and perhaps even Greece. As years slipped by, plans were postponed or abandoned with almost equal regularity. When it did finally happen in October 1831, however, his mode of transport was royal indeed. At this time in his life, both Scott's physical and mental powers were in sore decline. Recognising this, his friends sought for a way of travelling that might 'essentially contribute to preserve one of the most valuable lives in the country'. The answer was the Royal Navy. The Admiralty, with the approval of King William IV, allowed Scott and his family to set sail for Malta and Naples on board the warship HMS Barham.
Professor Brown's account of Scott's time in Italy – he spent almost four months in Naples and over three weeks in Rome between October 1831 and May 1832, before returning to Britain through Austria and Germany – soon becomes the saddest and most moving portion of his book. The great novelist's wellbeing was at such a low ebb that he found it difficult to move around and take in the classical sites and scenes he was witnessing. Indeed, in its final weeks, Scott's Grand Tour became little more than a race to get back to Scotland in time for him to die peacefully in his beloved Abbotsford.
In Rome, his interest seems to have been sparked only by sites associated with Scotland – and with the exiled Jacobite royal family in particular. According to Brown, 'visiting the monument to the Stuarts in St Peter's Basilica was unquestionably a highlight of Scott's entire Grand Tour'. The notion of the 'great romancer' – the 'teller of Jacobite tales, writer of Jacobite songs' now 'brought face-to-face with the memorial to the most romantic of British national lost causes' would become 'most affecting'.
Of course, despite his condition, Scott in Italy remained a hugely lionised figure. In Paris, in 1815, he had met the Tsar of Russia; in Naples in 1832 he was presented to Ferdinand the Second, King of the Two Sicilies. But his fame was also recognised by ordinary Italians. Brown quotes at length from a memoir by the American writer N P Willis describing a scene he witnessed in a Naples museum. Italian students and literati became aware of Scott's presence and mobbed him. Brown thinks that Willis's account of their enthusiasm is too extreme to be accurate: as Scott was leaving 'these enthusiastic children of the south crowded once more around him, and with exclamations of affection and even tears, kissed his hand once more'. But despite the passage's heightened language, I feel it has the ring of truth.
Andrew Hook is Emeritus Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow