The Polite Tourist

The Polite Tourist by Adrian Tinniswood“The architectural monuments of England and Wales have been accessible to outsiders for centuries. And for centuries men and women have made special journeys to see them.  Like us, they admired the image of Elizabeth I in the Long Gallery, or that portrait by Joshua Reynolds in the Drawing-Room.  Like us, they raised their eyebrows at the owner’s taste in furnishings, or applauded his scheme of landscape design.  And like us, they often indulged in a rather vague nostalgia, or dreamed of what it must be like to live in such a place.

But there we part company from them.  Wandering around Hardwick Hall or Knole, Stourhead of Petworth, our perceptions of the building, its contents, its grounds, differ fundamentally from those of the Tudor traveller or the Georgian excursionist.  Our attitude towards the country house is so deeply coloured by our relationship with the past, which can never reproduce the relationship that existed between even our grandparents and history, never mind that which informed the responses of a tourist five, ten, twenty generations ago.”

With those two introductory paragraphs, The Polite Tourist: A History of Country House Visiting begins. In it, Adrian Tinniswood takes the reader through the centuries-long history of our ongoing fascination with the country house, and I must say I’m disappointed that it wasn’t at least 200 pages longer. I enjoyed reading this book tremendously, is what I’m trying to say.

I picked it up on the recommendation of a Twitter friend (the delightful @AustenOnly), who cannily noticed my deep love for Bath and suggested that I follow Adrian Tinniswood on Twitter. Naturally, I took this excellent suggestion, followed him, sent him a friendly hello, and then went over to check out his website.

I am, of course, charmed by any bio that follows a mention of obtaining an M. Phil. in the “Minor Poets of the 1890s” with a summary of one’s living situation as residing “in a quiet village outside Bath with his partner Helen and a comfort of cats.”

Charming, right?

You might have read his article on the English Civil War in the July 4 edition of the New York Times. Perhaps you missed it, and perhaps you should take a moment now to read it. I’ll wait.

So I ordered this book, The Polite Tourist, pleasantly anticipating a tour through some of the finest houses in England, alongside a lighthearted glance at the travelling habits of our grandparents and their grandparents. Instead, I got a book that opened my eyes to more about the social history of our attitudes toward architecture, the aristocracy, interior and garden design, hospitality, recreation, and travel than I ever knew I never knew.

And believe me, I tend to fancy that I know a fair bit about things.

Here’s the thing: I know that most of the people reading this blog are avid readers of Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and other fine literary friends, and that you, like me, enjoy travelling to the places depicted in our favorite books if at all possible, for the thrill of recognition, of association, of being where it happened — even if “it” only happened in a book.

You want the thrill of recognition? How about recognizing oneself in paragraphs like this one:

“The rage to construct images of the past, no matter how unstable the basis for such images, was not confined to the Georgian.  As a means of structuring and interpreting one’s experience of architecture, imaginative reconstruction was to become a cliche. It survived well into the twentieth century, and has recently achieved a new respectability… But in the nineteenth century, the concept of Romantic association, the notion of responding to architecture and art not on its own terms, but by reference to something outside itself, was to grow beyond imaginary figures from the past like the Abbot of Tynemouth Priory, beyond historical personalities such as the doomed Mary Queen of Scots, to take in the enormous impact of literature on the popular imagination.” (TPT, p. 125)

I mean, it’s never fun to discover that your main passion is all part of a centuries-old social construct, but hell, it’s not altogether surprising either.

I loved this book to death and I am going right out to find more by this guy who lives near Bath with his partner and his cats and who used to advise The National Trust and who is at this moment, according to his most recent Twitter status update, lecturing on the houses of Robert Adam to an audience on the Queen Mary II.

And people wonder why I love Twitter as much as I do.

Tinniswood, Adrian (1999). The Polite Tourist: Four Centuries of Country House Visiting. The National Trust, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers: New York.

2 Thoughts.

  1. Oh! Im so glad you got the book:isn’t it fabulous? Adrian is a wonderful, engaging and informative writer without ever being stuffy- his books on Sir Christopher Wren and the history of the Verney family are must buys too.

    When I recommended it to you I got- as I always-do a twinge as I hoped you were not going to be disappointed with it. Your review suggests, quite the opposite to paraphrase Elizabeth Bennet in the BBCs Pride and Predjudice. Oh! The relief!!!!

  2. My deer, I was so heartbroken about being finished with The Polite Tourist that I immediately downloaded the Kindle version of the life of Wren and am devouring it as we speak. LOVE his writing style — and of course the subject matter is the best.

    Thank you again for the excellent recommendation!

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