James Boswell’s Grand Tour

Beginning late in the 17th century, The Grand Tour—the extended journey through Europe undertaken by young British gentlemen to finish off their education—became popular and fashionable for many young British sons of the aristocracy. Typically, the young men already had a thorough grounding in Greek and Latin literature and some interest in art. Two to three years spent living abroad, accompanied by their tutors, offered them the opportunity to absorb the art and cultures they were visiting and improve their language skills. An added benefit was the greater freedom the young travellers experienced on the Continent, where their involvement in drinking, gaming and romantic liaisons posed as little inconvenience to their families as possible.

In terms of sheer reading pleasure and attention to detail, perhaps no accounting of The Grand Tour is more fascinating than that of James Boswell.

George Willison, “James Boswell,” Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. Painted in Rome while Boswell was on The Grand Tour in 1765.

Boswell, best known as the author of The Life of Johnson, what many consider the greatest biography in the English language, first visited London from his native Edinburgh in 1760 at the age of 20. The city’s culture—and its women—dazzled him and he began a three-year struggle with his father, an eminent judge, to remain permanently in the capital. Father and son ultimately worked out a compromise and just before his second London visit in 1762 where he was first introduced to Johnson in a bookseller’s back parlor, Boswell began keeping a diary, London Journal, 1762-1763, a practice he would continue for 33 years.

From these voluminous entries The Journals, 1762-95, we are able to vicariously follow Boswell’s adventures through Germany, Switzerland and Italy as he embarks on his Grand Tour. Travel in the 18th century was both difficult and expensive, and travellers typically carried little money. Instead, they took letters of credit from their London banks, which they then presented in major cities. After a year of studying law in gloomy Utrecht, the sunny climes and independence must have been irresistible to the twenty-four year old Boswell as he departed for Holland in 1764, escorted off by none other than Johnson himself. Whether due to cost or preference, he travelled without a tutor. The freedom this afforded him and Boswell’s own somewhat pompous self-image only adds to the appeal of his journal entries.

Yet Boswell did truly possess a genuine interest in the sites of European learning and classical antiquity. After leaving Johnson behind, he set his sights on and aggressively pursued obtaining interviews with two other great thinkers, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, both of whom were living in exile near Geneva. Although ill, Rousseau agreed to dine with him. Boswell, always the able conversationalist, rose enough to the occasion—talking of books, religion, art and of course, women—that he was invited to return. Voltaire was slightly less accommodating, but Boswell’s earnestness ultimately earned him the great writer’s grudging respect.

Boswell’s journals record these unforgettable dialogues in detail, but he also gives equal attention to less scholarly intentions. He wrote down everything that happened to him, what everyone said, what they ate, what they drank, how they dressed, how they travelled, along with plenty of descriptions of his meetings with all the pretty maids, wealthy wives, and available streetwalkers.

Boswell then continued his tour down to Italy, where he was the first Englishman to visit the interior of Corsica. The account of his visit here describes this little known land to Europeans in the 18th century in meticulous detail. As well as discussing the history, politics and culture of Corsica, Boswell writes about the land, the animals, the language and the people, even comparing the small stature and hard working nature of the Corsicans to the Highland Scots. His meeting with Pasquale di Paoli, the island’s leader, results in a lifelong friendship and helps to later spread Paoli’s revolutionary fervor to England through pamphlets and other writings.

By 1766, Boswell’s Grand Tour was nearing completion. As a favor to Rousseau, he agreed to accompany Rousseau’s mistress to London before returning to Scotland to take his final law exam. “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life,” Johnson famously said. Boswell, apparently never tired, and his short stop in London allowed for a brief affair with the philosopher’s mistress.

A little over ten years later, in 1773, Boswell finally succeeded, after many tries, in enticing his famous friend Dr. Johnson, who was by then in his mid-sixties, to accompany him on a tour through Scotland. Setting out from Edinburgh, the two men skirted the eastern and northeastern coasts of Scotland, passing through St. Andrews, Aberdeen and Inverness, and then on into the highlands where they spent several weeks on various islands in the Hebrides, including Skye, Coll and Mull.

