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Authors: Alan; Sillitoe

Leading the Blind

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Leading the Blind

A Century of Guide Book Travel

Alan Sillitoe

My thanks to Jane Dunlop,

Librarian of the Royal Geographical Society


One · Officer Eaten by a Bear

Two · Hurdles

Three · Getting There

Four · Paris

Five · Switzerland

Six · Germany and the Rhine

Seven · Northern Italy

Eight · Rome and Naples

Nine · Southern Italy and Sicily

Ten · The South of France

Eleven · Sunny Spain

Twelve · The Road to the East

Thirteen · Greece and Egypt

Fourteen · The Holy Land

Fifteen · Turkey

Sixteen · Russia

Seventeen · England, Home and Beauty


A Biography of Alan Sillitoe by Ruth Fainlight



In 1861, Baedeker's guidebook to Switzerland informs us that an English officer fell into the bears' den at Berne and was ‘torn in pieces after a desperate struggle'. Like the eternal conundrums that have puzzled poets, such as who cleft the Devil's foot, what song the Sirens sang, and what secret was concealed by the Gordian knot, I was curious to solve this one, at least as far as knowing the man's name, but a letter to the mayor's officer at Berne querying his identity brought no response.

Murray's handbook for 1874 gave more details of the officer's fate, saying that he was ‘destroyed by the large male bear, having fallen in an attempt to pass along the wall separating the two dens. The struggle was long, and took place in the presence of many witnesses, and, it is said, of an armed sentry, who did not interfere.'

Later editions of the same book tell us that the victim was Swedish, a Captain Lorck, who was killed ‘owing to the stupidity of his companion, who might easily have caused him to be rescued, but lost his head'. One wonders which of the bears dined off that, and whether it was at all palatable.

Being torn apart by bears was only one pitfall of travel in the Victorian Age, and others, albeit less terminal, will be mentioned later. Macmillan's guide to Switzerland, 1904, informs us that carrots and cakes to feed the bears were sold at the various stalls. Visiting the bear pit a few years ago I noticed that the safety rails were such as to make it impossible for anyone to suffer the same fate as Captain Lorck.

After the Congress of Vienna in 1815 had promised peace on the mainland of Europe for a long time to come, people from Great Britain went ‘abroad' in ever-increasing numbers. The Industrial Revolution had enriched many, and enabled far more to travel than had been the case before the Napoleonic Wars. The following paragraph from the
of 18 November 1822 nicely sums up the futility of that series of conflicts:

It is estimated that more than a million bushels of human and inhuman bones were imported last year from the continent of Europe into the port of Hull. The neighbourhood of Leipsig, Austerlitz, Waterloo and of all the places where, during the late bloody war, the principal battles were fought, have been swept alike of the bones of the hero and the horse which he rode. Thus collected from every quarter, they have been shipped to the port of Hull and thence forwarded to the Yorkshire bone grinders who have erected steam-engines and powerful machinery for the purpose of reducing them to a granulary state. In this condition they are sold to the farmers to manure their lands.

By the 1840s railways and steamships were linking places of importance, though travellers still went by coach (often their own) or as well-to-do pedestrians in regions of scenic beauty. The bicycle had become popular by the end of the century, and the motor omnibus made its appearance a little later, before the Great War in 1914 ended an era of travel which was certainly more arduous – and therefore more interesting – than it is today when people are transported in an hour over what in those times would have taken days, if not weeks.

Before the French Revolution only the rich could make their way, at least in any style, to foreign places. William Beckford – ‘England's wealthiest son', as Byron called him – moved around in a glamorous equipage, followed by retainers and his own cook; while Arthur Young, the gentleman-farmer from Suffolk, went through France to investigate the state of agriculture, and thereby left a pre-Revolutionary picture of that country so unique that his book was often required reading in French schools through much of the nineteenth century.

Shelley and his entourage, in 1814 and 1816, travelled on foot and by donkey, from Paris to the Alps, at the cost of sixty pounds. On leaving Switzerland they just managed to get home on the twenty-eight pounds remaining.

