Have you packed the porter?

July 12, 2002

Early guidebooks to Greece told of hazardous melons and handy haberdashers. Mary Beard tracks how travel trends have changed in the first of our summer series on tourism

In September 1886, a letter to The Times complained that archaeologists working on the Athenian Acropolis were carelessly dumping their rubble over the side of the hill. The problem was not just the unsightly blot this caused on one of the most famous landscapes of the world; it was also that the rubble risked obliterating the distinctive profile of the northeast corner of the Acropolis. For "it may interest some of your readers to know that the NE angle of the rock, as seen from the roof of Dr Schliemann's houseI presents a capital profile likeness of Mr Gladstone, which may be obliterated by the casting of rubbish over the walls".

Of course, all tourism is caught in the dilemma between domesticating the foreign country and parading its strange, exotic "otherness" (between - for us - the chips and discos of the Mediterranean bars and the gnarled, other-worldly, toothless peasants who grin out of the postcards).

But in the case of 19th-century tourism to Greece, the shift to a domesticated image is particularly striking. In less than 50 years, the country had moved from an off-limits zone of conflict (where only the most foolhardy philhellenes would venture and die) to a destination on the standard repertoire of the upper middle-class British traveller that could be painted in comfortably British terms. The Times correspondent was not the only person to see his homeland reflected in the Acropolis. The maverick Irish classicist J. P. Mahaffy (tutor of Oscar Wilde) thought the Athenian hill almost identical to his own Irish Rock of Cashel. Virginia Woolf, visiting for the first time in 1906, could see only a likeness to Cornish cliffs.

One of the most revealing ways of tracking these changes in the traveller's image of Greece is through the best-used series of guidebooks to the country - the Handbooks published through the century by John Murray.

The first in the Handbook series appeared in 1840, just seven years after the teenaged Bavarian prince, Otho, had been placed on the throne of the new Greek nation-state; the sixth edition, "thoroughly revised and corrected on the spot", came out in 1896. Tourist guides are a challenging category of historical evidence, formulaic and anonymous - authority being vested here in the publisher, Murray, rather than in the writer, whose identity was indicated at most by an enigmatic series of initials. The newest editions are rarely entirely new, but carefully and economically updated versions, reusing great chunks of earlier editions verbatim and adapting where necessary. The changes always repay close reading; for they reflect changing perceptions of the country, as well as establishing those changed perceptions in the minds of their readership.

The first Handbook treats Greece as a dangerously foreign environment, in terms that would have seemed familiar to any 18th-century explorer. "Protection from vermin" is a major theme, and at least a page is devoted to the construction of a homemade mosquito net. The list of requirements for the journey is cast in terms of survival rather than enjoyment: tea, loaf-sugar, a porter, an English saddle, a gun (for game, apparently), a case of mathematical instruments and a pedometer.

As with all such self-help guides, we do not know how many people actually followed the advice. But even in the 1890s, J. G. Frazer's list of desiderata jotted down in the front of his notebook before his expedition to Greece looks designed more for assault training than for a vacation. In fact, the advice about the mosquito net was a fixture in the Handbook up to the 1872 edition, when its principles were explained with a rather clearer diagram than before. By 1884, although there is still plenty on the dangers to health (quinine, coloured spectacles, "melons are generally to be shunned", snakes and so on), the relative merits of hotels and the availability of dancing teachers and reliable haberdashers are now equally prominent.

The changing role of archaeology and the growth of knowledge and interest in the antiquities of Athens can also be plotted through rather more subtle signs. Every 19th-century edition of the Handbook starts its account of the Parthenon with a memorable quotation: "The finest edifice on the finest site in the world, hallowed by the noblest recollections that can stimulate the human heart." But the precise context and "packaging" of those words chart a striking difference between one edition and the next. In the first version, of 1840, that sentence is part of a much longer quoted extract that amounts to almost half the entry on the Parthenon. It is followed simply by the name "Wordsworth" in brackets, a standard appeal, in other words, to the most recent authoritative text on Athenian antiquities, Christopher Wordsworth's Athens and Attica of 1836.

By the 1872 edition, the quotation has been trimmed to just the one sentence and Wordsworth himself has been deftly converted into a famous cleric with a bon mot: "As the Bishop of Lincoln well calls it." By 1884, it has become just an unattributed quote ("This temple has been justly called") to introduce several pages detailing the results of recent archaeological work on the monument. It is a neat indication of Christopher Wordsworth's fading reputation over the century in the face of new archaeological discoveries.

The rhetoric of these Handbooks is designed to submerge the individual hand of the writer, in favour of the brand name Murray. But just occasionally the personal voice does break through, notably in 1884. This edition swelled to an inconvenient and unwieldy two volumes. It differs strikingly from those that went before in its championing of the monuments of medieval and modern, rather than merely classical, Greece. The writer refers, for example, to a medieval chapel on the Acropolis "ruthlessly destroyed" in 1860. And it differs also from all those that came after: the 1896 edition is slimmed down to a handy single volume, leaves out much of the material on medieval remains and strategically omits the adverb "ruthlessly" when referring to the destruction of the chapel.

The 1884 edition is signed with the initials AFY. These turn out to belong to Amy Frances Yule, daughter of Sir Henry Yule (translator of Marco Polo) and a long-term resident in Greece. But if this seems to be a typical case of a woman's voice squeaking out behind the semi-anonymity of a relatively low-prestige literary form, it is also a typical case of its prompt silencing. The relatively high-prestige Oxbridge men who took charge of the 1896 edition ensured that the antiquities of Greece would be presented as emphatically classical again.

Mary Beard is a reader in classics at the University of Cambridge and author of The Parthenon , published by Profile Books, £15.00.

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