Gatherings from SpainGatherings 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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