Elizabeth Strutt (1783–1863? – the exact dates of neither her birth nor her death are known) was not in fact a spinster: she was first married to a Hull physician, and wrote novels as Mrs Byron; after his death in 1805 she married Jacob George Strutt (1784–1867), an artist best known for his landscapes, especially studies of trees. Elizabeth travelled widely in Europe with her husband, and travel books resulted, but she clearly saw the need for a guide to encourage lone female travellers, and in 1828 produced A Spinster’s Tour in France, the States of Genoa, etc., during the Year 1827, with the aid of which the most timid spinster could find her way in comfort, day by day, hotel by hotel, and diligence by diligence, across France and into Italy, doing heroic amounts of sight-seeing on the way.(Two asides here. (1) As so often, the ‘lone’ bit of ‘lone female traveller’ usually encompasses at least one maidservant. Molly Vivian Hughes, author of the wonderful autobiographical works starting with A London Child of the 1870s, waited 10 years before she could afford to marry, but her first married home was a six-room flat with of course a bedroom for the maid – an 18-year-old girl from the Norfolk countryside. And even my grandmother, a butcher’s wife in a terraced house with three tiny bedrooms in the 1920s, had a live-in maid at the beginning of her married life, followed by a cleaning lady who came in daily well into the 1950s. (2) The diligence – so many nineteenth-century travel writers use the term, I suspect less because it’s accurate than because it sounds so more exotic than ‘stage coach’. If you are catching a diligence you really are in Abroad.)
Anyway, the book unfolds in a leisurely way which reflects the speed of travel (even by diligence!) in a pre-railway world. After the crossing (by steam-paddle ship) from Portsmouth (sea-sickness, and assistance from the ‘attentive Captain Weeks’, obligatory), and a few days’ stay to enjoy the sights of Le Havre, the travellers mount the diligence at 5 a.m. outside the Hotel le Bienvenu and set off for Rouen. The 42-mile trip took a day, and Mrs Strutt describes not only the sights to be seen along the route but also the opportunities for excursions to be made in the district. She shows in passing a knowledge of English picturesque scenery: the Seine is compared to the Avon, and various bits of Normandy to Bristol, Chepstow, Stroud, Abergavenny and Twickenham(!).
The narrative also gives insights into her character, not least as a doughty Protestant loose in a world of Popery and all its dangers. Referring to the numbers of English families who have made their homes in Normandy (plus ça change!), she cautions against entrusting the education of their daughters to a convent school: imagine ‘a young, and, perhaps, timid, child, who may easily be worked on by the different modes and instruments employed by the zealous Roman catholics to gain proselytes’. This is a recurring theme – the French people are not to be shunned for their papist ways, but the Church which by ‘craft and subtlety’ leads them into ‘superstition’ and ‘spiritual tyranny’ is utterly condemned. But she attends Catholic services (including an ordination ceremony which lasted five hours), peers into churches, visits convents, especially of teaching and nursing orders, and always admires the simple faith of their good-hearted and generous inmates.
Mrs Strutt’s original intention on her tour was to go no further than the western Loire valley. With stays at Le Mans and La Flèche, and plenty of digressions about the sites and sights to be seen around them (and a long excursus about the history of troubadours with citations from Dante), we are halfway through the book before arriving at Angers – at which point a letter from a friend arrives, proposing a visit to Genoa. Previous plans are abandoned, and ‘every careful thought rather increased’ for the young French maidservant, now about to be torn from her country, never mind her home village. The route to Italy involves Paris, and after another journey by diligence, several days are spent in exploration of churches, art galleries, and an ‘exposition’ of French crafts and industries – a fairly common event in France since 1798, which must have been one of the inspirations for the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace. (Having typed that, I noticed for the first time that the J.G. Strutt who edited the three-volume History and Description of the Crystal Palace (1854) was in fact Elizabeth’s husband!)
At 5 a.m. on Sunday 2 September, fortified with passport, currency, fruit, books and ‘Jean Maria Farina’s eau de cologne’, Mrs Strutt and her maid board the diligence which will take them, via Lyons, and Turin, to Genoa, a journey of twelve days and five nights. She picks up her pen again on Wednesday at Lyons, after three days and nights on the road: the city is obviously familiar to her, and useful hints to the traveller take up several pages, even though on this occasion she stayed only overnight, resuming the journey to Turin in a ‘cumbered and incommodious vehicle’ on Thursday evening and entering the Kingdom of Savoy the following morning. The mountains and their inhabitants give rise to deft and vivid descriptions; she notes in passing the frequency of goitre (in fact caused by iodine deficiency) which Ruskin regards as a hazard of spending time among the Savoyards. Turin, she warns, could easily occupy the lady traveller for a fortnight, but she presses on, and arrives before dawn at ‘la città superba’; having been ‘excellently apartamented’, she is able ‘to congratulate myself with a sufficiency of pride on having so laudably achieved this daring exploit’. The remainder of the book is taken up with descriptions of Genoa itself, and the nearby towns and Ligurian countryside suitable for excursions.
The liveliness of the writing, the practical details, and the untiring enthusiasm of the author make this book a great read: and – one can dream! – wouldn’t it be wonderful to use it to retrace Elizabeth Strutt’s journey, nearly two hundred years later?