Our own grand tour of Scotland and the Hebrides follows much of the same route that Boswell and Johnson trekked, and includes a stay at the Taychreggan Hotel in Kilchrenan, the actual site where the pair stopped for refreshment over 200 years ago. Boswell’s account of the journey, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, became the precursor to his famous biography. Whether experienced in person or from the comfort of your living room, it might just be the perfect accompaniment for interested readers to recreate such a storied trip.

Further Reading: Budapest, Vienna & Prague

GUIDES
There are several good guidebooks to choose from for all three cities; here are the two we like best:

Eyewitness Travel Guides: 

Vienna, DK Publishing, 2014; Budapest, 2015; Prague, 2015
Very popular guides, heavily illustrated, strong on practical info, and excellent maps.
Also Top 10 Guides to each city.

Blue Guides:
Bob Dent, Blue Guide Budapest, Norton, 2nd ed., 2001
Nicholas T. Parsons, Blue Guide Austria, Norton, 4th ed., 2000
Jason Tilbury, Blue Guide Prague, Norton, 2nd ed., 2004
Though not with recent editions, easily the most serious, detailed guide to the art, architecture and history in English. Good practical info, no photos.

GENERAL HISTORY & CULTURE
Lonnie Johnson, Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends,
Oxford University Press, 2010
A historical survey of Central Europe covering contemporary Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia.Claudio Magris, Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
The author tracks the Danube River, the pulse of Central Europe, the crucible of a culture that draws on influences of East and West, Christianity and Islam.

Patrick Leigh Fermer, A Time of GiftsBetween the Woods and the Water, and The Broken Road, NY Review, 2005, 2015An extraordinary trilogy by a great travel writer of his trek across the continent as a teenager. The middle volume covers much of Central Europe, including Budapest and Prague.

Budapest:
Istvan Bart, Hungary and the Hungarians, Corvina, 1999
Lively, humorous insight into Hungarian culture.

Magda Denis, Castles Burning, Touchstone 1997
Memoir of life in Budapest seen through the eyes of a 10-year old Jewish girl.

Peter Hanak, The Garden and the Workshop, Princeton, 1998
Essays on the cultural history of Vienna and Budapest.

Paul Lendvai, Blacklisted: a Journalist’s Life in Central Europe, Taurus, 1998
Written by a victim of both fascists and communists, with an overview of Hungarian history.

John Lukacs, Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and its Culture,
Grove Press, 1990
A distinguished historian writes of a city at the height of its powers

Susan Suleiman, Budapest Diary
Memoir of a current Harvard professor, born in Budapest, left as child in 1948, now returning.

Vienna:
Stephen Brook, The Double Eagle: Vienna, Budapest and Prague, London, 1988

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, Farrar, Straus, 2010
Moving family memoir of the misfortunes of European Jewish banking during and after the war

Frederic Morton, A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/89, Penguin, 1980 (orig. 1979)
Entertaining read, which includes a bizarre story about Bruckner!

Nicholas Parsons, Vienna: A Cultural History, Oxford University Press, 2008
Excellent primer on the history and culture of the city

Carl E. Schorscke, Fin de Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, Vintage, 1980
Acclaimed and original exploration of the period and place.

Allen Janik & Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna, Simon & Schuster, 1973
Another notable cultural history around the culture of the dying empire before WWI.

Kirk Varnedoe, Vienna 1900: Art Architecture, Design, MOMA, 1986
From the late, lamented curator of the Museum of Modern Art, covering 1900-1918.

Andrew Wheatcroft, The Hapsburgs, Penguin, 1997 (orig. 1995)

Prague:
Peter Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold, 1997
Clear and scholarly.

Angelo Maria Ripellino, Magic Prague, 1995 pb.
Overly erudite but contains exciting and fanciful ideas about the city.

Vaclav Havel, Paul Wilson, Summer Meditations, Vintage, 1993
The first leader of the post-Soviet Czech Republic grapples with the challenges of political change.

