Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Surprise of Cremona, by Edith Templeton

I am planning a holiday later this year to Ravenna and Urbino, and a kind friend made me a present of this 1950s travel book that includes both places. I had never heard before of Edith Templeton, and I am thrilled to have found her to add to my list of vintage women writers. She wrote 7 novels, including one, Gordon, that was banned in the UK in its time for its explicit sex scenes (and we only ever hear about Lady Chatterly’s Lover). I must read it, and all of them.

Right from the start, I realised that this was going to be a very entertaining read, and about as little like ‘The Blue Guide to Italian Places of Culture for Refined People’ as it was possible to be. It’s terrific! But a bit of a guilty pleasure. As with William Cobbett, we have to read historically – Edith Templeton published this book in 1954, and brings an unmistakably pre-war attitude to her travels. She is travelling alone, and still somewhat in the spirit of indomitable lady explorers in the farther-flung places of the Empire. However, she does love her comfort and is looking for the best food and accommodation she can afford and the most comfortable modes of travel. She’s not exactly making this journey on a donkey.

The first chapter starts with the author boarding the train from Calais to Milan, and giving us a devastating pen-portrait of her poor travelling companion, whom she met for the first time in the sleeping compartment. She starts gently enough:

I have always wondered what cherubs look like when they grow up, and now I know. As I enter the train in Calais I find the lady who will share my compartment for the night already established on the settee. Everything that goes to make a cherub is still there – the tilted nose, the round blue eyes, the bright curls, the pink flesh – but enlarged to a gigantic scale and buried in fat. At the faintest smile her pretty pig’s face breaks into dimples. I imagine she has dimples on her elbows, too, and on her knees.

Actually, this is not meant to be wholly unsympathetic – they get on well enough, but I sincerely hope that this person never read this book. It seems that right from page one, Edith Templeton just can’t help herself. If you wish by the end of page one to put her aside on the grounds of lack of sisterhood, I can tell you that no-one, of any gender, escapes. She is fascinated and interested in the people she meets, but never, ever kind about them.

Her approach to writing a travel book is totally individual, idiosyncratic and not at all systematic. She visits a string of North Italian towns, starting with Cremona and ending with Arezzo. (By the way, there is a splendid pun in the title, that is revealed in the chapter on Cremona.) In some she stays longer than others, and tells us about more of the sights to be seen. Some places she loathes, and we get to learn much less about their attractions. She is often sidetracked by descriptions of the people she meets, some of whom have names, others who are allocated to tribes or types: professorial types are designated ‘owls’; another group of unattached, rich playboys are called ‘The Tired Ones’. Some of her set-pieces are brilliantly funny, especially when for no apparent reason she drags her mother into the anecdote (it is clear that their relationship was what you might call spiky). Here, she is describing a visit to a family who live in a large country house outside Cremona. The family is huge and extended, the owners being what might be considered the Italian equivalent of country squires, but with their grown-up children aspiring to more metropolitan elegance:

I try to sort them out. The old man and his wife are rich peasant types, he in tweeds and breeches and jackboots, she in old-fashioned black wool with a crocheted woollen shawl drawn over her shoulders and fastened with a garnet brooch.

Then, there are two of their daughters. One also in black – but what a black – of a cut and simplicity that only the ‘hautest’ of haute couture can produce. She wears pearls of such beauty that, if my mother had been present she would have said afterwards: “Did you see those pearls? I should have liked to have torn them from her throat.”

Her descriptions of what there is to be seen are often knocked off course by anecdotes that she gets from the people she meets, or from her store of learning. She is obviously highly if idiosyncratically educated, and has an eclectic knowledge of European history and of classical literature – a large portion of her chapters on Cremona and on Mantua is given over to what she knows about Virgil. She is an educated appreciator of the arts, but extraordinarily opinionated too – one has the impression that she’s been challenged in the past on her preference for Raphael over Piero, and is using the opportunity of being in print and out of reach of contradiction to argue her point into the ground. Often, she uses a dialogue with one of her local guides as a vehicle for the information and scholarship she conveys – these reported conversations are fascinating, and one way of sparing us the impression that we are learning only her opinions.

When describing these legendary towns she is generally scathing about their modern appearance, and is very choosy about which of the historic treasures she finds inspiring. She is the first person I’ve ever found with a bad word for Urbino, so that will add a little salt to my visit when I get there. She dismisses Ravenna as a town for tourists (you know how it goes – ‘I am a Traveller, you are a Tourist, he, she or they is/are Grockle(s)’), but is obviously overwhelmed by the impression of the Byzantine mosaics in San Vitale. Her dialogue with a local expert on the mosaics and their techniques is incredibly informative, and I know will teach me how to look at them more closely.