Later travellers might have a more viable budget, but their educational levels varied, from the accomplished Classical scholar to the newly rich manufacturer whose wife and growing children persuaded him that it was ‘the thing' to go abroad. The galleries, castles and Gothic cathedrals of Europe – but especially the cities of Florence, Venice and Rome – were soon overflowing with English tourists.

No writer was more biting against what he considered the tide of vulgarity crowding through Europe than Thackeray: ‘Times are altered at Ostend now; of the Britons who go thither, very few look like lords, or act like members of our hereditary aristocracy. They seem for the most part shabby in attire, dingy of linen, lovers of billiards and brandy, and cigars and greasy ordinaries.'

The educated and snobbish considered themselves ‘travellers' rather than ‘tourists', reluctant to associate with the uncultured mob who were thought to give their country a bad name. The German author of a guide to Nuremburg, writing about the castle, observed that ‘in the summer time the cheerful voices of German philistines or inquisitive Britons soon drove me from this haunt'.

Practical ways of ameliorating the unlettered condition of tourists were undertaken by two guidebook publishers, John Murray of London, who produced a
Hand-book for Holland, Belgium, and North Germany
in 1836, and Karl Baedeker of Coblenz, whose guide to the same countries came out in 1839. Their works were of most use to the educated, who must have been their main readers. In Murray's
Southern Italy
, 1853, all quotations from Classical authors are given in the original, as if it would be an insult to translate them for readers. French was certainly necessary to receive full benefit from Augustus J. C. Hare's illustrated cultural guides for Italy and France which appeared later in the century.

Such books instructed potential travellers as to how they should behave on leaving home ground, and described in economical prose the countries whose names they bore, so that even today one learns a great deal of the conditions at that time. Topographical exactitude and honest assessment were the criteria, but there were also lists of hotels, with comments and prices, and precise catalogues of each great picture gallery. Notable buildings were pointed out and described, the gems of European civilization marked with an asterisk in case anyone should walk by them unawares.

Baedeker was to comment that his firm was the first to use asterisks, ‘single or double, as marks of commendation for hotels and restaurants, for views and sites of outstanding natural beauty, and for works of architecture and art', the object being to ‘familiarise his readers with the merits, in general esteem, of the things they encountered on their travels; “starred in Baedeker” became a synonym for high quality'.

Guidebooks, then, were the educated dogs which led the blind, giving the latest information on travelling conditions, but also instructing those who needed to have the blanks in their knowledge filled in, much of which, it might be said, is still of interest for the traveller today. The English editions of Baedeker's guidebooks were in a sense more democratic, in catering for the tourist of modest means. Quotations were kept as few and as short as possible, and his meticulousness may have appealed more to the engineer than the pedant.

The early Murray handbooks were written for the rich and cultured traveller who could afford a private carriage and to employ a courier. His readers were assumed to be on a higher social level, though the law is sometimes laid down heavily on how travellers should behave, indicating that the so-called upper classes may not have been above a bit of rough stuff when dealing with recalcitrant foreigners.

, 1848, we are told that Englishmen ‘have a reputation for pugnacity in France: let them therefore be especially cautious not to make use of their fists, however grave the provocation, otherwise they will rue it. No French magistrate or judge will listen to any plea of provocation; fine and imprisonment are the offender's inevitable portion.'

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, in her
Journal of a Six Weeks Tour
, gives this stricture some point when she relates an event at the beginning of her journey with Shelley down the Rhine in 1816:

Our companions in this voyage were of the meanest class, smoked prodigiously, and were exceedingly disgusting. After having landed for refreshment in the middle of the day, we found that our former seats were occupied; we took others, when the original possessors angrily, and almost with violence, insisted upon our leaving them. Their brutal rudeness to us, who did not understand their language, provoked Shelley to knock one of the foremost down: he did not return the blow, but continued his vociferations until the boatmen interfered, and provided us with other seats.

BOOK: Leading the Blind
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