Travelers, Sour and Sentimental

“The Captive,” an illustration from Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy.

“I hate traveling and explorers.”

—Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques (1955)

Texas loosens, Italy locks down. With the skies mostly still clear and quiet, one can hear the collective champing at the bit before the gates open and vacationers charge into their first getaway in more than year. As Airbnb bookings surge, it’s worth asking what the mood will be among holiday makers. Will all be grateful for release from quarantine, thrilled to be out among the galloping herds, radiant with good feeling and even better manners?

Already in 1778 Thomas Boswell related that Samuel Johnson detected a “strange turn in travelers to be displeased.” The eighteenth century was the golden age of the Grand Tour, when extended journeys on the European continent were made not only by royals and aristocrats, whose families had for generations taken long trips abroad, but also by large numbers of middle-class travelers. The period also spawned a huge travel literature, much of it in unpublished journals, like those of Thomas Boswell and Edward Gibbon. Books flooded the market, too, from personal accounts such as Joseph Addison’s Remarks on Several Parts of Italy to general travel guides, like Thomas Nugent’s four-volume The Grand Tour. These books were reprinted continuously in the course of the eighteenth century to feed the appetites both of those intent on touring themselves and those stay-at-homes eager to experience travel vicariously.

No traveler was more acid than the Scottish physician turned man of letters, Tobias Smollett. Published in 1766, his Travels through France and Italy remains an immensely readable and fascinating look at the curse and, less frequently, the consolations of travel. The book chronicles the author’s two years on the continent, which began in June of 1763, just months after the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The agreement brought the Seven Years’ War to a close and ushered in period of intense international travel. Smollett was one of the first down the jet-way.

Like many travelers, Smollett was driven abroad by health and sorrow. He fled damp and depressing British Isles in search of Mediterranean air for his tubercular lunges and in the hopes of overcoming at least part of the grief at the loss of his only daughter. Because of these travails we can forgive Smollett his relentless petulance.

Distrustful and resentful of foreigners, Smollett has plenty of invective for the English tourist, too. His grievances begin already on the road to the Channel: “I need not tell you this is the worst road in England, with respect to the conveniences of traveling. The chambers are in general cold and comfortless, the beds paltry, the cookery execrable, the wine poison, the attendance [i.e., service] bad, the publicans insolent, and the bills extortion; there is not a drop of tolerable malt liquor to be had from London to Dover.”

Smollett’s protracted outburst in a town in Provence where he believes himself cheated over dinner and then is refused a departing coach by postilions in cahoots with the scheming landlord outdoes any EasyJet freak-out I’ve yet seen. Smollett eventually ferrets out the consul but this venal official provides no help to the traveler who, with the entire town watching, is finally forced to acquiesce to what he sees as robbery. Mortified and exhausted, Smollett slumps into the coach and makes his ignominious exit.

Such encounters only abet Smollett’s general disgust with the French. His must be the most resilient strain of that peculiar British Francophobia that thrived before Brexit and even more virulently after it: “If a Frenchman is capable of real friendship, it must certainly be the most disagreeable present he can possibly make to a man of true English character.” It’s no surprise, then, that the dyspeptic Smollett hates French food and the “garlick” that contaminates all the horrid ragouts inflicted upon him.

Smollett loathes not only French cuisine, but the love they lavish on it: “If there were five hundred dishes at table, a Frenchman will eat of all of them, and then complain he has no appetite.” French foppery is even worse: “the French have a most ridiculous fondness for their hair. A Frenchman will sooner part with his religion than with his hair.”

Appearance and appetite reveal still darker motivations: “If a Frenchman is admitted into your family, and distinguished by repeated marks of your friendship and regard, the first return he makes for your civilities is to make love to your wife, if she is handsome; if not, to your sister, or daughter, or niece. If he suffers a repulse from you wife, or attempts in vain to debauch your sister, or your daughter, of your niece, he will make addresses to your grandmother.”

There are select moments in Smollett’s Travels that are full of wonder at the beauty of the places visited. Prescient passages decry the squalor of life among the lowers classes under the tottering ancien régime. Smollett also mounts forceful critiques of backward of European customs like dueling, cultural practices tenaciously holding on in the supposedly Enlightened century. Hugely popular and influential in its day, the book provides the rhetorical compass by which so many disagreeable travelers have since navigated and complained their way through their homelands and into foreign territory.

