Books interview: Robert Holland

The author on the journey from historical fiction and 18th-century Gothic Italian fiction in English to exploring how the Mediterranean shaped the British imagination

September 6, 2018

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?

Reading took off very late in my 1950s childhood – football came first. But then I discovered historical fiction. The stories of Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth about Roman Britain stand out. Then came Anya Seton’s novels – her Devil Water on the Jacobite rebellions was mind-blowing in adolescence, as were Mary Renault’s recreations of ancient Greece. The last provided a bridge to “real” history: Leonard Cottrell’s ­Wonders of Antiquity and Bull of Minos opened up a world. The sheer excitement they gave me has never been surpassed.

Your new book explores ‘how the Mediterranean shaped the British imagination’. Which books first drew you to this theme?

All that 18th-century Gothic Italian fiction in English literature – Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance – epitomised for me an interest in the warm south as a formative influence in British imaginations. In modern academic literature, Giuliana Treves’ The Golden Ring: The Anglo-Florentines 1847-1862 (1956), C. P. Brand’s Italy and the English Romantics (1957) and John Buxton’s The Grecian Taste: Literature in the Age of Neo-­classicism (1968) are among books that suggested a larger theme.

Which books provided a model for a wide-ranging work of cultural history ranging across centuries?

I would single out Paul Fussell’s Abroad: British Literary Travelling between the Wars (1980) and James Buzard’s The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature and the Ways to ‘Culture’ 1800-1914 (1993). But I never really think of models. I have some gut instinct about what may work as a subject, and through the reading and especially the writing, I struggle to put a shape on things. It is very late in the day before I know if it will come off.

What general non-specialist overviews would you recommend for crucial episodes such as the Grand Tour and the British ‘invention’ of the French Riviera?

John Pemble’s The Mediterranean Passion: Victorians and Edwardians in the South (1987) merits that overused word “seminal”. For an earlier period, Rosemary Sweet’s Cities of the Grand Tour: The British in Italy c.1690-1820 (2012) is enjoyably accessible. For le sud, Michael Nelson’s Queen Victoria and the Discovery of the Riviera (2001) tells a good story, although others – like the leading Whig-Radical politician Henry Brougham, long-time resident in Cannes – long beat Her Majesty to the côte.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?

My wife is an animal nut, and I recently gave her a double whammy on birds: Adam Nicolson’s The Seabird’s Cry: The Life and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers and the 50th anniversary edition of J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine. Both are wondrous.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?

Hot on the heels of Colm Tóibín’s House of Names, I am finishing Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. They make an interesting duo on contemporary terror in a larger frame of memory and association. Then I will read Hilary Spurling’s Anthony ­Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time.

Robert Holland is visiting professor at the Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College London and the author of The Warm South: How the Mediterranean Shaped the British Imagination (Yale University Press).

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