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“Silent, burnt up, shadeless and glaring”: Provence Seen through Victorian Editions of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in France

p. 81-93

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1The starting point for this paper will be the surprising opening remarks of Section VI of Murray’s first Handbook for Travellers in France published in 1843:

The Englishman who knows the South of France from books; who there finds Provence described as the cradle of Poetry and Romance, the paradise of the Troubadours, a land teeming with oil, wine, silk and perfumes has probably formed in his mind a picture of a region beautiful to behold, and charming to inhabit. These anticipations may probably be strengthened by Mrs Radcliffe’s well-known, but perfectly unfounded, descriptions of scenery in the Mysteries of Udolpho. Nothing however, can differ more widely from the reality. (Murray 1943, 429)

2Murray’s 1843 Handbook for Travellers in France thus opens with a very negative view of Provence which hardly encourages travellers to go there, let alone sojourn in the area. The guidebook discards traditional views of Provence as the birthplace of courtly love and professes to offer its readers a more authentic view of the area, distinct from the deceptive images conveyed by famous English writers. But exactly how authentic is this new image of Provence? Guidebooks are a somewhat manipulative genre in that they unavoidably offer a selective and prescriptive view of the scenery.1 In this respect they can be seen as ways of constructing the landscape rather than as mere mirrors. They filter and rearrange the landscape for their readers and, when widely consulted, convey representations that contribute to the shaping of a collective imagery, which readers can either accept or discuss.2 Bearing this in mind, this paper will examine the filtering and shaping of Provence through a selection of guidebooks edited by the British firm Murray from the 1840s until the end of the nineteenth century. It will endeavour to find out whether or not Murray Handbooks for Travellers in France reveal a quintessentially British perception of Provence and it will consider whether this perception can be considered as typically Victorian.

3This investigation will be based on editions of Murray guides broadly covering the second half of the Victorian period – in other words the 1843, 1858, 1869 and 1881 editions. To measure the possible imprint of the British imagination on Murray guidebooks, we will compare their descriptions of Provence with those of famous French guidebooks of the same period, namely the Joanne guidebooks, also called Guides diamant, published by Hachette. However, this comparison can be misleading in so far as guidebooks of the time often copied one another’s contents. It can be supposed nonetheless that they all, to some degree, attempted to answer their reader’s expectations and that in that respect, Murray’s guidebooks catered more specifically for their British readership. Moreover, these volumes were written by British authors. When it mentions the descriptions of Provence featuring in chapter 3 of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho in its opening statement of the 1843 edition, Murray’s Handbook provides an example of the use of British references to capture Provençal scenery. In spite of its Englishness, this reference paradoxically conjures up a picture of Provence which was not only largely fictional but even entirely fictitious, since Ann Radcliffe never visited France. Radcliffe’s novel nonetheless gave rise in Britain to a widely spread, though completely invented, representation of the area, which the 1843 Murray guidebook professes to stand against. Interestingly, this British reference disappears in later editions of the Handbook, which no longer mention Ann Radcliffe’s descriptions.

4While Joanne guidebooks allude to Provence only in passing when analysing the South of France, and take for granted that their readers know what the word refers to, Provence features explicitly in every edition of Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers in France, first published in 1843. This difference enables us to distinguish guidebooks written for the French population from guidebooks written about France for British readers. The word ‘Provence’ appears in the very title of section VI of part two of Murray’s Handbooks. It is first associated with Languedoc in the 1843 to 1860 editions and then with Languedoc and Nice – after Nice became French again in 1860. Although the word ‘Provence’ is defined more precisely in Murray’s Handbooks than in the Joanne guidebooks, the boundaries of Murray’s Provence are delineated somewhat vaguely in the British guidebook. The whole of the route stretching from Lyons to Avignon strangely comes under the heading ‘Provence’. On the other hand, parts of Provence are mentioned in the section devoted to the region of ‘Dauphiné’. Similarly the route running from Marseilles to Ventimiglia appears under the heading ‘Provence’ until the 1890 edition of the guidebook distinguishes Provence from the Riviera per se. The Riviera becomes the subject of an entirely separate volume in 1892. The boundaries of Provence set by Murray’s Handbooks thus vary for historical and commercial reasons.3

