A Handbook for Spain, 1845
Of the many excellent books written on Spain since the eighteenth century Richard Ford’s Handbook is by general consent far the best. One might even say that, with the exception of Doughty’s Arabia Deserta, it is also the best account of a foreign country in English. Yet till now its tiresome format, with the small print and double columns of the Victorian guide book, has been an obstacle to our enjoyment of it, besides which the first and fullest edition, that of 1845, has become very scarce. The Southern Illinois University Press is therefore to be congratulated on bringing out this handsome library edition in three volumes. Not only hispanophils, but anyone even vaguely interested in Spain will get pleasure and amusement from dipping into it.
Open it at almost any page and one will see why this is so. It is a book that is immensely alive. There is the sharp observation of Spanish life and character, the vivid descriptions of scenes and places, the wealth of information of all kinds, both historical and contemporary and, breaking out now and again, Ford’s pungent, scathing comments on what he does not approve of. And there was much that he did not approve of. He belonged like Borrow to the triumphant age of British industrial and naval power, and the Duke of Wellington was his hero. The Spanish brand of Catholicism was for him a farrago of pious superstitions which, as he took a malicious pleasure in showing, were mostly pagan in origin. The Spanish army was an incompetently led rabble and the Liberal politicians were windbags. His contempt for the whole superstructure of Spanish life could not have been more complete and indeed he had felt obliged to scrap the first draft of his Handbook because its tone was too caustic. Yet he loved Spain, loved and admired the Spaniards, made many friends among them and, after his first and only visit to the country as a man of thirty-four, he devoted the rest of his life to reading up its history and literature and, when approached by John Murray, to writing a guide book about it.
II IS, I THINK, this ambivalence of attitude in English writers that has been the cause of so many good books on the country. The need for reconciling the frankness, friendliness, dignity, and lack of subservience that one meets with in most Spaniards with so much inefficiency, official red-tape, and religious mummery has helped to stimulate the mind. Spain has been seen as the land of paradox where a people of great independence of character allowed themselves to be governed by corrupt and arbitrary rulers. But for Ford, as a young man fresh from England, it was to begin with a land for adventure. Where else in Europe could one ride for days on end through wild heaths and mountains, often infested by brigands, and then suddenly come on splendid monuments of the past—castles, churches, and monasteries, many of them crumbling into ruins? Where else could one find a simple, primitive life, full of reminiscences of Roman and even Biblical times, and untouched by the vulgarity of the industrial age. Or a people who from shepherd to grandee had the manners of gentlemen? Ford was a highly cultivated man and this incursion into the past stirred him deeply. Yet as an Englishman he also believed in order and good government, so that, like many other travelers since his day, he found himself torn between approval and disapproval.
One could write a long article on the varying attitudes to Spain taken by foreigners. The first to discover it as a country with a personality were the French in the time of Louis XIV. Antoine de Brunel, the Marquis de Villars, Madame d’Aulnoy, and the Duc de Saint Simon were all moved to eloquence about it, only for them it was, like Tibet in more recent times, the country of the antiquated and absurd. They had nothing to say about the like-ability of the Spaniards—they only noticed the out-of-date clothes and manners.
The first English travelers began to arrive towards the end of the eighteenth century, when the decline of the Inquisition made it safe for them to visit. The best of these is Townsend, the enlightened Rector of Pewsey, whose long book is well stocked with information, especially on industry and agriculture, but who is chiefly concerned to show that the Spaniards are an able and industrious race, not very different from other Europeans. Although Southey, on a visit in 1797, saw rather deeper into the Spanish situation, we have to wait till the Peninsular War for the classic English attitude to appear. Yet before this a young Swiss cavalry officer, Jean de Rocca, writing under the influence of Madame de Staël, whom he later married, produced a short book on his personal experiences that anticipates it. This is Mémoires sur la guerre des Français en Espagne (1814), and it is one of the most vivid and revealing books ever written on that country or on that terrible struggle. Then come Wellington’s Despatches, which more than bear out Rocca’s account of Spanish self-conceit and parochialism. While full of praise for the peasants who formed the guerrilla partidas, his tone becomes almost neurotic when he speaks of the incompetence and bad faith of the army officers and politicians. Napier’s masterly history of the war, which began to appear in 1828, corroborates Wellington’s view. He was a Radical in politics, which made it natural for him to admire the Spanish people as a whole and to take a low view of their leaders. But he understood better than Wellington the historical causes of the pride and touchiness which had made the Spanish army commanders so difficult to cooperate with.
