Thursday, January 24, 2013

Book Review: Clara's Grand Tour by Glynis Ridley

In 1741 a Dutch sea captain, Douwemout Van der Meer, bought a live rhinoceros named Clara. He spent the next seventeen years touring Europe with Clara, the first and only rhinoceros most eighteenth century people ever saw. Clara's Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe by Glynis Ridley is the story of this grand tour, of Clara's fame and of Van der Meer's careful handling of that fame.

It's almost as much fun as the title implies. I mean, how can you possibly go wrong with the story of a rhinoceros touring Europe in a coach-and-eight? It'd be pretty hard to mess up. Ridley has a clear, engaging writing style and an attention to detail that keeps the tale focused. And by "attention to detail" I mean I have no idea how she tracked down all the letters, accounts, and drawings she did. The resulting picture is fascinating. To give a few details: I was quite enchanted to think that Boswell's description of Johnson's laugh "Tom Davies described it drolly enough, 'He laughs like a rhinoceros'" likely came from a visit to see Clara. Similarly, the image of eighteenth-century Florentine women doing their hair "a la rhinoceros," (a fact gleaned from letters) or of the fashionable Parisian world going rhinoceros-crazy are beautifully human and wonderfully absurd. It's a look back at another world, one full of the usual array of foolish, wise, studious, frivolous folk, and I loved it.

One of the more interesting little nuggets to me was the suggestion that Durer's famous, and somewhat maligned, picture of an earlier rhinoceros to reach Europe was not a case of poor, silly Durer thinking that the rhinoceros's "armor-like" skin was literally like armor plating but the result of said rhinoceros actually having been in armor at the time it was described to Durer. The rhinoceros in the picture probably looks like there are flowers on its skin because there were, in fact, flowers around the rhino. I'm not quite sure why this caught my attention so thoroughly; I think it's because I dislike the kind of condescension that sometimes creeps into discussions of earlier people's understanding of the world, and I like the idea (and evidence) that Durer was, in fact, being quite sensible after all.

Two things I wish there had been more of: Mostly, I wish Ridley had let loose with her enthusiasm a bit more. I mean, Clara's Grand Tour is the story of a rhinoceros! Touring Europe! In the Eighteenth century! In a coach! It's pretty amazing. I think a little jig or two is called for. Sometimes Ridley drops her guard and allows the sheer wonder and absurdity to shine through. Often, however, she pulls back a bit in favor of more scholarly commentary on the management of fame and the probability that Clara took this or that route on her journey. The results are impressive, and they're worth reading, but I don't think the addition of some more marveling would have hurt anything.

Also, I wish there were more first-hand accounts by people visiting Clara. In this, I'm just greedy. I loved what Ridley dug up, and I wish there had been more for her to dig. Likely Ridley wishes the same thing. There probably aren't that many eighteenth-century file cabinets full of breathless letters from people who'd just been to see Europe's one-and-only rhino.

Recommended: Yes. Be aware that Clara's Grand Tour, while clearly written, is not precisely light reading; you'll want a few brain-cells available (ie: Read it when you feel like focusing, not when you want the nearest fluffy brain-candy).


  1. Wow, this sounds so cool! I will seek it out.

    1. Oh good! I hope you enjoy it!

      Like I said, I wish Ridley had let herself get excited more often, but really, it's impossible to beat a rhino in a carriage for fun--and, of course, history!