The title of this piece refers to a Noel Coward song lampooning the eccentric travel habits of the nineteenth and early twentieth century English/British “Gentleman” traveller. Sicily wasn’t short of opinionated and often high-minded British writers keen to display their intrepid exploring credentials; some produced works of true merit, others just make the modern reader cringe. We decided to delve into the archives and take a look at the island seen through their antique monocles.
We start our little sojourn with John Galt, the Scottish novelist, businessman and self-styled commentator on social matters. Amongst other things, Galt dabbled in Gibraltarian commerce, wrote biographies of the painter Benjamin West and, rather surprisingly, of Lord Byron. He even wrote school books under the purloined pseudonym of Reverend T. Clark. Obviously a supporter of British colonial enterprise, his business interests also took him to Canada.
The Sicilian part of his Voyages and Travels in the Years 1809, 1810 and 1811 kicks off with his observations on the islanders’ “Manner of Living”. He prides British influence on raising cattle prices, which he enthuses will have an impact on cultivation and wages, but notes that Sicilians eat little meat. He goes on to damn with faint praise what we now call the Mediterranean Diet: ‘Salads, macaronies, and olives, constitute the main part of their fare; and if the frugality that is the result of necessity were a virtue, their temperance would deserve great praise’.
He is less “complimentary” about drinking habits: ‘They do not drink wine at table with one another as we do, but fill their glasses as they please’. This quote, frankly, left us laughing – the idea of someone from Britain making snide comments about bad behaviour with regard to alcohol consumption is just daft, even at his time of writing. It’s enough to remember the infamous sack of Cadiz, when the invading troops got so drunk on sherry they couldn’t continue the siege! Any Sicilian who has spent time in London will know what we mean.
With regard to the Sicilian language, he is more encouraging. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he knew that writers from the island who penned texts in Italian were, in effect, writing in a foreign language. He gives a respectful nod towards Giovanni Meli, the Sicilian language poet, and goes as far as to venture that ‘Sicilian will soon be added to the number of the polished languages of Europe’. He thinks that the status of its writers should ‘render it worthy the attention of a scholar’. Thankfully, plenty of scholars have subsequently turned their attentions to the language, although it has sadly never reached the European heights he predicted.
Our next visitor is the gloriously titled, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, 2nd Baron Lyttetton. Part of the Hoare banking fortune, he received a classical education like any good Georgian aristocrat. Richard inherited the Stourhead estate, which is now endowed with many Italianate structures. His academic credentials outweigh Galt’s, even becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society thanks to his archeological studies. The 1819 work, A Classical Tour through Italy and Sicily, details his love of the ancient world. Hoare’s interests reflect the flipside of John Galt’s obsession with contemporary observation.
He starts by referring to the geography, but he does so by labelling the mountains in their Latin forms – the Nebrodi become the Nebrodes. He even uses the past tense, as if the Nebrodes suddenly disappeared when the Dark Age descended after Roman rule ended. Hoare’s text is laced with quotations from classical writers and, despite his peculiarities, an obvious affection for a land capable of inspiring such authors. He was happy to lower his aristocratic bottom on to a mule in order to pursue his archeological meanderings. Leaving Alcamo, he seems more than happy: ‘But I am perfectly reconciled to my new mode of conveyance, and convinced of the safety and sagacity of my mules’.
He proceeded to Trapani via Erice. Although surprisingly scathing of Trapani’s position with ‘scarcely the appearance of a vegetable’, owing to its salt flats, he does praise the ‘brisk trade in salt and coral’. Even a wealthy Georgian with no need to dabble in petty commerce couldn’t resist observing the local businesses – not for nothing did Napoleon call the British a nation of shopkeepers. There was even a trade in carved shells which he mentions, souvenirs for the Grand Tourist: ‘Here are also some ingenious artists, who fabricate tolerable cameos out of the various species of shells found on the coast’.
