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Image @The Culture Concept Circle

The era in which Jane Austen lived was a complex time in which scientific advances, the Industrial Revolution, warfare in Europe, and visits to ancient lands influenced the culture of Great Britain. These articles from The Culture Concept Circle will answer your questions about a few of the influences on the neoclassical style so prevalent during this time. Videos are included in some links.

Image @The Culture Concept Circle

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The Dorrits in Venice

The Dorrits in Venice

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.

Pam Ferris as Mrs. General

Pam Ferris as Mrs. General

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.

Map of a modern grand tour

Map of a modern grand tour

After the St. Bernard Pass, the Dorrits would have encountered Turin before journeying on to Venice.

Henry Gowan, William Dorrit, and Rigaud at their lodging

Henry Gowan, William Dorrit, and Rigaud at their lodging

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:

Journeying by gondola

Journeying by gondola

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 stripesGrand Tour 1932

Mrs. Merdle and William Dorrit in Venice

Mrs. Merdle and William Dorrit in Venice

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.

Fanny visits the museum

Fanny visits the museum

More About the Grand Tour

My other Little Dorrit Reviews:

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Shall I ever forget the sensations I experienced upon slowly descending the hills, and crossing the bridge over the Tiber; when I entered an avenue between terraces and ornamented gates of villas, which leads to the Porto del Popolo, and beheld the square, the domes, the obelisk, the long perspective of streets and palaces opening beyond, all glowing with the vivid red of sunset? – William Beckford describing his Grand Tour in a letter, 1780

When Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen-Knight returned from his grand tour, he brought back as one of his souvenirs the solemn portrait that we have come to associate with his image. Since the 17th century, it was de rigeur for young English gentleman of privileged background to embark on a 2-4 year trip to see the historic and cultural places of Europe with their tutors.

Ideally, a young man sent on the Grand Tour would return home not just with souvenir portraits painted against a backdrop of Roman monuments, but with new maturity, improved taste, an understanding of foreign cultures, and a fresh appreciation of the benefits of being born British. Norton Anthology of English Literature

There was a marked difference between a gentleman who had gone on such a life-altering excursion and one who hadn’t, a certain polish, if you will, and knowledge of the world that distinguished such a person. Armed with letters of introduction and letters of credit, the young gentleman would set off by boat and cross the channel, landing in Calais. This crossing was fraught with danger. Sea sickness was not uncommon, and ships were known to capsize during heavy storms. Once the pair landed on the continent, they would visit a number of popular Grand Tour sites: Paris, Rome, the Netherlands, Germany, Venice, Florence and Naples were popular destinations.

The Grand Tourist would travel from city to city and usually spend weeks in smaller cities and up to several months in the three key cities. Paris was definitely the most popular city as French was the most common second language of the British elite, the roads to Paris were excellent, and Paris was a most impressive city to the English…Other locations included as part of some Grand Tours included Spain and Portugal, Germany, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltic. However, these other spots lacked the interest and historical appeal of Paris and Italy and had substandard roads that made travel much more difficult so they remained off most itineraries. Click here to take an interactive Grand Tour online.

Such a protracted trip came with a hefty price: during the 18th century, a grand tour of three years could cost as much as 5,000 pounds to visit these “museums of history, civility, and culture.”* Many young men, such as Edward Austen-Knight, returned with portraits painted of themselves; others returned with entire collections, influencing the styles at home. It was no coincidence that Neo-classicism and the Palladian ideal were popularized during this era. “In high society, milord anglais on this Grand Tour pillaged the Continent for old Masters (genuine, fake or retouched), took an artist or two in tow, and built and embellished at every opportunity.” (Porter, p 243).

Grand Tours did not always turn out for the best. Some young men, rather than taking the opportunity to acquire as much cultural knowledge and polish as possible, gambled away fortunes, formed mesalliances, or contracted venereal disease during their sexual exploits. Tutors were also known as bearleaders, a title that hints at the unruly behavior of their charges. (Norton Anthology) Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his natural son, who was on the Grand Tour, sought to remind him of how a gentleman ought to conduct himself at all times. After their tour was over, a number of young men in the latter half of the 18th century, continued to copy the tastes and styles of continental society. Marked by their dress and behavior, these dandies were known as macaronis (see image).

Colston Pyranees Mountain View

The Grand Tour was momentarily suspended during the Napoleonic wars, but was quickly revived once the conflict was over. Young ladies, Maria Edgeworth and Mary Wollstonecraft, for instance, would also embark on these journeys with their companions, however these tours were not expected to round out her education or develop her character in the same manner as a man’s. Princess Caroline, who died in childbirth in 1817, had gone on a Grand Tour after the Napoleonic Wars ended, and was romantically involved with an Italian courtier, Bartolomeo Pergami. During the Edwardian era, it was common for a young lady to travel abroad on a relatively short trip with a companion. Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With a View (click here to read my review of the 2007 movie) was one such girl. Jo March from Little Women had hoped to accompany her Aunt Carol to Europe, but it was her sister Amy who was invited along instead.

Update: View Edward Austen Knight’s full painting here and learn about his Grand Tour journals here.

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