5A comparison between Murray’s Handbooks and Hachette guidebooks from the mid-1860s onward reveals an interesting cultural difference in geographical representations of Provence. By then, the railway system had developed sufficiently to enable travellers to reach Provence by train. The Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée, or PLM line, reached Marseilles by the mid-1850s and ran on to Monaco by 1869.4 Nevertheless, Murray’s Handbooks continued, even after the construction of the railway, to present the area as being structured around the River Rhône axis, as was the case when travellers only used steamboats and coaches to journey from Lyons down to the Camargue region or to Marseilles. Though increasingly crisscrossed by railway lines, their maps still bear the caption: “The River Rhone, from Lyons to the sea” (figs. 11 and 12). On the other hand, the Joanne guidebooks follow the PLM line, as their very title De Paris à la Méditerranée – which echoes the very name PLM – indicates, and the places of interest they mention are in the vicinity of railway stations along the line. Of course one might object that the PLM line ran mainly along the Rhône axis, but the French guidebook’s choice of a man-made construction as opposed to the British choice of the river as the structuring element of the landscape, emphasised by the caption of Murray’s maps “The River Rhone from Lyons to the sea”, is nonetheless striking.

6In the French guidebooks, the word ‘Provence’ does not always appear clearly in the general volume devoted to France, but a section is devoted to the region in the more specialised guidebooks entitled De Paris à la Méditerranée which were published from 1854 onward, with the opening and extension of the PLM line. Murray’s Handbook to France on the other hand alludes to Provence from its very first edition. Section VI of Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers in France offers a short introduction almost exclusively devoted to the area. It purports to describe the main features of the region, especially its climate and inhabitants. Provence, according to the guidebook, and as has already been pointed out, is anything but the ‘paradise of the Troubadours’ imagined by would-be travellers. Instead of this, the Handbook contended, actual travellers experienced arid conditions, unbearably dry heat and suffocating dust. The mental picture conveyed here is that of a scorched and dusty landscape under a glaring sun. The Handbook even compares the area to “the dry bones of a wasted skeleton” and states that “the inhabitant of the North would not readily purchase the clear cloudless sky of Provence with the verdure of misty England” (Murray 1843, 429). Copper-coloured and dry Provence is contrasted with the freshness and verdure of British landscapes, and Provençal vines, mulberry and olive trees – described as squat, scanty and often leafless as well as powdered with dust – are set against English forests of oaks, ashes and beeches. Readers are invited to conjure up images of Britain, the better to appreciate the contrast with Provence, and all these distinctions explicitly or implicitly emphasise the pleasanter and more picturesque qualities inherent to British landscapes.

7Murray’s Handbooks apply a widespread climate theory, which claims that the character of the inhabitants of Provence is in keeping with the landscape and climate of the area. According to this theory, the Provençal temper is as fiery as the sun and soil, which account for the lack of self-control and moderation of the people of the region. The resulting disposition is depicted as “hasty and headstrong,” and this leads, according to the Handbooks, to extreme religious and political behaviour and to “the committal of acts of violence unknown in the North” (Murray 1881, 109). Similarly, the rude quality and coarseness of the landscape is considered to have spread to the character and appearance of Provençal people, “rude in manner” and “harsh in speech”. And the guidebook remarks that their patois is “unintelligible, even to the French themselves”(Murray 1881, 109). These extreme qualities, deemed intrinsic to Provençal character, are seen as simply mirroring the extremes of the region’s climate, which fluctuates between torrid and scorching heat in summer and piercing cold in winter. However, this violence may sometimes only be a sign of what the guidebook defines as southern exuberance. The Handbooks point out that the inhabitants of Provence often seem to be quarrelling when they are, in fact, merely conversing vivaciously.