His ‘tolerable cameos’ obviously didn’t live up to the art produced by his beloved ancients. We will leave Sir Richard with a quote lauding the classical past: ‘But amidst the ruins of Selinunte the eye wanders with astonishment over the huge masses, scattered on the ground in the wildest confusion; and the painter may find an almost inexhaustible variety of subjects to employ his pencil in these remains’. Both of which are still so true to this day.
Next in our line-up is George Russell of His Majesty’s Office of Works. In the preface to his book, A Tour through Sicily in the Year 1815, Russell declares his own reason for travel was ‘indisposition’, in other words, the search for a better climate to aid his wellbeing – a not uncommon justification amongst those with enough money to indulge in a spot of health tourism. True to his profession as a high-ranking functionary in the aforementioned ‘office of works’, his text comes accompanied with ‘eighteen interesting plans and views’.
Held in quarantine for a few days, his first delighted steps on to Palermitan soil were tempered with anger. Supposing that no Englishman could possibly be diseased with anything remotely infectious, our words not his, Russell headed straight for the British Vice-Consul ‘to inform him of the vexatious manner in which we had been treated’. After calming down, and no doubt having a nice cup of tea, George wandered out into the streets.
Promenading along the Marina and its then attached gardens, which he calls the Flora, sent him into raptures. His prose is reminiscent of that other British subspecies, the Mediterranophile or more specifically, the Sicilianophile, a type completely bowled over by his/her luxuriant surroundings. If we’re true to ourselves, part of us belongs to this particular genus, otherwise why would we be writing this piece.
Anyway, back to Russell. Let’s give him full rein: ‘The still murmuring of the neighbouring sea, and the delightful breezes which invariably float during evening upon its surface – the continued warbling of the melodious nightingales, whose divine notes enliven this enchanting garden – the rich variety of aromatic shrubs and flowers, whose delicious essence is wafted by the gentle zephyr through the surrounding atmosphere – and more especially the interesting and lovely Sicilian females who graced this charming Flora, – all united, tend to inspire those who visit this earthly paradise…’. Purple prose indeed.
After the social commentator, the amateur classicist and the enchanted health tourist, comes our final visitor, the earnest specialist. John Hogg, M.A. (it’s important not to forget his qualifications!) wrote the snappily titled A Catalogue of Sicilian Plants with some remarks on the Geography, Geology, and Vegetation. Hogg was a member of three eminent societies, the Linnaean, the Royal and the Cambridge Philosophical, not to mention the Royal Geographical Society. We guess the list could go on, if he had so chosen.
In his preface, he humbly notes that he was the first to publish a paper on Sicilian Flora, recognising that it had been superseded by two subsequent publications. Endeavouring to summarise the complexities of the island’s landscape in one sentence, he hit upon the following: ‘The aspect of Sicily is of course much varied, there are parts grand and romantic, particularly along the coast; but, in some of the more southern parts, the country is bare and uninteresting, wild and uninhabited; the plains are generally luxuriant, and covered with vegetation and cattle’.
If you ignore the actual catalogue, in fact, his account prefacing the listings is surprisingly readable. Hogg firmly places Sicily at the forefront of European botanical interest, noting that ‘of all the European islands, Sicily produces the most favoured and lovely Flora. It possesses plants which are common to Italy, Illyria, Dalmatia, the south of France, Corsica, Sardinia, the Balearic Isles, Spain, Portugal…’. The list goes on. It seems that Trinacria is not only a cultural crossroads, but a botanical one as well.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to poke a little gentle fun at our earlier compatriots, although some of them spur on such temptations. Who knows what future generations will make of our efforts, or those of our contemporaries! The past is truly a different country.
Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains.’
Andrew is also the translator of Alejandro Luque’s compilation of short stories set in Sicily, The Sicilian Defence. Diane Donovan in The Midwest Book Review called it ‘a magnificently crafted series of vignettes exposing the underbelly of choice and its consequences’.
They are both available worldwide. Click the covers below to view them on Amazon:-