In Little Dorrit, Mr. William Dorrit followed an age old tradition when he decided to take his family on a Grand Tour of the Continent in order to educate them and expose them to the sights and monuments that influenced Western Civilization. Through Mrs. General, he introduced lessons of deportment and elocution to his children. Amy, who was the least willing to leave, made sure that the Plornishes and Maggy were well-provided for before the family departed.
The Grand Tour took more than a year because transportation before the advent of the railway was slow. Itineraries varied, although Paris and Rome were favorite destinations. Before the Napoleonic Wars, young gentlemen were expected to go on a 1-2 year Grand Tour with a tutor. The results were often mixed. (Click on this link to read my post on the topic.) Some heirs returned with souvenirs and their heads stuffed with knowledge, and others frittered their time away, or worse, lost their fortune at the gaming tables. Travels to the Continent ceased during the Peninsular Wars, but picked up again as soon as Napoleon was defeated. As the 19th century progressed, more and more women began to travel abroad with their families and/or chaperones. The Grand Tour began to make inroads with the rising middle class, as well as with Americans, and survives to this day in the form of a “world tour,” with (typically) recent college graduates and retirees taking several months to a year traveling.
The Dorrits likely departed England from Dover and landed at Calais, the same route as today’s Chunnel. In the early 19th century, the short voyage across the English Channel was fraught with danger. People risked seasickness or a shipwreck should a sudden storm appear. It took three days to make the journey from Dover to Paris. Lodging would have been provided by inns along the way, hotels, friends of the family, or, as in the case of the Dorrits, a convent or monastery set up for the purpose of putting guests up for the night. It was at such a lodging that the Dorrits met Rigaud, who was traveling with the newly married Gowan and a concerned and downhearted Pet. Much to Amy’s distress, the Frenchman took an inordinate interest in her as well. As the Dorrits crossed the Swiss Alps towards Italy, Amy was seen to be the only member of the family to appreciate the natural wonders of her surroundings or to show genuine curiosity.
After the St. Bernard Pass, the Dorrits would have encountered Turin before journeying on to Venice.
It was traditional for Grand Tour visitors to remain for several months in a major destination city, as the Dorrits did in Venice. Visitors did not carry a great deal of cash, for fear of robbery, but brought letters of credit that they would present at the nearest bank. Unlike other cities in Western Europe, Venice had been an independent maritime state for over a thousand years. Its wealthy merchants had created a sumptuous city that was influenced culturally and artistically by the East. Saint Mark’s Basilica is one of the most recognizable and beautiful examples of Byzantine architecture in the world. The city’s watery setting also made it unique and unforgettable. In a letter written on a grand tour in 1932, the author reveals that little had changed in Venice in over a century, or indeed through today:
I suppose most people think that one cannot go anywhere in Venice except by gondola. That is not so at all. There are sidewalks and narrow streets and alleys that lead all over the city. The small canals from 15 to 40 feet wide are traversed by gondolas and sometimes small motorboats. The houses rise directly from the water’s edge in many cases. Thus along the Grand Canal the front steps lead right into the water where private or public gondolas are waiting — taxis, you know. Some of these palaces are very beautiful. Each has tall mooring posts, decorated with the family arms or gay stripes. Grand Tour 1932
Spoiler Alert for those who have not read the book: William Dorrit was never able to escape the influence of 23 years in the Marshalsea, and on the evening of his death in Venice he imagined he was back in prison again. Of his children, only Amy remained humble and true to herself throughout the journey. Although it was evident that she deeply appreciated her beautiful surroundings, she never stopped missing England or the friends she had left behind.
Missed an episode on Masterpiece Classic? You can watch past episodes online until early May at this link.
More About the Grand Tour
- The Grand Tour, Rob Molloy
- St. Bernard Pass, Swiss Alps
- Venice Resources
- Venice and The Grand Tour
- The Evolution of the Grand Tour
- Little Dorrit and Bankruptcy
- Little Dorrit: The Father of the Marshalsea, The Prison Within the Prisoner
- Little Dorrit: The Character of Flora and How She Resembles Charles Dickens’ First Love
- Little Dorrit on PBS Masterpiece Classic