8Besides its harsh climate and uncivilised inhabitants, Provence is, according to Murray’s guidebook, plagued with two other major scourges, namely the mistral wind and mosquitoes. Complaints about the mistral were by no means specific to British perceptions of the area. They can also be found in the French guidebooks. Nevertheless, the long paragraph devoted by Murray Handbooks to mosquitoes, reveals a British hypersensitivity to southern insects. It dwells on their “venomous bite,” sufficient, according to the guidebook, to spoil any visit to the area. The insects are described as downright “pestilential” and are said to inflict “excruciating torments” on the “worn-out traveller” (Murray 1843, 430). The Handbook describes mosquitoes literally pouring into well-lit bedchambers, causing fever and madness to unfortunate sleepers not only by the pain of their sting but also by the “tingling and agonising buzzing which fills the air”. The only protection is a well-constructed mosquito curtain, only to be found in England of course and, even more precisely, at Waterloo House in London. For any British traveller not yet discouraged from setting foot in Provence by the nightmarish pictures previously drawn, the guidebook adds that another scourge lies in wait, namely scorpions who can be discovered even “in the folds of the bed-curtains or sheets” (Murray 1843, 430).

9The Handbook’s introductory remarks on Provence are surprisingly negative and unattractive. They hardly encourage anyone to visit the area, which is somewhat paradoxical for a guidebook. Clearly, during the Victorian period, Provence still was not an area where the British wished to linger. The only parts of the region considered worth seeing by the Handbook were the fertile and more humid zones. The guidebook seems impervious to the interest and charm of dryer landscapes and focuses instead on the irrigated areas of Provence, where mulberry trees, corn, vines, fruit and vegetables and even chestnut trees grew.

The foregoing description of Provence and Bas Languedoc has been limited to the dark side of the picture: it remains to mention the resources, fertility, and curiosities of the country. Its valleys, and lowlands accessible to irrigation, are most fertile; and the earth, where it can be sufficiently supplied with moisture, teems with varied productions all the year round. Before the spring is over, the mulberry trees, which line the roads and cross the fields, are stripped of their juicy foliage to feed the silkworm. […] Early in summer comes the corn harvest, the crops having grown, for the most part, under the boughs of the mulberry or vine; sunshine and soil sufficing for both. Autumn is the season of the vintage. […] Chestnuts on the higher grounds are another crop collected in the same season. […] The winter has set in before the olives are gathered and pressed. A visit to the market place in every town will show with what abundance the earth brings forth fruit and vegetables of endless variety. (Murray 1881, 111)

10The Handbooks also see a few redeeming features and possible attractions in the Roman remains Provence has to offer:

No traveller should omit seeing the Pont du Gard, between Avignon and Nîmes, and the walls of the Théâtre at Orange, stupendous and most impressive structures perfectly characteristic of the great people that raised them; the Amphithéâtres of Nîmes and Arles, though less enormous than the Colosseum, are more interesting on account of their better preservation. The Maison Carrée is a gem of architecture: the monuments at St Rémy, and the Arch at Orange, are also of great excellence, besides many other curious relics. (Murray 1881, 112)

11This emphasis on Antiquity and Roman architecture reveals that the guidebooks were arguably intended for a wealthy and cultivated British elite accustomed to the Grand Tour. This is confirmed by frequent references in Latin and Greek, which the British guidebooks consider unnecessary to translate whereas the French guidebooks do. In this respect, it appears that Murray’s Handbooks to France were not written primarily for the Meagleses or the Dorrits of Victorian society5 but rather for the educated upper classes.

12The Roman sites mentioned by the British guidebooks were compared to equivalent monuments in Italy – which once again seems to indicate that the readers of these Handbooks were seasoned Grand Tour travellers with corresponding classical knowledge. The importance of antiquity in the region is accounted for etymologically and even genetically. The 1843 edition of the Handbook states that the Roman features of Provence are especially worth seeing because the very region derives its name from the Roman word ‘Province’ (432). The guidebook also traces the exceptional beauty of “women of the lower-classes” to the Greek presence in the region, thereby building on the well-known stereotype of Greek profiles (110).

