In October 2019, we presented our project at the REVE workshop in Ravenna, a group of Romantic-period scholars interested in the material culture of the Romantic period. Because few guest books from the first half of the nineteenth century have survived, one has to rely instead on the many published and unpublished travelogues, letters, journals, and articles in which they are mentioned, and entries often transcribed, in order to be able to reconstitute Romantic-period visitor book culture. In Robert Southey’s unpublished 1817 journal, for example, held at the Keswick Museum, we have found 16 references to guest books. Looking at these and at several other sources, we wish to briefly point out some of the ways in which these were used in the Romantic period, and how they might still be useful to scholars today.
From very early on in the nineteenth century, visitor books in Switzerland served the legally-enforced function of registering clients, allowing the state to police the movements of foreigners. But these same books were also an early and useful form of information technology, enabling tourists among other things to keep track of other tourists. Time and time again, Southey looks up the names of friends and acquaintances who had already accomplished or were in the process of accomplishing a tour on the Continent. In Sion on 24 June, for example, he writes: ‘Our passport was required, and the book was brought to inscribe our names. I found in it the names of Lady Fleming, of Eustace, and of the Awdrys.’ Visitor books could also be a discreet way to identify fellow tourists at one’s table d’hôte or to identify their national origins. At the Ile St. Pierre in 1817, the utilitarian-minded Louis Simond writes that, ‘Looking over this book, we ascertained that the proportion of travellers from different countries stands thus: fifty-three Swiss and Germans, four Prussians, two Dutch, one Italian, five French, three Americans, and twenty-eight English.’
Much like today’s TripAdvisor, they also commented on their own or on other establishments, the risk being that the inn keeper may have penned the review, or that opinions diverged. Southey thus notes that ‘The Savage at Meyringhen had been marked as a house of extortion in one of the Books which we had seen, and as an excellent house in another. We found good fare, and charges which previous extortion made us think reasonable.’
Visitor books were not only useful: they were also source of literary entertainment. Dorothy Wordsworth notes in her journal in Chamonix, that
‘The Album of the Union Inn could hardly be read through in a whole week of bad weather. The names of many of our Friends and acquaintances were discovered; and quotations from my Brother’s poems—“Matthew” and “Yarrow Visited” with “Sad Stuff!” affixed to the latter, by way of comment, in another handwriting. Some spirited pencil sketches in the same book.’
The sketches and so-called album verse, more often doggerel, together with the caustic comments that often glossed these, delighted tourists, so much so that the visitor book led to its own literary sub-genre, poems supposedly written in visitor books (Wordsworth has one, Byron two). Travelers not only enjoyed leaving their own comments: they also liked to transcribe others’ comments, epigrams, and bon mots in their journals. Simond is again insightful here: he writes that ‘We copied a few of them as well as the critical remarks of less friendly travelers, some of them amusing enough, but it would scarcely be fair to swell this book with quotations of young ladies and gentlemen’s poetry.’
One of the most interesting features of Romantic guest book culture is the way in which they created an intertextual network linking people and places. John Roby, for instance, writes in 1838 that he is ‘very fond of these memorials. They are a link, a pleasant connection, a bond of hidden mystic sympathy with those who have gone before.’ To give just one example: On 7 July 1817, Southey wrote his name in visitor book of Elizabeth Grossmann, the celebrated ‘belle batelière’ of Brientz. In his own tour account, Simond writes that, ‘Turning over the last page we observed the name of Mr. Southey, who it seems passed a day or two ago, and recorded in the book his admiration of the belle batelière, who is he says like the Formarina.’ And a year later, Charles Lyell again noticed and copied down Southey’s inscription: ‘RS recognizes in Elizabeth a striking resemblance to la Formorina of Rafael,’ he wrote, before disputing the resemblance.
Guest books were best known as the hunting ground for celebrity autographs and comments. In Bern, for instance, Southey notes that ‘Kosiuzko’s name was in the book of visitors.’ Because of the public interest they generated, travelers used them to help fashion their identity, notably through self-disclosure. Byron’s entering of his age as 100 in a Geneva hotel, for example, or Shelley’s identification as an atheist at Montanvers not only contributed to these two poets’ mythical status, but also inspired hundreds of similar entries. As a result, many names and comments were forged, and the most interesting often pilfered, including Shelley’s page from Hotel de Londres, which was bound in a copy of the Revolt of Islam, and only recently rediscovered. As Daniel Wilson writes in 1824, ‘It is much to be regretted that the unpardonable licence of a few persons, I am afraid chiefly Englishmen, is rapidly tending to put an end to this innocent and gratifying custom,’ i.e. ‘the keeping of a stranger’s book.’
The newest issue of the magazine Forum PCP (Protection of Cultural Property) deals with the complex theme of tourism and the protection of cultural property. Jeremie Magnin contributed an article about his research and the Swiss guestbook project (pp. 54-59). In it, Jeremie examines Zermatt visitors’ books from the 1850s and 1860s to show how British guests identified themselves abroad, how this influenced their material and textual practices, and what their inscriptions had to say about the relation between individuals and national ideology. British travellers’ entries could be as short as signing their names, writing a few sentences or, in the case of mountaineers, regularly taking more than one page to write about their climbs. Many of the latter after 1857, when the Alpine Club was founded, include the initials “AC.” These two cryptic letters stood for a specific set of values and behaviour that the British mountaineers were particularly proud of, as they believed that it distinguished them from other guests. Our analysis of Zermatt visitors’ books demonstrates how these cultural objects were used to construct national identity, notably by helping promote the Alpine Club as a model for British values. If the mountaineers seem to form an elite of independent individuals, their visitors’ book entries also suggest a culture of cooperation, and an awareness that they relied heavily on other climbers, local guides and landlords for their successful ascents.
Forum PCP is available for download at the following link: Forum PCP No 33/2019 – Tourism and Protection of Cultural Property
Guest books, it seems, are trendier than ever! Kevin James is quoted in a New York Times article on the reinvention of the guest book in modern hotels, including one that is haunted…
Jérémie Magnin’s hunt for guest books has yielded a large number of new finds, but he has also taken advantage of the summer months to photograph manuscripts. In July, Jérémie went to Zermatt to see the 1865 Monte Rosa book, still owned by the Seiler family. He and Patrick Vincent also spent a day looking at books from the Simplon and Great St.Bernard Hospices in the archives of the Congregation of St-Bernard in Martigny, and two days at the Musée Alpin and the Association des Amis du Vieux Chamonix.
On a side trip to Montanvers, they saw what was left of the Temple de la Nature, built in 1795 to replace Blair’s Hut, and where many famous tourists, including Shelley, signed their name in the guest book. Two hotels were built beside it, the first in 1840, the second in 1890. The latter is still a hotel and has been beautifully restored. Even more impressive was seeing what was left of the Mer de glace. A different kind of inscription marks the glacier’s level in 1990, only thirty years ago.