Travelers, Sour and Sentimental

The Captive (Sterne’s Sentimental Journey), print, etched and published by Robert Blyth, after John Hamilton Mortimer (MET, 62.602.170).

“I hate traveling and explorers.”

—Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques (1955)

It is an illusion to think that a need to complain about travel is unique to our age of mass tourism. In 1778 Thomas Boswell related that Dr. Johnson detected a “strange turn in travelers to be displeased.”

For the roots of our contemporary attitudes toward travel we must go back to the eighteenth century, to 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 long been embarking on extended trips abroad, but by ever larger numbers of middle-class travelers as well.

The period spawned a huge travel literature, much of it unpublished journals like those of Boswell and Edward Gibbon. But books flooded the market, too, from personal accounts such as Joseph Addison’s Remarks on Several Parts of Italyof 1705, to general travel guides like Thomas Nugent’s four-volume The Grand Tour, the first of its many editions printed in 1749. These books were re-issued continuously in the course of the eighteenth century to feed the appetites both of those intent on making the journey themselves, or for stay-at-homes eager to experience it vicariously.

There is no more acid narrator of the displeasures of traveling than the Scottish physician turned man of letters, Tobias Smollett. His Travels through France and Italy came out in 1766 and remains an immensely readable and fascinating look at the curse and, occasionally, the consolation of tourism. 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.  This agreement brought the Seven Years’ War to a close and ushered in an interval of intense international travel.  Smollett was one of the very first down the jet-way.

Like so many travelers of his era, Smollett was driven abroad by health and sorrow. He forced himself from the damp and depressing British Isles in search of Mediterranean air for his tubercular lungs and in the hopes of overcoming some of the grief at the loss of his only daughter.  Because of these circumstances we can perhaps forgive Smollett his relentless petulance. But he doesn’t need to be forgiven: his spleen is what makes the book so entertaining.

Distrustful and resentful of foreigners, Smollett saves plenty of invective for the English tourist too. His grievances begin already on the road from London to Dover: “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.”

The drama of Smollett’s protracted outburst in a town in Provence where he believes himself cheated over dinner by a landlord and then is refused a departing coach by postilions in cahoots with the innkeeper puts to shame the most extravagant EasyJet freak-out of the modern age.  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 extortion. Fully mortified and exhausted by the entire scene, Smollett slumps into the coach and makes his ignominious exit.

Such encounters only abet Smollett’s disgust for the French. His must be the most resilient strain of that peculiar British Francophobia that thrives to this day: “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.” He hates French food and the ubiquitous “garlick” which 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 your 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 the Travels that are full of wonder at the beauty of the places Smollett visits and there are prescient passages on the squalor of life among the lowers classes under the tottering ancien régime. There are also forceful critiques of the most backward of European customs like dueling, cultural practices tenaciously holding on in Smollett’s 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 both their homelands and foreign territory.

Soon after the appearance of the Travels, Smollett would be sent-up as the “learned Smelfungus” by Laurence Sterne in A Sentimental Journey. Sterne’s novel appeared in 1768, 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 brilliant wit than it does in Smollett’s own account: “’Tis nothing but a huge cock pit!” bellows Smelfungus.

Sterne makes fun both of the effusions of gung-ho travelers and the grumblings of Smollett and his ilk: “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 most exuberant cheerleader of tourism there ever was or will be. On the road there is always something to look at, to be cheered and edified by. The complainers are missing the whole point of travel. “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.”

As we scan the planes, trains, automobiles, and space ships of the galactically rich we see legions of tourists rigged up with earbuds. This would lead one to the conclusion that music is crucial to the modern enterprise of travel.

For his part, Smollett does not let his bad moods be distracted and lightened by a singing voice or merry fiddler. He only pauses once 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 makes a hilarious trip to the Opera comique in Paris,where the action in the theater audience is more entertaining than that on the stage. In Burgundy he enjoys the rural music that accompanies the grape harvest, and later makes a charming comparison between the spread of knowledge and music in Italian streets, “whereof those may partake, who pay nothing.”

The greatest musical traveler of the great age of travel was the Englishman Charles Burney, who knew both Smollett and Sterne and their books. In response to their work, he produced the first musical travelogue.

Burney set out for France and Italy in June of 1770 returning six months later. He published his account of this, his first tour, less than a year later. A second trip to northern Europe quickly followed and brought forth two more detailed volumes. Burney’s books are imbued with far more of Sterne’s sentimentality than Smollett’s sourness. But Burney shares with Smollett a penchant for hammering the French, though he does lighten his blows now and again. Like most Englishmen, especially those addicted to Italian opera, Burney rails against the stultifying conservatism of French musical culture. 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 but was deprived an audience with the realm’s musician-king, Frederick the Great. Personal affronts invariably colored the musical traveler’s remarks.

In Italy Burney seems to enjoy the political chaos, though he is glad not to have to live under it all the time. The patchwork of courts and ecclesiastical institutions yields a riotous surplus of music, some of it brilliant, some of it shambolic, all of it exciting. Burney is not only interested in the opera and sacred music performed glorious churches, but also in the music of the streets, 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 spirited attention and brisk opinion.  Burney’s vivid account brings the musical life of late eighteenth-century Europe to life. No author has ever matched him in capturing a continent’s music.

When there is music Burney’s touristic troubles disappear, from the battering coach ride over the Apennines and the 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 curtain rises in the opera or the peasant song wafts from the river banks.

Burney had no earbuds in the coach. His traveling was about getting to the music, not about having the music numb the drudgery and danger of transport. In our own times, the eagerness of Burney’s journey becomes increasingly difficult to equal.

As the travel flood gates open again—as they did in the mid-eighteenth century but with exponentially greater volume—each of us is both Smollett and Sterne: raging against the horrors of the journey, then trying to welcome the joy of being there. But even a Burney of the present age might be more inclined to stream that performance from Teatro di San Carlo then launch himself into the twenty-first-century fray.

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