13Another feature of Provence considered worth seeing by Murray’s Handbook was “Christian architecture” and the guidebooks recommended “the churches of Arles and its vicinity, of St Gilles, of Aix, of Avignon [with its] stupendous Papal Palace” (Murray 1881, 112). Catholicism and traces of the Papal past of Provence clearly appealed to the British imagination, and frequent comparisons were drawn between British and French religious architecture – the style of the main entrance to the cathedral of St Sauveur in Aix is likened to “perpendicular Gothic overloaded with ornament” (Murray 1881, 200). The guidebooks dwell on the religious past of such buildings and particularly on its dark sides. They emphasise the “luxury, profligacy and venality” (125) of the Papal Court in Avignon rather than its splendour, and they indulge in details on the horrors of the Inquisition and the chamber of torture rather than on particulars about the rooms of state:

The chamber of torture (salle de la question) adjoining, is built with funnel-shaped walls, contracting upwards, in the manner of a glass-house, a form devised, it is said, to stifle the cries of the miserable victims. In the thickness of the wall, in one corner, are the remains of a furnace for heating torturing irons, according to the tradition. Near it are holes to which was attached the instrument called La Veille, a pointed stake, upon which the condemned was seated, suspended by cords from above, so as only to prevent his falling, but allowing his whole weight to bear upon the point. (Murray 1843, 448)

14Such accounts were bound to appeal to British travellers because they implicitly reinforced the idea of Anglican superiority while also awakening a mixture of horror and fascination. Among these travellers, Charles Dickens was so inspired by the gruesome stories narrated by the guidebook and by its description of the ‘dark ages’ of Avignon that he repeated some of this information almost word for word in his travel narrative Pictures from Italy.6

15Besides the dark ages of Provence’s Papal past, the Handbooks also dwelt on description of sites and stories related to the violence of the French Re-volution or the Napoleonic Wars. Such allusions reinforced British identity by implicitly contrasting the moderation and balance of the British political system with regimes depicted as tyrannical and bloodthirsty. The French Revolution gave rise to many hair-raising descriptions depicting a variety of atrocious crimes, and the guidebooks even implied that the natural ferocity of Southerners turned into downright madness during the Revolution:

Bedouin is a miserable village rising from amidst the ruins of a town destroyed at the Revolution. There is no darker spot in the black history of that period than the burning of Bedouin and the massacre of its inhabitants by the revolutionary committee, on the pretended plea of the tree of liberty being uprooted. Their agent, the apostate priest Maignet, directed the atrocious crime, and Suchet, afterwards so eminent a general, with his soldiers, carried it into execution, setting fire to the houses, blowing up the public buildings, hurrying the peaceful inhabitants to the scaffold, and picking off with musketry those who tried to escape, until 180 had perished. (Murray 1881, 122)

16Along the same line of thought, the people of Orange were said to have “a character for ferocity” which led them to execute 378 people by the guillotine in the space of three months (Murray 1881, 121). The guidebooks also alluded to the atrocities perpetrated by Provençal royalists on receiving news of the battle of Waterloo:

In the Place Crillon […] Marshal Brune, in passing through Avignon, in 1815, furnished with Lord Exmouth’s passport, was murdered by an infuriated mob of Provençal royalists, who, on receiving the news of the battle of Waterloo, and instigated by hatred of Napoleon, rose upon their adversaries and committed all sorts of excesses and atrocities (Murray 1881, 123)

17Not only did the Handbooks concentrate on the past, they also described more modern features of Provence such as agriculture – for instance the cultivation of garden flowers or the growing of olive or mulberry trees – and industry – like the perfume distilleries or the silk industry, as well as the soap factories and dockyards. They also depicted various remarkable feats of nineteenth-century engineering like the aqueduct of Roquefavour built in the 1840s or sundry railway bridges. However, one kind of engineering was considered inferior to anything that could be found in Britain and that was, unsurprisingly, the Provençal sewage system. This observation reinforced deep-rooted British preconceptions about southern dirt as opposed to English cleanliness.

18So far, much of the attraction attributed to Provence by the Handbooks paradoxically stems from a degree of attraction mixed with repulsion, but one part of the region is unreservedly depicted as truly remarkable. This part is

a narrow strip in the Dept. of the Var and Maritime Alps, bordering on the Mediterranean, extending from Toulon to Nice, stretching inland to Grasse and Draguignan. It commences to the E. of Toulon, and includes the towns of Cannes, Hyères, Antibes, Fréjus and Nice, sometimes styled ‘les villes d’Hiver’ (Murray 1881, 111).

19This area corresponds to the French Riviera but until the 1890s, Murray’s Handbooks included it in Provence and even called it the ‘Garden of Provence’. The use of the word ‘Garden’ is telling when one remembers the English passion for gardening. The area appealed to British travellers not just because of its mild and balmy climate but also because it was seen as a wonderful and somewhat exotic garden-like landscape. The Handbooks marvel at “the aloe, the cactus, the Aleppo and umbrella-pines, the pomegranate, the orange, and even the palm-trees” (Murray 1881, 112). British travellers were charmed by the variety of flowers grown in the area and which the Handbooks enumerated: heliotropes, orange flowers, jasmines, & c.” (Murray 1881, 112). In this light, it comes as no surprise that the more arid parts of Provence must have seemed very off-putting to British travellers. In fact, the sites deemed most agreeable by the Handbooks were those which resembled the English landscape and enabled the guidebook to use descriptive categories familiar to British readers. The Handbook thus praises the “exquisitely limpid waters” of the “sparkling” Sorgue river near Avignon, whose banks are covered in a “luxuriant mantle of green moss” (Murray 1881, 129). It dwells on the picturesqueness of the fountain of Vaucluse with its “gushing cataract, tumbling over the moss-clad stones” (130). The aridity and the heat of the rest of Provence disconcerted Murray contributors who were at a loss to find categories to describe them accurately. One of the solutions they fell back on was to use terms normally applied to the African continent. L’Isle sur la Sorgue, a town in the neighbourhood of Avignon, is accordingly depicted as “a green oasis in the desert” (Murray 1881, 129) and the Camargue is compared to the Nile with its fauna of ibises, pelicans and flamingos. The guidebook points out that there “as in the deserts of Africa, the mirage constantly occurs during the heats, transforming the arid plain in appearance into a wide lake” (Murray 1881, 152).

20As for the area stretching from Toulon to Nice, while being merely described by the Handbook as the ‘Garden of Provence’ until the end of the 1860s, in later editions it was also depicted as a ‘Winter Resorts for Invalids’, an addition which explicitly stressed its medical attraction.7 The guidebooks even delineated a geography of the area and of the city of Nice specially adapted to different ailments. For Nice, they told those suffering from chronic asthma and other respiratory diseases to avoid living near the sea shore and to prefer the “more removed quarters of Longchamp, St Étienne and Caracabel” (Murray 1881, 185). The Handbooks recommended the lower part of Longchamp to patients suffering from nervous diseases, and the Promenade des Anglais for children suffering from scrofulous affections or for patient with gout and paralysis. Regarding this part of Provence, the guidebooks catered for sedentary British residents and, what is more, primarily for residents suffering from various complaints. Consequently, they dwelled on details related to prolonged stays and medical treatment and they provided lists of boarding schools for British children, as well as lists of English churches and cemeteries, British doctors, banks and tradesmen.

21In conclusion, apart from a few redeeming features and from the appeal of what was becoming known as the French Riviera, the image of Provence conveyed by Murray’s Handbooks to France in the second half of the nineteenth century was a far cry from today’s enthusiastic accounts of British writers and travel guides. Nothing in Murray’s descriptions really induced travellers to linger in the region. They encouraged them instead to hasten to more attractive places. This shows us how much the image of Provence in the British imagination has altered since the mid-nineteenth century. Murray’s Handbooks also reveal how much representations of Provence were pervaded with British cultural codes and how they often implicitly participated in the assertion of British identity and a British sense of superiority. At the end of the day, to paraphrase John Pemble in his book The Mediterranean Passion, the representation of Provence provided by Murray’s Handbooks revealed as much about Victorian “longings and aversions, hopes and fears” (Pemble 1987, 274) as it did about the region.