So, this travel book is a complete one-off, and I cannot tell you how entertaining it is. It really is no good at all as a travel guide, but brilliant reading for anyone who enjoys perceptive, personal travel writing for its own sake. However, I have also enjoyed it hugely as someone who has never been to these places in Italy, but plans to go to some of them. It has opened my eyes to what I might find there, and taught me to look beyond the facades. Her fearless style is unique, and I came to the conclusion that she is the ‘Honey Badger of travel writers – she don’t care’. (Google ‘Honey Badger Don’t Care Youtube’, if you don’t know what I mean!) Anita Brooker in her lovely gentle introduction to the 2001 reprint says ‘She has little or nothing to say to the present day traveller …’ I don’t agree – I shall be carrying this book with me when I go into San Vitale. However, Brookner goes on to say ‘… but she sets an excellent example. Qui m’aime me suive. There could be no better encouragement than that.’

Edith Templeton: The Surprise of Cremona. London: Pallas Athene Arts, 2001. 245pp
ISBN13: 978-1873429655
First published: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1954.

13 comments on “The Surprise of Cremona, by Edith Templeton

  1. Kate
    March 23, 2012

    Oh fabulous, I’m ordering that one now (if I can find it). I adore haughty posh English ladies giving us their opinions about Foreigners as they travel in style round the safer confines of Europe. I’m going to have to do an Ann Bridge post to match this one!

  2. Hilary
    March 23, 2012

    Kate, if you click the cover image, you’ll find a link to PostScript Books, where it is still available. I’m sure you’ll love it! Thank you for the comment.

    Ann Bridge! I haven’t thought of her from that day to this! I remember being a huge fan of hers – when I was a much younger librarian, she (along with the likes of Georgette Heyer) was still regularly publishing, and the world waited for her latest. I remember them being lovely and safely exotic, but i also remember one (Illyrian Spring, was it?) bowling along nicely and then suddenly taking a completely unsignalled very nasty turn. Do remind us about her – I really look forward to that.

  3. Chris Harding
    March 23, 2012

    Hilary, I did enjoy your review. I’ve never heard of Edith Templeton, (but I have read Cobbett, who I always enjoy enormously – I love the way he offers advice on so many diverse topics, especially when it comes to Cottage Economy). This sounds wonderful – I adore travel books, possibly because I am such a lousy traveller I rarely go anywhere (unless forced to do so), so I only get to know places through other people’s views, and the more idiosyncratic they are, the more I like them.

  4. Ticky Dogge-Hare
    March 23, 2012

    Hilary darling!!! This book sounds absolutely DEVASTATING in the best way, and what a wonderful review! I desperately need to find a copy!

    Yours ever, Ticky xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

    PS Her mother sounds utterly boot-faced.

  5. Hilary
    March 23, 2012

    Boot-faced she may be, Ticky darling, but I’d kill for a turn of phrase like that.

  6. Jackie
    March 24, 2012

    I was just thinking how this author would appeal to Ms. Dogge-Hare…..

  7. Hilary
    March 27, 2012

    Googling around (I really must learn to do my homework in good time) I’ve found this very interesting profile of Edith Templeton from the New York Times:

    It also puts a slightly different complexion on Anita Brookner’s introduction, if it is true that they were fast friends and then fell out – forget lovely and gentle – read patronising perhaps.

  8. Pingback: Gordon, by Edith Templeton « Vulpes Libris

  9. Pingback: Travels with Edith « Vulpes Libris

  10. Pingback: More Travels with Edith – Cremona | Vulpes Libris

  11. Kate
    September 23, 2013

    I bought it on the strength of this review, and I read it, and … I dunno. Maybe I was distracted with other things. It was a fits and starts read, I kept putting it down and wandering elsewhere when i got bored, but when I picked it up again, I was instantly riveted again. Perhaps she needs concentration, and I was very concentrated this past week. She is certainly a jaw-droppingly candid commentator. Her remarks about how to read mosaics are invaluable: I too will be much better able to look at them from now on. I loved her trenchancy on Italian men and their habits. Maybe I’m talking myself round to really liking the book rather than just being pleased that i read it. She’s nice about the German girl art student with whom she gossips about the awfulness of Italian men, and learns about mosaic from: that episode makes ET an almost pleasant person. The episode when she faces down the police is tremendous. Her loathing of the horrible places she has to sleep or eat in is also enjoyable. But I can’t say I remember very much about the towns she visits except her loathing of their horrible aspects. She is not a good writer of the pleasant, the enjoyable, only of the spectacularly vile, or of the astoundingly surprising – her description of the mausoleum of Gallia Placida is quite beautiful, and memorable, fiery alabaster windows and all.

  12. Pingback: … in which the Book Finding Fairy comes to my aid….. | Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

  13. Pingback: Recent Reads – The Surprise of Cremona by Edith Templeton | Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on March 23, 2012 by in Entries by Hilary, Non-fiction: travel and tagged , , , , , , , , .



Editorial Policy

The views expressed in the articles and reviews on Vulpes Libris are those of the authors, and not of Vulpes Libris itself.

Quoting from Vulpes Libris

You are very welcome to quote up to 100 words from any article posted on Vulpes Libris - as long as you quote accurately, give us due credit and link back to the original post. If you would like to quote MORE than 100 words, please ask us first via the email address in the Contact details.


  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
  • %d bloggers like this: