Review: Gatherings from Spain

Review: Gatherings from Spain
Gatherings from Spain

Gatherings from Spain by Richard Ford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In practice each Spaniard thinks his own province or town the best in the Peninsula, and himself the finest fellow in it.

Few countries have been the subject of as much travel writing as Spain; and much of it has been perpetrated by Englishmen and Americans. As far as I can tell, both Spanish tourism and travel writing really got underway in the 19th century, when a triumvirate of authors published their accounts of their travels: Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, George Henry Borrow’s The Bible in Spain, and Richard Ford’s Handbook for Travellers in Spain. The latter may have had the biggest impact on Spanish tourism, since Ford not only published a popular book about Spain, but a detailed guide for would-be travelers.

Ford’s Handbook was, I believe, the most-important work of the pioneering travel-guide series, Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers, published and largely written by John Murray III. (Many of these can be found for free online.) Ford’s book, a massive, two-volume tomb that I can’t imagine anyone lugging around on vacation, nevertheless became extremely popular. The very next year, a condensed version was published, Gatherings from Spain, which also sold well.

This was, apparently, a time when Spain was seldom visited by Brits or Americans. Ford, Borrow, and Irving all treat Spain as a remote, unknown, and exotic land. To quote Ford: “The country is little better than a terra incognita, to naturalists, geologists, and all other branches of ists and ologists.” The typical thing to do was to visit France and Italy—on the so-called Grand Tour, undertaken by aristocratic graduates to see Renaissance paintings and Roman ruins, to learn French and Italian, and to generally have a lovely time—passing over Spain as too poor, backward, and dangerous to merit visiting. When Irving visited the Alhambra in the 1830s, it was a forgotten, unrepaired wreck. But all this changed as a result of these books; and soon then country became, and still remains, flooded with Brits and Americans looking for exotic adventure.

Ford’s works must be one among the best travel books ever written. That someone of such intelligence and literary skill spent his time writing guide books boggles the mind. Ford seems to know everything and can write about it all in excellent, witty prose that dances across the page. His knowledge of Spanish proverbs rivals Sancho Panza’s, and he sprinkles a good deal of Latin and French for good measure. There is never a dull moment in this book. Whether he is discussing Spanish cooking, wine, cigars, bullfights, inns, horses and mules, geography, the weather, the stock market, the post office—no matter what, he can make the subject fascinating and funny. Here he is warning the investor against buying Spanish bonds:

Beware of Spanish stock, for in spite of official reports, documentos, and arithmetical mazes, which, intricate as an arabesque pattern, look well on paper without being intelligible; in spite of ingenious conversions, fundings of interest, coupons—some active, some passive, and others repudiatory terms and tenses, the present excepted—the thimblerig is always the same; and this is the question, since national credit depends on national good faith and surplus income, how can a country pay interest on debts, whose revenues have long been, and now are, miserably insufficient for the ordinary expenses of government? You cannot get blood from a stone; ex nihilo nihil fit.

Yes, the prose is a little dated now, and more than a little involved in needless intricacies; but that is exactly the charm of this book: it simultaneously illuminates both the Spain of the 1830s and the English attitude at that time. This attitude—insofar as it is manifest in Ford—is one of extraordinary condescension, and an obsession with comfort, luxury, and money. This book is full of information about Spain—hiring servants, traveling by rail and horseback, where to eat and sleep (all of this, of course, far outdated and fascinating)—but contains virtually nothing on why Spain is worth visiting in the first place. Maybe Ford saved all of Spain’s attractions for the Handbook, since this book can read like one long denunciation:

The principal defects of Spanish servants and of the lower classes of Spaniards are much the same, and faults of race. As a mass, they are apt to indulge in habits of procrastination, waste, improvidence, and untidiness. They are unmechanical and obstinate, easily beaten by difficulties, which their first feeling is to raise, and their next to succumb to; they give the thing up at once. They have no idea of grappling with anything that requires much trouble, or of doing anything as it ought to be done, or even of doing the same thing in the same way—accident and the impulse of the moment set them going.

Passages like these are typical. Ford does his best to reinforce the stereotype that Spaniards are a lazy, superstitious, bungling, idling, arrogant, prideful, and incompetent people. He goes on to deprecate Spanish food, wine, roads, railways, hotels, music, and asserts that “Madrid itself is but an unsocial, second-rate, inhospitable city.” Even the climate doesn’t escape criticism: “the interior is either cold and cheerless, or sunburnt and wind-blown.” He dwells at length on the lack of comfortable accommodations and the difficulty of finding adequate service, which I think says far more about English fastidiousness than Spain itself. For example, back then most English didn’t like garlic, and Ford writes of the Spanish predilection for that ingredient with horror, although he notes that it is tolerable in small amounts.

One thing I noticed is that Ford shares with Irving the habit of calling Spain “Oriental” and of comparing Spaniards with Arabs. This is presumably because of Spain’s Muslim past. I don’t know if either author had ever gone to Asia or the Middle East, but these comparisons inevitably struck me as pure exoticizing nonsense, depicting Spain as a mysterious foreign land with age-old customs and alien manners, an enchanted Arabia just next-door, the East readily available for curious English travelers. To a certain extent this exoticizing has continued down to the present day; Spain is often treated as a more adventuring destination than France or Italy. Ford certainly bears a part of the blame for perpetrating these old stereotypes and misconceptions; but I’m sure it helped him sell more books.

I don’t write all this as a criticism of Ford, who is long-dead and whose guide is two-hundred years outdated. Indeed, I think the value of this book—aside from its historical interest and literary merits—is that it is now an amusing compendium of prejudices and chauvinism. One both laughs with Ford and at him, since he is genuinely amusing, and also, for all his travels and wide-reading, very much a man of his time and place. For all his criticizing and fault-finding, Ford is a good-natured guide and writes of the subject with palpable enthusiasm and affection. I was constantly delighted by this book, and hope one day to tackle the massive Handbook—that is, unless my Spanish habit of procrastination prevents me.

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Review: The Bible in Spain

Review: The Bible in Spain

The Bible in Spain; or, the journeys, adventures, and imprisonments of an Englishman, in an attempt to circulate the Scriptures in the PeninsulaThe Bible in Spain; or, the journeys, adventures, and imprisonments of an Englishman, in an attempt to circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula by George Borrow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Those who wish to make themselves understood by a foreigner in his own language, should speak with much noise and vociferation, opening their mouths wide.

In the year 1835, George Henry Borrow, British traveler and noted eccentric, embarked upon a voyage to Spain with the purpose of making the Holy Bible available to the populace of that hoary nation, and in their native language; freeing that sacred volume from the clutches of friars and priests, who, being papists, jealously guard and keep the scriptures in a language unintelligible to the majority of men and women,—or so opined the author, a proud and uncompromising Protestant.

Mr. Borrow undertook this journey under the direction of the Bible Society, and was chosen for this work due to his previous success, persistence, and tenacity, in propagating the Bible in the vast plains of Russia, where he laboured many long years among poor peasants; and this previous experience was bolstered by Borrow’s prodigious facility in acquiring languages, being possessed, if we are to believe his report of himself, of the Latin, French, Italian, Gaelic, Russian, Arabic, Romani, German, and both the modern and ancient Greek languages,—this list may not be complete,—in addition to his fluency in Portuguese and Spanish, the two dialects on which he was to rely during his time in the Iberian Peninsula.

This book, the record of this noble errand, was pieced together from journal entries, letters, and Mr. Borrow’s apparently remarkable faculty of memory; and narrates his misadventures suffered, voyages undertaken, obstacles overcome, and successes gained, in a style verbose and tending towards the periodic sentence, with hypotaxis being his most habitual mode of expression; a style, nonetheless, of vigour and charm; its only fault, being a tendency to unfurl itself in a monotonous, seemingly endless, series, built of commas and semicolons, that, if imbibed to excess, can have the same soporific effects of opium upon the senses of the reader.

Being a book of travels, much of Mr. Borrow’s narrative, if not the majority, consists of descriptions of noble edifices, foreign cities, strange landscapes, and other vistas of entrancing beauty; as well as many stories of incompetent footmen, derelict guides, incommodious accommodations, unscrupulous innkeepers, and all of the diverse and profuse inconveniences suffered by any traveler in a foreign land; these being supplemented by several vignettes, or sketches, of striking personalities encountered by Mr. Borrow, these personages being from many different classes, creeds, and nations; all of this detail and description serving as the backdrop to Mr. Borrow’s laborious task, selling the Bible in a land generally hostile and suspicious of the Protestant religion, the opposition of the authorities more than once thwarting Mr. Borrow in his noble errand; and this is not to mention the continual fighting, and concomitant destruction of land and property, and the resultant poverty experienced by the people, putting aside the brigandage and banditry rampant across the land, occasioned by the Carlist Civil War.

For all of its merits, and these are many and conspicuous, this book, however, cannot be recommended as providing any significant insight into the culture and history of the Spanish nation, being too absorbed in Mr. Borrow’s own private worries and concerns, and too involved in the slight and superficial impressions gained by the traveler; and seeing as this, namely, gaining knowledge of the Spanish nation, was my primary object in picking up the book, I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed; this disappointment being, I should hastily add, partly counterweighted by the eccentricity and peculiarity of this book, whose style, and whose narrator, while perhaps not brilliant, nor profound, nor even greatly compelling, are, at least, so distinct, that they are impressed upon the soul of the reader, not to be erased by any subsequent experience.

(The above picture is the commemorative plaque, which is posted on Calle de Santiago, 14, in Madrid, where George Borrow stayed.)

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