Fig. 11 - ‘The River Rhone from Lyons to the Sea and Adjacent Country’, 1869, A Handbook for Travellers in France, John Murray

Image 100000000000031B000002C37E28B0DA.jpg

Fig. 12 - ‘The River Rhone from Lyons to the Sea’, 1869, A Handbook for Travellers in France, John Murray

Image 10000000000001B700000435531E8041.jpg


Des DOI sont automatiquement ajoutés aux références bibliographiques par Bilbo, l’outil d’annotation bibliographique d’OpenEdition. Ces références bibliographiques peuvent être téléchargées dans les formats APA, Chicago et MLA.

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Notes de bas de page

1 For further information regarding manipulation by travel guides and narratives, see Viviès (1999) and Adams (1962).

2 This idea of collective and often national representations projected by travellers upon scenery of foreign countries and conveyed and projected by their travel narratives has been developed by Hartog (1986), Pemble (1987) and by Buzard (1994). It is also tackled in Vanfasse (2009a) and in DeVine (2012).

3 Section VI provides a map of the areas broadly situated along the Rhône river, starting from Lyons, which seems to imply that Provence is contained within this zone. The section itself is intriguing inasmuch as the whole of route 125 from Lyons to Avignon, by Vienne, Valence, Orange and Sorgues bears the heading ‘Provence’. The heading ‘Provence’ is applied more appropriately to route 127 which goes from Avignon to Marseilles, via Tarascon and Arles, or to route 129 leading from Avignon to Aix, via the Rognac station and the Roquefavour aqueduct. However frontiers again become unclear when the heading is again used to frame route 128 stretching from Marseilles to Ventimiglia, through Toulon, Hyères, Cannes, Nice and Mentone. The main body of the text explains this geographical extension by qualifying this area as “the Garden of Provence” (Murray 1881, 111). Such is therefore the broader conception of Provence spread by Murray guides. However, from the 1890s onward a specific volume of Murray’s Handbooks is devoted to the Riviera, and its subtitle distinguishes Provence from the Riviera per se. The second edition of this Handbook for Travellers on the Riviera does away with Provence altogether and focuses only on the area stretching from Marseilles to Pisa. Moreover, in spite of their broad conception of Provence, the Handbooks for Travellers in France published from 1843 until 1892 miss parts of Provence, which appear in section seven of the guidebook under the heading ‘Dauphiné’. These parts cover some of the southern areas between Grenoble and Marseilles – described in route 134 which goes through La Croix Haute, Veynes Junction, Sisteron and Aix as well as parts of route 135 going from Sisteron to Nice via Digne, Castellane, and Cannes, if one bears in mind the extensive definition of Provence previously mentioned. The definition of Provence thus fluctuates considerably in Murray’s guidebooks for historical reasons – like the inclusion of Nice, which extends the region – and for commercial reasons, as the Riviera develops into an attractive zone in its own right and is separated by the editor from the rest of Provence to form a different volume.

4 For more details regarding the history of the PLM railway line, see Get et Lajeunesse (1980).

5 The Meagles and the Dorrits are satirised by Dickens in his novel Little Dorrit for the lack of culture and open-mindedness they display during their travels. Dickens depicts them as comic ignoramuses. They do not have the cultural background of traditional Grand Travellers, familiar with ancient languages, with Greek and Roman art and with the Old Masters.

6 This has been analysed by McNees (2007) and by myself (2009).

7 In the 1843 and 1869 editions, it is merely described as the garden of Provence (Murray 1843, 431; Murray 1869, 479), whereas in later edition, for instance in the 1881 edition it is also depicted as “Winter Resorts for Invalids” (111).

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