07 June 2014

Happy Birthday, Celia!

Were she alive today, Celia Fiennes would be celebrating her 352nd birthday. In the spring and summer 317 years ago she would have been embarking on what she called 'My Northern Journey' in which she traveled from London up to Scarborough and back, traveling about 635 miles on horseback or by coach over 7 weeks.

A page of Celia's diary noting the beginning of her Northern Journey (Wiles, 2012)
1697 is the only travel date she mentions in her diary. And it struck me looking at the photo of the journal entry in her own hand: She made these travels in the year 1697. Sixteen. Ninety. Seven.

No cars, no busses, no trains, sometimes no roads. No electricity, no 4G wireless, no Wi-Fi hot spots, probably no map (she would have hired guides), and none of the modern conveniences that we all take for granted nowadays. I never get tired of reading Celia's diary. In this digital age where selfies are all the rage, I wonder how much of the experience is lost when viewed through a camera lens or on a phone screen as one whizzes through a town or flits from one monument to the next. Hardly anyone keeps a journal any more. Yes, there are blogs (hello!) but one big zap from a power surge like, oh say, Betelgeuse going supernova will wipe out the servers and the blogs will be lost forever. So will the entire solar system, but that's another post for another day.

Burghley House, 'eminent for its Curiosity', built between 1555 and 1587. It had just been remodeled in the modern style by the Fifth Earl when Celia visited in 1697.
Of course I'm guilty of being a rabid picture taker and feel a great surge of gratitude to the inventor of digital photography every time I click the shutter but I'm more grateful to Celia for opening my eyes and mind to another way of seeing the places I visit. I still marvel at the level of detail she includes in her diary and wonder how she managed to retain all that information until she was able to sit down with quill and paper to record it. Seriously, I've seen her diary and she didn't write it in the coach on a bumpy dirt road between destinations.

Celia included a description of her family's seat, Broughton Castle, in Oxfordshire (Wiles, 2012)
Broughton Castle, as it looked 273 years after Celia's death (Wiles, 2012)
Still, these days we tend to rely on the camera to capture views and help us recall details when not too terribly long ago those details would have been recorded by hand, either in prose or drawing. There are no drawings in Celia's diary, though it's reasonable to expect she knew how, 17th century ladies of noble birth being schooled in the arts and all. Either she simply didn't take the time or what sketches she may have done have not survived.

Audley End, built between 1603 and 1616. If Celia's figures are to be believed, at the time of her visit there were 3 courts, 30 towers, a cupola, and 750 rooms. (Wiles, 2005)
Each time I travel I keep a journal of the journey but have not the capacity for memorizing such minute details that Celia did. She challenges me to do better at recording what I see, which helps make the traveling more enjoyable. That's especially true when I visit a place she'd also been to. Several times I've stood before a grand country house, in one of its rooms, or in the gardens with her description in hand and can instantly see how much has changed. Sometimes not much has and a little thrill travels up my spine. Is this the same view she saw? Would she have noticed those trees, that architectural detail, that painting on the wall, did she approach the place on the same road I did? Following in an historic figure's footsteps has to be one of the greatest highs in the life of a historian.

The Chapel at Chatsworth. Celia noted it as being 'very lofty...and supported by 4 large pillars of black marble two at the alter 2 just at the bottom to support the gallery for the Duke and Duchess to sitt in' (Wiles, 2012)

I will be celebrating Celia's birthday in a part of the country that's new to me and I hope I'll be able to take the time to notice things the way she did. Who knows, maybe my travel journals will be found 300 years from now and used to compare what is then to what was now. Better take good notes, then. I might even attempt a sketch or two.

Happy Birthday, Celia!