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.