The horrid smell of garlic

19th century guide books were crass, bigoted and extremely entertaining . By Patrick French; Leading the Blind: A Century of Guide Book Travel by Alan Sillitoe Macmillan, pounds 15.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
T his book deals with the golden age of European travel, between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the beginning of the Great War, when railways and steamships brought hordes of tourists to Naples, Paris and Coblenz. Using extracts from the legendary handbooks of Murray and Baedeker, and occasional observations from eminent travellers such as Henry James and Fanny Trollope, it gives a portrait of the rigours of 19th century tourism. A rather unlikely offering, you might think, from the author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning - until you learn that he has been avidly collecting Victorian guide books for many years. This is a light, cosy ramble through Alan Sillitoe's library, with all the advantages and limitations that such a project entails.

The most striking difference between the guides of the last century and those of today is their willingness to make huge, crass generalisations about the people of other nations. This provides Sillitoe with many opportunities for entertainment, especially in the final chapter when we learn from an Italian observer that the English are "rude, cruel, addicted to thieving and robbing, faithless, headstrong, inclined to strife and mutiny, gluttonous, and superstitiously addicted to the predictions of foolish astrologers'' - all this and more, years before the birth of Shelley von Strunkel.

The Italians, on the other hand, are licentious types who openly encourage mixed bathing on their beaches - according to the engagingly prim John Murray. As for the beggars of Rome, he declares in distinctly Portillian vein that "they are professional idlers, and of the criminal class. The honest poor do not beg. Even the physically afflicted could, in nearly every case, earn their living if they chose to do so.'' His tone is matched only by Charlotte Eaton, who appears to spend a whole book denouncing the inhabitants of northern Italy for their failings. To her distress, she found the men of one town "loitering about, or standing grouped together in comers, in that apathetic state of indolent taciturnity so expressive of complete bodily and mental inertia. How unlike our English associations is a village in these countries...''

Some people manage to escape undue censure, such as the Swiss, who have impressive mountains and no fewer than 52 specially-built English churches to cater for visiting Anglicans. The only nation to avoid indictment on grounds of uncleanliness is Holland, which tends too far in the other direction. Cleaning is carried "to excess'' and "the passion for purifying really runs to such a height among Dutch housewives that ... everything has an air of freshness, and the stranger in vain looks for a particle of dust.'' Hungarians do not get off so lightly: they are guilty of supplying dirty bed sheets, and their hotel dining-rooms suffer from "tobacco fumes, dogs, the practice of spitting to excess, and not unfrequently the horrid smell of garlic''.

More exciting are the spas of the Black Forest, where you do find yourself surrounded by "gaming-table keepers and cooks from Paris - money-lenders from Frankfurt - singers from Berlin - shopkeepers, pastry-cooks, mountebanks, voituriers, dancing-masters, donkey-lenders, blacklegs, mistresses, lackeys - all bustling and contriving in their several vocations to reap the short harvest of profit which the season afford." Jumping back into your private carriage and heading on down to the south of France, at a maximum speed of five miles per hour, you will discover the locals to be "rude in manner, coarse in aspect and harsh in speech''. But the serious action starts when you leave Europe - the Arabs of the Holy Land are deemed to be "noble in bearing, polite in address, and profuse in hospitality; but they are regardless of truth, dishonest in their dealings, and immoral in their conduct''.

Alan Sillitoe has no particular thesis to expound, preferring to stick to observation and anecdote about the world of Victorian guide-books. It is interesting to note that a century ago a revolver was essential when travelling across Europe's borders, while a pack of playing cards would at once be impounded at Customs.

Other areas of life are unchanged: "The European Continent is becoming more and more intemationalised'', noted a French guide in 1914, "and only Great Britain is not participating in this movement...''