‘Through England on a Side-Saddle’ by Celia Fiennes

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Friday, April 8, 2011 - Save & Share - 4 Comments

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m attempting to read more non-fiction this year, and so far I seem to be accomplishing most of that in the form of travelogues.  There’s something endlessly fascinating about seeing a place through the eyes of someone else, whether it’s somewhere I’ve been before, somewhere I know like the back of my hand, or somewhere I’ll probably never visit.  For this reason, I was powerless to resist the lovely box set of English Journeys from Penguin when I saw it on The Book People website.  The selection of titles all look enticing, but Through England on a Side-Saddle by Celia Fiennes instantly leapt out at me demanding to be read.

Celia Fiennes was an intriguing, unmarried woman who journeyed around the country on horseback between 1685 and 1703 noting down what she saw.  The exerpts from her diary contained in this volume display a country comprising towns teeming with industry, linked by dirty, muddy and treacherous roads.

I’m sure this book would be fascinating to someone researching their local area or looking at the history of England at this time, but as a mere reader I found it hard going.  Fiennes does not describe the places she visits so much as she provides an itemised list of exactly what is there: the book is a succession of distances, acreages, numbers of churches and building materials of houses.  She is very matter of fact in what she reports and tends to focus on the physical features of the towns and landscapes, rather than talking about the people and their customs.  Very occasionally she will deviate from this course to report on a local food or habit, such as her disgust at the smokers in Cornwall where ‘both men, women and children have all their pipesof tobacco in their mouths and soe sit round the fire smoaking’ (p. 79) but this is an unfortunate rarity.

I might have been tempted to read a longer version of Celia Fiennes’ travels to see if this focus on industry and buildings is universal or just showing the bias of the editor who selected the exerpts for this volume, and also to read Celia’s thoughts on the places I have lived and know well, none of which are included in this book.  However, the prose, quite simply, is not enjoyable to read.  Bearing in mind when Celia was writing I wasn’t expecting modern punctuation and grammar, but equally I hadn’t anticipated her being the queen of the run-on sentence.  Some of them go on for several pages and while I could posibly bring myself to forgive her if it was beautiful, elegant, descriptive prose, I cannot when it’s a great big list with some verbs and conjunctions added.  To let Celia speak for herself and show you what I mean:

The situation of Lancaster town is very good, the Church neately built of stone, the Castle which is just by, both on a very great ascent from the rest of the town and so is in open view, the town and river lying round it beneath; on the Castle tower walking quite round by the battlements I saw the whole town and river at a view, which runs almost quite round and returns againe by the town, and saw thesea beyond and the great high hills beyond that part of the sea which are in Wales, and also into Westmorelandto the great hills there call’d Furness Fells or Hills being a string of vast high hills together; also into Cumberland to the great hill called Black Comb Hil whence they dig their black lead and no where else, but they open the mine but once in severall yeares; I also saw into Yorkshire; there is lead copper gold and silver in some of those hills and marble and christall also. (pp. 16-17)

And that’s one of the short sentences!

I was also rather disappointed at how absent Miss Celia Fiennes herself was from this book, although admittedly this could be a problem of editing for this particular edition.  Even though they were confined to Britain, her journeys seem quite remarkable for a single woman during this period, and I was looking forward to reading about what that was like.  I wanted to find out about her own experiences of travelling, any difficulties arising from her unusual circumstances as an unmarried lady on such a journey (albeit with an escort of servants who are occasionally aluded to) and her interactions with the people that she meets.  However, with the exception of a few disparaging comments about her landladies and complaints about rye in the bread upsetting her stomach she barely features at all.  The account of travelling through England could have been written by anyone, male or female, and that seems a great shame to me.

Please don’t let my review put you off picking up Celia Fienne’s writings, however, if this sort of thing is of interest to you.  Nonetheless, I would suggest getting hold of the full volume of her travels rather than this collection of extracts to avoid the disappointment of your local area not being one of those featured in this book, and also not approaching it looking for an entertaining, casual read.

Through England on a Side-Saddle by Celia Fiennes.  Published by Penguin, 2009, pp. 87.  Originally published in 1947, written in 1698.

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4 Responses to “‘Through England on a Side-Saddle’ by Celia Fiennes”

Comment from Fleurfisher
Time April 8, 2011 at 11:03 pm

That title is wonderful, but it is disappointing that the book was less than readable. Maybe it is a book to dip into to see what is said about places you know?

Comment from Eva
Time April 9, 2011 at 9:22 am

Oh: I hope I can find a copy of this somewhere on the internet for my Nook! :) The excerpt you posted actually didn’t bother me in the slightest, lol.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time April 11, 2011 at 8:54 am

See, I said it would appeal to some people even though I didn’t enjoy it! I’m glad you’re one of them and I’ve brought a new book to your attention. I just found it far too repetetive, but I hope you have a better experience.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time April 11, 2011 at 9:04 am

I think that’s probably how it would be best read, yes. It’s definitely most interesting when you can recognise towns and landmarks. Otherwise it’s just one big long list.

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