SUCH IS THE BACKGROUND of opinion on which Ford’s attitude to Spain was formed. When he first arrived at Seville in 1830 he was well versed in the history of the recent war. But he possessed resources in himself which could lead him to a far wider and more intimate understanding of the country. He was a first-rate classical scholar who also knew French and Italian, as well as a talented water-colorist and draughtsman with a considerable knowledge of painting. He was besides a sociable man who got on with Spaniards and a man of immense energy. During the three years that he spent in the country he traveled several thousand miles on horseback, visiting every province and keeping a full diary. But what is outstanding in him is the range of his curiosity. Nothing escapes him, from the dresses and walk of the women and the majos to the breeds and diseases of horses, the brigands, the inns and carriages, the manufacture of wine and the cooking recipes. His erudition too is immense and always at his finger tips. He scatters Spanish proverbs as profusely as Sancho Panza, and his references to Greek and Latin authors are frequent and apt. But he can be boring when he insists on taking one through the battles and sieges of the Peninsular War and rehashing Wellington’s indignation at the conduct of the Spanish generals. He is at his best when writing on Andalusia.
Ford was, I believe, the first foreigner to draw attention to the importance of regional differences. The King ruled over not Spain but the Spains. Ford also originated the myth which holds that everything passive in the Spanish character is the result of the Moorish inheritance. This view is still held by many people although there are few grounds for it: what gives Spain its African look is its climate and landscape. But in general Ford is not prolific in ideas. Although there is plenty of historical information in his book, he has little sense either of history or of politics and for that reason is unjust to the Liberals who had been called on to govern a bankrupt country in the throes of civil war. His patriotism is always breaking out to ask why the Spaniards cannot learn the art of good government—that glorious discovery of the English—though he does not think that they are yet ready for a parliamentary system. Yet was the condition of England so happy? He has much to say of Spanish mismanagement and poverty, yet who would not have preferred to be a Spanish workman in those days to an English miner or mill-hand or agricultural laborer? Spain might be a run-down country, but it had not been poisoned by the scramble for wealth or by a heartless and anarchic industrialization. At his better moments Ford understood this, but he had looked at Spain harder than he had looked at England and his indignation at the abuses he saw there was often a sign of his humane feelings.
HOW FAR, we may ask, does the picture Ford paints hold true today? In a material sense there has of course been an enormous change, though not so great or so complete as in the rest of Europe. In spite of the explosion of wealth and productivity, there is still a layer of poverty, especially among the old or semi-employable. Then in all the remoter areas, or wherever the soil is poor, the life of the villages is breaking down because the young have gone off to the towns or to foreign countries to earn more money. Those left behind complain. As one would expect, this new tide of prosperity is having its effect on the Spanish character. Much of the “Oriental” passivity and self-complacency that Ford thought congenital in Spaniards was due to their poverty. The narrow, stagnant world they lived in provided no outlet to their energies, so they shut themselves up in their pride and despised the materialism of foreign nations. These attitudes are now rapidly disappearing. Within thirty years, if no disaster happens, we may expect to see a generation of Spaniards who have self-confidence not only about themselves—for that they have always had—but about their ability to rise in the world and compete successfully with other nations. The cities too are being transformed and made to look as much as possible like other cities. When this process is complete the travel writers will have to find other countries to descant upon. Of the things that Ford loved, only the landscape and the churches will remain.