I’ve just finished reading Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I’m a little late to the party, I know, but the sparkly chick-lit packaging of the UK edition put me off. It wasn’t until I found the US paperback with its more grown-up, Condé Nast archive photo on the cover that I felt able to buy the book. I’m glad I did. The plot’s thin (two girls meet boy in a Greenwich Village jazz club on New Year’s Eve 1937) but the evocation of the Manhattan high-life of the late Thirties is fantastic. The writing is whip-smart F Scott Fitzgerald meets Raymond Chandler: “I was just finishing a countersuit to be typed out in triplicate, getting ready to mope my way home, when out of the corner of my eye I saw Charlotte Sykes approaching from the washrooms. She had changed into high heels and a tangerine-coloured blouse that clashed with all her best intentions.”
The verve and gutsiness of several of the women in the book reminds me of Lee Miller, who if you’ve read my earlier post you’ll know I hold in some esteem. And if you haven’t read my earlier post (Lee Miller invades the Long Bar) read it now and then this:
She pointed back up Seventh Street.
—I know a cute little place right up here. I’ll buy you a beer. We’ll catch up. It’ll be a gas.
The cute little place turned out to be an old Irish bar. Over the front door a sign read: GOOD ALE, RAW ONIONS, NO LADIES.
—I think that means us.
—Cmon, Fran said. Don’t be such a Patsy.
See what I mean?
This also delighted me:
—What’d you buy?
He didn’t know what she was referring to.
He’d forgotten that he still had the bookseller’s bag in his hand.
—A Baedeker’s, he said. I thought we might see some of the sights later.
I always get excited by the casual namedropping of a Victorian-era guidebook, and there’s no finer guidebook name to drop than that of Baedeker. EM Forster knew it too. In A Room with a View Lucy Honeychurch is directed around Italy by her little red guidebook – that is until she encounters the lady novelist Eleanor Lavish: “Tut, tut! Miss Lucy! I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker,” says Ms Lavish and confiscates the guide to leave Lucy exposed and defenceless, with the result she’s led astray to ultimately elope with a young gentleman admirer. That’s what happens when you lose your Baedeker.
The Lonely Planets of their day, these guides were put out by Karl Baedeker, a German publisher, who after seeing some early Murray’s Handbooks (see my previous post) was inspired to copy them. (Karl Baedeker openly acknowledged the debt and became good friends with John Murray, although many years later the latter would accuse the former of plagiarism.) The first Baedeker guides were published in the 1830s, in German, and covered Rheinreisse (Travel along the Rhine), Moselreisse, and Holland, Belgium and Switzerland. The series sported distinctive red cloth covers and the books were the size of a portable Bible, printed on similarly thin, almost tissue-like paper (Murray’s Handbooks at this time all had brown covers but they later switched to a similar shade of blushing red to their competitors). After Karl’s death in 1859, his son Ernst took over and under his direction the company introduced editions in English, expanding coverage beyond the German hinterlands to Britain, the Mediterranean, Russia, America and the Near East: a guide to Lower Egypt was published in 1878, joined by a guide to Upper Egypt in 1892, before the two were combined in a single Egypt guide in 1898.
This new edition condensed the two previous volumes into a single book of about 600 tightly typed pages, including 22 maps, 55 plans, and 66 engraved views and vignettes. It’s a staggering piece of work, and one that for the most part holds up well today, if you can make allowances for sections such as that headed ‘Intercourse with Orientals’ in which the paternalism strays into outright condescension: “[The traveller] should bear in mind that many of the natives with whom he comes in contact are mere children, whose waywardness should excite compassion rather than anger”.
There’s a terrific essay on the Baedeker phenomenon by someone called Edward Mendelson, who at the time he wrote it was an English professor at Columbia, in which he describes Karl Baedeker as “Europe’s ideal parent”. He goes on to describe beautifully what Baedeker was about: “he did more for his readers than guide their way to agreeable hotels, picturesque churches, and sublime vistas. He also set an example of private and public virtues ranging from thrift to patriotism, comforted the timid and encouraged the daring, taught the proper response to courtesy or cunning, combined moral probity with practical wisdom, and even while warning his readers away from unseemly pleasures let slip the knowledge of where they might be found.” You can read the rest of it here.
Under a succession of sons and grandsons, the company continued to thrive. One of the innovations introduced was a star system, marking with an asterisk the points of interest that travellers in a hurry shouldn’t miss. Later a second asterisk was added for doubly unmissables. ‘To Baedeker’ became a verb meaning to travel. Such was the authority of the books that the Nazis employed them in 1942 when they threatened to bomb every two-star building in Baedeker’s guide to Britain. The British response came on the night of 3 December 1943, when the RAF obliterated large parts of Leipzig, and with it, all the stocks and practically all the records of the Baedeker publishing house.