Top 10 books about the Grand Tour – The Guardian

Posted: August 16, 2020 at 9:54 am

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Not for the oiks British Gentlemen in Rome by Katharine Read, c.1750. Photograph: incamerastock/Alamy

The Grand Tour was one of the defining educational experiences of the 18th century, a kind of travelling finishing school, comprising aristocratic visits to ancient cultural sites, princely art galleries, and exclusive Enlightenment soirees. Typically, British tourists (the word dates from 1772) visited France, Germany and Italy. Some, like Byron, even went on to Greece and Turkey for headier pursuits. It was a year of sightseeing, hobnobbing and sex before returning home with good memories and possibly syphilis. But this was strictly an elite experience. It was very much not for the oiks.

My new novel tells the story of two brothers dispatched on to the Grand Tour in the 1760s to make fashionable new friends. Instead they meet the magnificently savage Lavelle, who destroys their plans. There is plenty of sex and culture in the book, but as a writer, I am more interested in the other side of history, the history of outsiders.

The Grand Tour is the ultimate story of insiders: rich, white Europeans go on an exclusive jolly before commencing a life of power and privilege. We can all imagine a certain blond-haired chap having done it as a youth. Writing my novel, I was asking: is there an outsider history of the Grand Tour? Does the other even exist in the Enlightenment, which spoke of freedom, but from the most elite vantage point?

1. The British Abroad: The Grand Tour in the Eighteenth Century by Jeremy Black (1992)If you want a readable introduction to the subject, this is it. It covers everything from the harsh realities of life on the road, the still-perilous journeys, that discovery of sex and suddenly running out of money 1,000 miles from home. It also shows how unforeseen events (the French Revolution) could suddenly change everything. Should you too be living through a time where unforeseen events have suddenly changed everything, I recommend it.

2. Of Travel by Sir Francis Bacon (1625)Gleaned from his own journeys around France, Italy and Spain, polymath genius Bacon recommends travellers should keep a journal, meet locals, get them to show you around, visit many famous sights, and regard travel as an illuminating experience. It is amazing to think these were new ideas then, but as with so much of modern life, Bacon had to show us first.

3. The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett (1751)Frankly, Peregrine Pickle is a pain in the arse. The Grand Tour is only part of this story the hero only gets as far as France before turning back but he is cantankerous, offensive and hilarious right across his travels, not least in poisonous pen portraits of literary enemies such as Henry Fielding. George Orwell hated the book, deriding its snobbish, elitist impulses. But then again, Orwell was proudly, openly homophobic.

4. Travels through France and Italy by Tobias Smollett (1766)Despite Peregrine Pickles awfulness, you still want to like Smollett because of the circumstances in which he wrote his hugely influential Grand Tour travelogue: grief-stricken, fleeing the death of his only child. But the same wonderfully awful Smollett who insulted and berated through that book now picks stupid, pointless real-life fights all the way across France. He hates his travel companions and is dubiously withering about Catholic southern Europe. But his wicked in the real sense humour and perceptive eye make this glorious, shameless, appalling fun.

5. A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne (1768)Written in response to Smolletts travelogue, it was allegedly inspired when the two writers met. Sterne so disliked Smollett that he created the odious, fabulously named Smelfungus, whom his own alter ego, Yorick, meets en route. Wandering aimlessly around France, Yorick is more interested in sex than culture. In so doing, Sterne cleverly reminds us of a big part of the Tours appeal for young British people: sex.

6. Sultry Climates: Travel and Sex Since the Grand Tour by Ian Littlewood (2001)Speaking of which, this very entertaining book explores the Grand Tour more fully as an opportunity for sex of every variety, frowned upon back home. It also considers the influence of the Tour on how weve holidayed ever since. Are you a Connoisseur, a Pilgrim or a Rebel? This book shows you how the Grand Tour shaped how you travel.

7. Italian Journey by Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1816)Where the British snigger and satirise, the Germans bring poetry. Italian Journey is a lovely work suffused with Goethes sincere, lush Romanticism genuinely new after the hard-eyed satires of the 18th century. Ruminations on art, culture, history, climate, even geology hover beautifully, while Goethe shows how Italy seemed to the Grand Tourist a great civilisation simultaneously alive and in ruins. Which is all great: but still white, male, elite business as usual.

8. Ladies of the Grand Tour by Brian Dolan (1992)Women rarely feature much in writing about the Tour but Dolans survey captures its liberating sometimes revolutionary impact on British women, celebrating them as writers, thinkers and observers. It finds interesting links between travel and radicalism for that first generation of women we now see as feminists, for example, Mary Wollstonecraft.

9. Mary Shelleys History of a Six Weeks Tour (1817)Speaking of whom, you could probably make a good argument for the influence of the Tour on Shelleys Frankenstein, but Mary Wollstonecrafts daughter also wrote an account of her own experience of the Grand Tour. Today, its a fascinating document of a politically radical young woman venturing off on her own adventures, claiming a female voice in an otherwise male space. And what a voice insightful, polemical, literary and all written when she was just 20. Marvellous.

10. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789)But while the upper classes had such fun on the Tour, many people in the 18th century were on far darker journeys. Equianos autobiographical masterpiece travels from his childhood in (what is now) Nigeria to slavery in the Caribbean and freedom and fame in Britain as a leading black activist. His book thus becomes a horrifically clever inversion of the classic Grand Tour narrative, boldly smashing open the vanity of so much of the Enlightenment.

In my book, Lavelle casts a withering eye over the self-regard of the Enlightenment. He retains his ire most of all for the adored Voltaire, who was also an antisemite who sucked up to autocrats. The world is rotten, Lavelle says. Lovers of books, do you think they do not rape their maids? And philosophers, do they not whip their slaves? Equiano teaches us the truth of 18th-century Europe as much as Voltaire, Sterne and Smollett. It is he, the outsider, who tells the truth of history, every bit as much as or more than its privileged heroes.

The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle by Neil Blackmore is published by Cornerstone. To order a copy, go to

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Top 10 books about the Grand Tour - The Guardian

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August 16th, 2020 at 9:54 am

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