07 June 2013

Happy Birthday, Celia Fiennes

Today marks the 351st anniversary of Celia Fiennes's birth. Someone recently asked me what made me decide to study her for my dissertation. The quick answer was that I found her descriptions of country house gardens compared to contemporary engravings of the same gardens rather interesting. That and because my tutor said it would make a good topic to study, which it was, but the more I read and re-read her diary, the more reasons presented themselves for studying the life of a traveling noblewoman born 306 years before I was.

As I began reading her travel diary, it dawned on me that I had visited many of the same places she had and I also kept a diary of my travels. Starting in 2003 I've visited England almost every year to visit gardens, sometimes with a trusty travel buddy (I'm lookin' at you, Cat!), sometimes with a tour group, even once for a working holiday. Each time I start planning a trip I buy a new Moleskine blank notebook, and start filling it with maps, locations of gardens on the itinerary, B&Bs, and contact information.

Itinerary for my historic garden tour 2012, as part of my MA Garden History. Most of the destinations were places that Celia had visited. One stop happened to be at the Garden Museum in London to hear a panel discussion on gardeners' favorite gardens. I got autographs from Mary Ann Robb from Cothay Manor; Alan Titchmarsh; and Fergus Garrett from Great Dixter (2012)

Celia's diaries don't have drawings or maps although there is a curiously blank half page in one of them that leads one to speculate that she had intended to draw or paste something there but sadly we'll never know what it was.

My photo of Celia Fiennes diary manuscript (Broughton Castle, 2012)

Celia was born June 7, 1662 to Nathaniel Fiennes, second son of the 1st Viscount Saye and Sele and his second wife Frances. He was a Colonel in the Civil War Parliamentarian Army who was tried and sentenced to death for surrendering the city of Bristol to a much larger army lead by Prince Rupert. Luckily he was exiled to the continent and his death sentence was eventually commuted. He returned to England and served as a member of Cromwell's parliament but then retired, bought the manor at Newton Tony and settled down to the quiet life of gentleman farmer and manorial lord.

Newton Tony was (and still is) a small village in Wiltshire near Salisbury.  The river Bourne (which is a Middle English word for small stream) runs through the middle of the village. On one of her journeys from Newton Tony to Winchester she remarks, 'The Little raines I had in the morning before I Left Newtontony made the wayes very slippery' . When I visited in September the little river was dry but heavy winter rains will cause it to flood, sometimes right up to the doorsteps of the thatched cottages nearby.

Thatched cottages dating to the 17th century and the dry river Bourne at Newton Tony (2012)

Being of noble birth enabled Celia to visit many of the illustrious country houses around England. Several were owned by relatives and she was a frequent visitor. What is so remarkable about her travels is that she undertook them in a time when travel abroad (meaning 5 miles from your doorstep) simply wasn't commonplace, especially for an unmarried woman. England in the 17th and early 18th centuries was a wilderness, with none of the smooth roads and neat hedgerows that greet the UK tourist today, yet with all the hardships accompanying travel on horseback she managed in one year to log 'about 1045 miles of which I did not go above a hundred in the Coach.'

Many of the hedgerows she talks about are the result of enclosure. The hedges were planted to mark one's property boundaries as agriculture moved away from the medieval Feudal model to a more capitalist and commercial one. Celia sometimes traveled whole days between miles of hedgerows without being able to see the surrounding country, the hedges were so high. Some of the B and C roads in the country are still like this and make for an exciting car ride, especially when you round a blind curve to find a lorry bearing down on you.

I've made it a goal to follow in Celia's footsteps and visit all the places she has. It will take some years, unless someone wants to give me a really big check so I can do it all in one go (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, hint, hint), but visiting the country houses and seeing them - some still exactly as Celia describes them - is such a fantastic feeling, like you really can travel back in time. I wish she could accompany me so I could ask her how things really were back then, and to see her reaction as she recognizes (or not) the places she once described in such detail.

I'd also love to ask her what she thinks about her diary being considered such an important historical resource to so many scholars. I'm sure she never meant it to be published for she had the connections and opportunities to do so during her lifetime if she wished, yet her diaries survived thanks to her family and made their way into academic consciousness. Since there is so little known about her, I've started researching her biography. No easy feat, let me tell you, but I've found a few interesting documents that shed more light on who she was and hope to be able to pull them together with more information about her travels at some point.

For now, I salute her pioneering spirit and look forward to my next trip across the pond to follow her travels. I leave you with her own reasons for traveling, which are sage words even by today's standards, no matter where you live:

Now thus much without vanity may be asserted of the subject, that if all persons, both Ladies, much more Gentlemen, would spend some of their tyme in Journeys to visit their native Land, and be curious to Inform themselves and make observations of the pleasant prospects, good buildings, different produces and manufactures of each place, with the variety of sports and recreations they are adapt to, would be a souveraign remedy to cure or preserve ffrom these Epidemick diseases of vapours, should I add Laziness? -it would also fform such an Idea of England, add much to its Glory and Esteem in our minds and cure the evil Itch of overvalueing fforeign parts; at least ffurnish them with an Equivalent to entertain strangers when amongst us, Or jnform them when abroad of their native Country, which has been often a Reproach to the English, ignorance and being strangers to themselves.

Nay the Ladies might have matter not unworthy their observation, soe subject for conversation, within their own compass in each county to which they relate, and thence studdy now to be serviceable to their neighbours especially the poor among whome they dwell, which would spare them the uneasye thoughts how to pass away tedious dayes, and tyme would not be a burthen when not at a card or dice table, and the ffashions and manners of fforeign parts less minded or desired. But much more requisite is it for Gentlemen in gl service of their country at home or abroad, in town or country, Especially those that serve in parliament to know and jnform themselves ye nature of Land, ye Genius of the Inhabitants, so as to promote and improve Manufacture and trade suitable to each and encourage all projects tending thereto, putting in practice all Laws made for each particular good, maintaining their priviledges, procuring more as requisite; but to their shame it must be own'd many if not most are Ignorant of anything but the name of the place for which they serve in parliament; how then can they speake for or promote their good or Redress their Grievances ? But ... herein I have described what have come within my knowledge either by view and reading, or relation from others which according to my conception have faithfully Rehearsed, but where I have mistaken in any form or subject matter I easily submitt to a correction and will enter such Erratas in a supplement annext to ye Book of some particulars since remark'd; and shall conclude with a hearty wish and recommendation to all, but Especially my own Sex, the studdy of those things which tends to Improve the mind and makes our Lives pleasant and comfortable as well as proffitable in all the Stages and Stations of our Lives, and render suffering & age supportable & Death less fformidable and a future State more happy.

Happy Birthday, Celia!

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