Swiss Guest Books in the Romantic Period

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books from the first half of the nineteenth century have survived, one has to rely instead on the many published and unpublished travelogues, letters, journals, and articles in which they are mentioned, and entries often transcribed, in order to be able to reconstitute Romantic-period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 In Robert Southey’s unpublished 1817 journal, for example, held at the Keswick Museum,  we have found 16 references to guest books.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.’