A Handbook for Spain, 1845

by Richard Ford
Southern Illinois University, 3 vols. pp., $50.00

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…

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