Even in these days of avalanches of instant information, the CLC team occasionally comes across an author about whom we cannot find out anything except that s/he wrote a particular book and therefore may be presumed to have flourished at the time the book was published. Our gallant team of blurb-writers overcome this problem with formulae such as ‘not much is known about the life of X’, but it remains frustrating that even the resources of Messrs Google et al. cannot unearth with certainty anything about a particular individual beyond the book.
Miss Isabel J. Armstrong is a case in point. Her book was published in 1893, and records a journey in Greece during 1892. We know that she had undertaken other journeys in Europe, that she was travelling with a friend, Edith Payne, who was of a rather less adventurous disposition than herself, and that she was (‘I regret to say’) just under five feet high. (This comes up in the context of the height of the ‘Circle of Slabs’ at Mycenae.) She had hair curly and tousled enough to frighten Greek children, and this is borne out by a photograph in which she is posed against what looks like a Greek stela, with sensible clothes, a pair of binoculars in her hand, and a non-nonsense expression on her face. (Edith, by contrast, poses against an elaborate cabinet, her long smooth hair immaculately ‘put up’, with layers of light and rather flouncy clothing, and a letter in her hand.)
The non-nonsense approach is apparent in her writing. She does not waste her time on the familiar – ‘I do not propose to give any account of Athens, as the Athens of to-day can be found in Murray and Baedeker [here the victim of an odd typo!], whilst for the Athens of old I would refer students to the Attica of Pausanias, or the excellent translation of a part of it by Mrs [Arthur] Verrall and Miss Jane Harrison.’ (This refers to The Mythology and Monuments of Ancient Athens (1890); Sir James Frazer’s translation of Pausanias was not published until 1898.)
Other references show that she had done a great deal of preparatory reading: at Tiryns, ‘Luckily, I knew Dr Dörpfeld’s map off by heart’; at Mycenae, she has a complete grasp of Schliemann’s excavations, including the beehive tomb excavated by Mrs Schliemann; passing references in other contexts show that she has the layout and archaeology of classical Athens at her finger-tips. (Interestingly, she refers more than once to the famous gold ring from Mycenae showing three women ‘dressed in divided skirts and little else’: Sir Arthur Evans’ excavations at Knossos, which would make this style of dress world-famous, were still eight years in the future.) But she wears her learning very lightly, and what she really wants to do is encourage more British visitors to venture to what was ‘still a terra incognita’: ‘the general opinion seemed to be that we were going out to be murdered; or if it did not come to murder, that we should get into some hobble out of which it would take at least a modern Perseus to deliver us.’
The two ladies travelled independently, though with the aid of agents of Thomas Cook and the less well known but (on this journey at least) rather more efficient Henry Gaze. They crossed from Brindisi in Italy to Patras, and then travelled by rail to Olympia: the stretch of line after Pyrgos was so new that they were issued with tickets numbered 1 and 2. Isabel’s descriptions of landscape and flowers are a feature of the book, and what could be seen from the railway carriage was clearly a major part of her enjoyment – except of course when eleven German professors flooded in and blocked the view.
She is clearly aware of the paradox in her wish to recommend Greece to visitors, and wrestles with conflict between the economic desirability of more tourists and the potential spoliation of what they are coming to look at. Inns, khans, and the occasional ‘hotel’ are execrable in terms of cleanliness, hot water and other facilities (though the hospitality and welcome of the Greeks are second to none), but on the other hand, ‘Olympia, dominated by a fin-de-siècle hotel, … Hideous conception, a sacrilege sufficient to call down the thunder of Zeus. Olympia with turnstiles and police, a second Pompeii. But to this it must come, or how will those thousands of glittering fragments be preserved from the omnivorous tourist?’
The second half of the book is focused on terra which is very incognita indeed: the northern province of Thessaly, which had become part of modern Greece only eleven years previously, and was still lawless and brigand-haunted. The two ladies were dissuaded by everyone they met from two gentlemen recently returned from the area (‘Can you stand cockroaches?’) to an official at the British Embassy (‘…we shall hear only too soon if anything happens to you’). But they wanted to sail down the Euripos and see Mount Olympos and the vale of Tempe, so they were not dissuaded.
After arriving at Volos by boat, they caught the train to Larissa and spent several days there, escorted by a Greek scientist who had been sent to the province to deal with a plague of mice (actually, the vole Microtus guentheri, it seems: and a similar plague (though this time Microtus agrestis) was simultaneously happening in Scotland – who knew?). For their journey down the vale of Tempe, their carriage had an escort of four gendarmes with rifles and swords, but these were not needed (though there was a false alarm involving a fallen telegraph pole), and indeed became something of an encumbrance towards the end of the trip.
One of the reasons this book appeals to me so strongly is purely personal. On my own first visit to Greece, over forty years ago, I too was travelling by rail in the Peloponnese and northern Greece (no carriages with gendarmes, alas, and I didn’t get as far as Meteora), and it is fascinating to compare experiences across 120 years. I spent an afternoon at Epidauros alone, apart from the white-coated official photographer in the theatre, who kindly demonstrated the amazing acoustic to me by clicking his fingers and rustling a piece of paper while I sat in the top tier of the seats. It was also at Epidauros that I learned the crucial distinction (in the context of bus timetables) between ‘Ti óra?’ (At what time?) and ‘Torá!!’ (Now!!). Isabel says that one can get by in modern Greek with just three words, psomí (bread) krasí (wine) and ‘kalá (lit. ‘beautiful’, colloquially anything from ‘fine’ to ‘yes’ to ‘good’ to ‘OK, sure’. My teenage self would have added neró (water): I’m not sure that I ever drank wine on my first trip, though I have made up for it since.