Jan Kaplan, A Traveller’s Companion to Prague, Interlink, 2005
The turbulent history of “The City of a Hundred Spires” revealed through eyewitness accounts from medieval to modern times, including Petrarch, Hans Christian Anderson, and Graham Greene.

Melissa Muller, Alice’s Piano: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, St. Martin’s Press, 2012
Alice Herz-Sommer, a talented pianist born in Prague, was sent to a Nazi concentration camp in 1943 with her husband and six-year-old son. In the midst of horror, music was Alice’s salvation In more than a hundred concerts, Alice gave her fellow prisoners hope in a time of suffering. 

MUSIC
Daniel Heartz, Music in European Capitals: The Galant Style, 1720-1780 (2003);
Mozart, Haydn, and Early Beethoven: 1781-1802 (2008)
Scholarly but wonderfully accessible, you can dip in and out of each volume.
Charles Rosen, The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Norton, 1998 (expanded includes CD, orig. 1972)  A classic book by a pianist/professor about the Viennese Classical School. Maynard Solomon, Mozart, Harper, 1995 & Beethoven, 2001, Schirmer (2nd ed.)
If you like or tolerate a psychobio, two interesting onesJ.W.N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development, Sullivan Press, 2008 (orig. 1927)
Not a bio, not by a music expert, but a timeless book on the creative genius and art. 

Alexander Wheelock Thayer, Life of Beethoven, ed. Elliott Forbes, 2 vols. Princeton, rev. 1991 (orig. 1866-1908)  Completed by others from his notes and after many updating, still a standard reference.

Robert Winter & Robert Martin, eds., The Beethoven Quartet Companion,
Univ. of California, 1994
Interesting essays which put the quartets in context historically, culturally, and in performance.

FICTION
James Naughton, Traveller’s Literary Companion to Eastern and Central Europe, Brighton, 1995.

Marion Crawford, The Witch of Prague, London, 1976.

Martha Gellhorn, A Stricken Field
Autobiographical novel of an American journalist working in Prague after the Munich Pact of 1938.

Graham Greene, The Third Man
Novella set in Vienna, and most famously made into a film.

Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and Other Stories
Also: The Trial, The Castle

Gustav Meyrink, The Golem, 1913-14
Classic work of historical fiction 

Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities, Vintage, 1996 (2 vol., trans. Wilkins; orig. 1943)
The great novel of fin-de-siecle Vienna. Also: The Young Torless

Jan Neruda, Prague Tales, London, 1993 (trans M.H. Heim, orig. 1878)

Philip Roth, The Prague Orgy, London, 1985

Arthur Schnitzler, stories and novellas

Jiri Weil, Life with a Star, 1947

Mendelssohn is on the Roof, 1960 (both trans. M. Winn)
Bleak but ironic and savagely humorous evocations of Jewish life in Prague during the war.

Stefan Zweig, stories, and his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, U. of Nebraska Press, 1964

FILM
The Golem (Carl Boese & Paul Wegener, 1920) Classic German silent horror film.

Liebelei (Max Ophuls, 1933, in German)

Mayerling (Anatole Litvak, 1936, in French) Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux as Archduke Rudolf and Maria Vetsera.

Hangmen Also Die! (Fritz Lang, 1943) Noir about the assassination of a Nazi leader by Czech resistance fighters.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948) Story by Stefan Zweig; a concert pianist and his admirer.

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) Screenplay by Graham Greene, plus Orson Welles and that music!

Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984) Based on the play by Peter Schaffer, and filmed mostly in Prague.

Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995) Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke hanging out in Vienna.

Gloomy Sunday (Rolf Schübel, 1999, in German and Hungarian) Budapest in the 1930s.

Sunshine (Istvan Szabo, 1999) The fate of an Hungarian Jewish family throughout the 20th century; with Ralph Fiennes.

The Lives of Others (von Donnersmark, 2006, in German) Takes place in East Berlin, but a chilling evocation of the Stasi’s work.