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.
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
First published: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1954.