Sunday, June 13, 2010

Review: Ladies of the Grand Tour

Ladies of the Grand Tour:  British Women in Pursuit of Enlightenment & Adventure in 18th Century Europe was a complete impulse buy for me some years ago.  I pretty much buy any non-fiction book I find about Georgian or Regency England, and this one sounded so completely up my alley!  Georgian era?  Check.  Women?  Check.  Travel?  Check.  And there went my check to pay for the book.

Dolan's book is separated into nine chapters, most of which detail why upper-class Englishwomen went to the Continent during the 18th century.  Some went for the reasons we go now- to see the sights, to absorb a different culture, to learn more about the world around them.  But a very large number also went abroad to escape unhappy marriages or scandals at home.

I was predisposed to love this book.  I just love the whole premise of spending months knee-deep in centuries-old letters and journals, trying to determine what drove women abroad in the 1700s.  Reading old letters seems so romantic to me, and it saddens me that future generations are unlikely to find a bundle of old letters tied together with a silk ribbon.  Nowadays, even if we do write letters, we rarely have the patience to write in the absorbing detail that people of the past did.  But at least we can go back and read about them.

I feel very much at home in the Georgian era of British history and so it wasn't hard for me to acclimate myself to all the naming conventions of the aristocracy or the famous names of the period.  I think, though, that if I were not as familiar with the history of the period, it would be difficult for me to remember who was who.  Luckily, at the end of the book, Dolan includes a list with brief biography of the main figures he focuses on.

For me, this book was very hit or miss, depending on the chapter.  For example, I found the chapter on British women in France during the French Revolution fascinating.  I can't imagine ever wanting to stay and live in a country when it was going through such a terrifying process, and that people did and wrote about it is amazing to me.  I also found it interesting that the French Revolution's rallying cry of liberty, equality and fraternity really resonated with women of the period (including but not limited to Mary Wollstonecraft) and had a considerable influence on the women's rights movement.  I did not find some of the other chapters quite as interesting, though.  For example, the chapter on women's salons wasn't as great as I thought it would be.

I also enjoyed learning about travel in the 18th century.  It seems to have consisted of many over-hyped sights, shady tour guides, questionable souvenirs and sometimes horrible hotel stays.  I loved that sense of familiarity.

When reading books of this type, I am of two minds about the women portrayed in them.  Often, I am appalled by the powerlessness of their situations.  By how often they are unhappy.  By how naive they can be due to very limited life experiences.  But then I "meet" women like Mary Wollstonecraft, who stayed in France throughout the revolution.  Or Lady Holland who bounced back from a miserable first marriage to go through a scandalous divorce proceeding all so that she could marry her long-time lover.  The courage and style some of these women had is inspiring.

I really enjoyed this book and am glad I pulled it off my shelf for the Women Unbound challenge.  While I'm not sure it would appeal to all history lovers, I think those with a love of Georgian England would really enjoy it, as would those who want to see those first seeds of the feminist movement planted.  While it was not what I'd call a riveting read, it was very enjoyable and I think I learned more about the period and its key female players by reading it.


  1. I like the sound of this very much. I doubt my library having this so will have to go look around! Thank you for highlighting this book.

  2. I think this sounds like it would be worth the read. It is a shame that future generations will learn things not through beautiful letters but author blogs and twitter posts. On the other hand, it will be readily available to all.
    It must have been such a relief for these women to be able to go abroad as the only way to escape their unhappy lives. Of course it was really only available to a certain class of women.

  3. I want this book so badly! You know I'm more of a Victorian than a Georgian girl, but this still sounds exactly like my kind of history book, even if not all the chapters were equally riveting.

  4. Anonymous6/13/2010

    When I saw the title of your post I felt I needed to read this book and having read your review I want to read it even more.

  5. I wish this had been all good all the time, but it still sounds really interesting. I've never gotten into the Georgian era, but that may just be coincidental. Adding this to my list, with expectations that it will be as uneven as you say. :p

  6. Anonymous6/13/2010

    Too bad about the chapter on women's salons...that could've been fascinating! Have you read True Pleasures (by Lucinda Holdforth)? There are a few chapters on salons in that book.

  7. I do so love history. You've definitely piqued my interest for this book. Thanks for sharing both the good and the bad!

  8. Sounds like some pretty cool women. And live in France during the, nope I could not do it

  9. Mystica- I haven't seen it around much, either! I think I got it from it's worth ILL-ing!

    bookmagic- You're right. Things will be much more readily available in the future, if not quite so romantic to wade through.

    Nymeth- Yes, I think this is a book you'd really enjoy!

    irisonbooks- I think you'd like it, too. It's really right up our alley!

    Jenny- Haha, as long as you go in expecting unevenness, I think you'll not be disappointed!

    softdrink- I have not read that! I will look it up ASAP.

    Michelle- I love history, too!

    Blodeuedd- Definitely not! I am not that brave.

  10. Anonymous6/14/2010

    Aarti, this sounds magnificent and fascinating! There is a permanent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London about women explorers and travellers in the 19th century and since seeing that many years ago I have been intrigued by women who flouted convention and travelled in the times when it was not the done thing to do so. It just shows that women in those times were not the passive and uneducated creatures popular history likes to paint them as. I'll look out for this at the library!

  11. This one sounds excellent. I'm so happy you posted about it; thanks

  12. Sounds like you liked it, but didn't love it. I have been reading more non-fiction lately, and think that this book sounds like something that would really enlighten and instruct me about some areas that I am a little ignorant on. I am going to be looking out for this one and trying to pick it up. Your review was wonderful and makes me want to snatch up a copy soon!

  13. That's too bad it wasn't completely riveting, but it still sounds like a book I'd enjoy!

  14. bookssnob- Ooh, that exhibition sounds fabulous! I feel when I was in London and visited the Portrait Gallery, I did not know that existed... sad :-( And I absolutely agree that it's awesome to have PROOF women weren't so passive as we are led to believe!

    Diane- You're welcome :-)

    Zibilee- Yes, I think I liked the IDEA of it more than the execution in some ways, but it was still a good read!

    Eva- Yes, I think you'd like it.

  15. The French Rev is (sadly) one of the only non-US focus historical events I've studied so this just might be interesting. Especially from the female perspective?

  16. This looks so interesting. I am always intrigued by the immigration process, considering how Americans are all descended from other lands, myself included. Why did my ancestors brave the voyage over?
    And like you.. I am saddened by the effect of the digital age. I have a few last emails from my father that I miraculously saved after he suddenly passed, but I would so much rather have a physical piece of handwritten paper with his notes on it instead.
    This sounds like a great book and I am going to go add the title to my wishlist, which I have not done in a long time. Kudos to you for that.

  17. i have something for you on my blog. do come over and accept it. :)

  18. This sounds excellent! I always appreciate it when authors do a biographical glossary. Names are not my strong point.

  19. Anonymous6/17/2010

    I'm not sure this is my cup 'o tea, but you certainly made it sound interesting.


  20. Anonymous6/18/2010

    This sounds grand! I don't think I've come across many books about women travelling, you always assume it was something easier for a man to do, especially pre-20th century. So it's exciting for me to learn about these women.

  21. I think the French Revolution chapter alone would make this worthwhile, given my preoccupation with the subject. And my library has it--score!


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