Rebecca Butler


Dr Rebecca Butler‘s research considers the impact of gender on women’s approaches to travel and how they write about their journeys; in this extract she analyses nineteenth century representations of Italy, and the ways in which the celebrity of the author influences the text.


From Spectator to Spectacle: Italy and the Celebrity Author

From ‘[T]he foreground is changed’: Florentia and The New Monthly Magazine (1853-1857), or the Politics of Celebrity’

Frances Dickinson never attempts to present Italy objectively in her articles for The New Monthly, she never lets the reader lose sight of the fact that it is her Italy that she is conjuring up for us. It is in this sense that Dickinson promotes her capabilities as a celebrity travel writer to her readers: for her, the travel destination is less important than she who represents it. While this emphasis enables Dickinson to reinvent tourist-trodden ground, it also impedes her representation of modern Italy and the Italians.

Rome essentially becomes an expatriate writers’ colony, where ‘one can jostle in the streets […], Lockhart, Thackeray, Fanny Kemble, […] Mrs Barrett Browning, and a host of ignoble fry’ (Dickinson Oct 1854, p.202). If Florentia (Dickinson’s travelling persona) performs the role of ‘woman of the crowd’ or flâneuse, she is less interested in studying modern Italian street life, than in rubbing shoulders with the British literati. The narrator continues to allegorize Rome as ‘the modern Niobe’, a ‘mourning bride, desolate and forlorn’ (Aug 1854, p.407; Nov 1854, p.367; Feb 1855, p.179; Jun 1855, p.212). It is a deathlike cityscape (lying ‘like a corpse at one’s feet’) more akin to the gothic post-revolutionary hinterlands of Janet Robertson and Margaret Dunbar than the fertile Campagnas of earlier writers anticipating Rome’s Risorgimento under Pope Pius IX (Sept 1854, p.93). At most, Florentia’s Italy becomes a theatrical backdrop, ‘suggesting midnight meetings, music, moonlight, rope-ladders, and all the paraphernalia of Italian intrigue’ (1855, p.227). Like the Italies of these other post-revolutionary travellers, it serves as a region of romance rather than a complex political geography in its own right.

Similarly, although modern Italians feature in the articles, there is the sense in which they are never real individuals, but are always characters in a play. Indeed, Florentia regularly deploys theatrical discourse in their characterisation. There is the Sicilian cavaliere Count Dionigi, ‘a principal character at the baker’s’, a stereotypically passionate and verbose Italian, whose ‘exits are capital’, his walking stick ‘play[ing] a principal part in his small drama’ (Oct 1855, p.252). There is the ‘handsome Italian’ at the ball in the Palace of Orsetti, dressed ‘very like [the actor] Charles Kean in one of his most becoming “gets-up”’ (1857, p.464). Even regular characters like Baldassare and Cavalier Trenta are ‘burlesque’ (1857, p.464). Denied the seriousness of reality, they ‘exeunt most amicably’ on cue, leaving Florentia room to soliloquise (p.108). Modern Italians are props which Florentia moves on and off-stage at will.

Italy and its inhabitants serve to foreground the implied author’s imaginative ability, rather than serving as subjects in themselves. Indeed, in a thinly veiled reference to her own writings, Florentia expresses her disappointment in an Italian play by condemning ‘The Italian stage of the present day’, more generally, which ‘is devoid of all originality’ (p.108). Instead, she states her preference for ‘[t]he farce which followed the play’, which ‘was very laughable, the plot consisting in the accidents which befall an unfortunate traveller’ (p.109). If tourist-tainted Italy no longer afforded novelty, the traveller herself could always be relied on as a source of entertainment.

References:

Florentia [Frances Dickinson], ‘Diary of a First Winter’, Aug 1854
Florentia, ‘Diary of a First Winter’, Sept 1854
Florentia, ‘Diary of a First Winter‘, Oct 1854
Florentia, ‘Diary of a First Winter’, Nov 1854
Florentia, ‘Diary of a First Winter’, Feb 1855
Florentia, ‘Diary of a First Winter’, Jun 1855
Florentia, ‘A Walk through the Studios of Rome’, Art Journal, August 1855
Florentia, ‘Baths of Lucca’, New Monthly Magazine, August 1857
Florentia, ‘Baths of Lucca’, May 1857