Soon after the appearance of the Travels, Smollett was sent-up as the “learned Smelfungus” by his acquaintance Laurence Sterne’s novel, A Sentimental Journey, which came out in 1768, just two years after Smollett’s book. Smollett/Smelfungus is a bumbling boor whose description of the Pantheon in Rome seems infinitely more absurd under Sterne’s comic treatment: “’Tis nothing but a huge cock pit,” bellows the belligerent Brit.

Sterne’s novel makes fun both of the effusions of gung-ho travelers and the grumblings of Smollett and his ilk. When the characters in A Sentimental Journal exude enthusiasm they are treated to Sterne’s parodying wit: “I declare, ” exclaims the narrator Yorick, slapping his hands cheerily together, “that was I in a desert, I would find out wherewith in it to call forth my affections.” Yorick is the greatest cheerleader of tourism there ever was or will be. He always finds something to look at, to be cheered and edified by. Complainers lack the spirit of discovery: “I pity the man who can travel from Dan to Beersheba, and cry, ‘Tis all barren—and so it is; and so is all the world to him who will not cultivate the fruits it offers.”

What of the role of music in all this? Smollett by contrast never lets his dark moods be lightened by song or dance. Only once does he pause to remark on what he sees as the contradiction between the lively and ingenious conversational style of the French and their musical tastes: “With all their volatility, prattle, and fondness for bon mots, the French delight in a species of drawling, melancholy church music.”

Sterne’s Yorick is a man of feeling and so must make a trip to the Opéra comique in Paris, where the action among the audience in the theatre is more entertaining than that on the stage. In Burgundy Yorick enjoys the rural music accompanying the grape harvest, and later makes a charming comparison between the spread of knowledge and song in the Italian street, “whereof those may partake, who pay nothing.”

That same joyful sentiment motivated the greatest musical traveler of the great age of travel: Charles Burney, who knew both Smollett and Sterne and their books. Just a few years after their volumes appeared, he produced the first musical travelogue.

Burney set out for six-month tour France and Italy in June of 1770, and published his account of the journey the following year. A second trip to northern Europe followed in 1772 and brought forth two, more detailed volumes.

Burney’s books are imbued with far more of Sterne’s sentimentality than Smollett’s sourness. Burney but does shares with Smollett a penchant for hammering the French, though he does lighten his blows now and again. Like most Englishman, especially those addicted to Italian opera, Burney rails against the stultifying conservatism of French musical culture. For him that nation’s subservience to dead musical heroes mirrored its acceptance of political absolutism. Burney would level the same critique at Prussia when he arrived there two years later. In Berlin he was denied an audience with the great musician-king, Frederick the Great. Personal affronts invariably colored this greatest of musical travelers’ observations.

In Italy Burney seems almost to welcome the political chaos—though he is glad not to have to live under it all the time—because the patchwork of courts and ecclesiastical institutions yields a sumptuous surplus of music, some of it great, some of it shambolic, but all of it exciting. Burney is not only interested in the opera and in services in glorious churches, but also in the music of the street: from the exotic songs and instruments of Naples to the menacing military marches of parading German soldiers. Because there is always something new to hear and something interesting to be found even in the most flawed performances, Burney’s three travel books on the Present State of Music in Europe are filled with memorable portraits and brisk opinion. Without his colorful picture of the continent, our view of the period would be monochrome.

When Burney hears music the troubles of his journey disappear—from the battering coach ride over the Apennines that run down center of Italian Peninsula, to a bivouac in German fields, to the harrowing raft trip down the Danube to Vienna. The succession of departures and arrivals, the flow of inconvenience and anticipation, the boredom and dread of travel are forgotten as soon as the opera house curtain rises are the buskers start up.

When the travel craze cranks up again in the months ahead, there will be millions of Smolletts and Sternes on tour. Indeed, we are all a mixture of both.

Burney had no Spotify and iPhone in the bumpy coach, no live stream from the Teatro di San Carlo to be taken in on his small screen. Soon earbudded tourists will be once again on the move through the world. There is pace is far quicker than Burney’s, and many will be accompanied by their own private audiotopias. Burney’s mode of travel did not depend on having a perpetual soundtrack in tow. Instead, he sought out music in its own place and time, and in his gracious prose it comes alive again.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at