Amours de Voyage by Arthur Hugh Clough – A book for the Persephone Readathon

This week Jessie of Dwell in Possibility is hosting another of her Persephone Readathons. My choice of book this time proved to be very different from any of the other Persephones I’ve read, for several reasons. For one thing, it is one of only a few Persephones written by a man. With an original publication date of 1858, it must also be one of the oldest books they publish – the majority are from the first half of the twentieth century. Finally, it is written in verse, something which filled me with trepidation as I’m not really a fan of narrative poems (although, to be fair, I haven’t read all that many of them).

Anyway, Amours de Voyage follows a group of people who are visiting Italy during the political turmoil surrounding the fall of the short-lived Roman Republic in 1849. Their story is told in the form of letters written in hexameter verse and divided into five cantos. One of the letter-writers is Claude, a young man who is spending some time in Rome as part of his ‘grand tour’ and keeping a friend, Eustace, updated on everything he has seen and experienced. It seems that so far Rome has entirely failed to impress him:

Rome disappoints me much; I hardly as yet understand it, but

RUBBISHY seems the word that most exactly would suit it.

And then:

What do I find in the Forum? An archway and two or three pillars.

Well, but St. Peter’s? Alas, Bernini has filled it with sculpture!

I love Rome and ‘rubbishy’ is certainly not how I would describe it, but Claude is the sort of person who appears not to like or admire anything or anybody. This includes his fellow tourists, particularly the Trevellyns, who find Rome ‘a wonderful place’ and are ‘delighted of course with St. Peter’s’. This is Claude’s initial impression of the Trevellyns:

Middle-class people these, bankers very likely, not wholly

Pure of the taint of the shop; will at table d’hote and restaurant

Have their shilling’s worth, their penny’s pennyworth even:

Neither man’s aristocracy this, nor God’s, God knoweth!

As he gets to know the family better, however, he changes his opinion slightly and the tone of his letters to Eustace starts to suggest that he has fallen in love with Mary Trevellyn. Through Mary’s own letters to her friends Louisa and Miss Roper, we learn that although her own first impression of Claude was that she thought him ‘agreeable, but a little repulsive’, she is also beginning to change her mind:

Yes, repulsive; observe, it is but when he talks of ideas

That he is quite unaffected, and free, and expansive, and easy.

Unfortunately, before a romance has time to develop, violence breaks out on the streets of Rome and the Trevellyns leave the city just before it becomes besieged by the French. Claude has no intention of fighting for or against the Roman Republic (he doesn’t have a musket, he tells Eustace, and even if he did, he wouldn’t know how to use it) so he sets off in search of the Trevellyns instead. Due to bad luck and a series of misunderstandings, they keep missing each other as they move around Italy. Will Claude and Mary ever be reunited – or has the opportunity been lost forever?

I found Amours de Voyage much easier to get through than I had expected; it hasn’t become a favourite Persephone but it was still an enjoyable one and the rhythm, structure and colloquial language make it very readable. Despite Claude being such an annoying character, the way his story plays out is quite sad and moving as he begins to regret not speaking to Mary and telling her how he felt while he had the chance. Mary could have made the first move, but she knows that Claude ‘thinks that women should woo him; Yet, if a girl should do so, would be but alarmed and disgusted.’

The poem’s historical background is interesting too. Arthur Hugh Clough himself was in Rome in 1849 during the siege so was writing from personal experience, which explains why the parts of the poem that deal with the conflict – such as Claude’s account of witnessing a priest being killed and Mary’s description of Garibaldi riding into the city – feel vivid and authentic. I know nothing about Clough as a person other than the little I’ve been able to find online so I don’t know to what extent the rest of the story is autobiographical or how much of himself he put into Claude’s character.

Amours de Voyage endpapers

Because Amours de Voyage is in the public domain, it is available as a free ebook from sites like Project Gutenberg, but the Persephone edition has an introduction by Julian Barnes, illustrations, and gorgeous endpapers, taken from a woven dress silk from 1850. It isn’t a Persephone that gets much attention, so if you’ve read it (in any format) I’d love to hear your thoughts!

14 thoughts on “Amours de Voyage by Arthur Hugh Clough – A book for the Persephone Readathon

    • Helen says:

      It certainly seems to be one of the less popular Persephones! I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other bloggers mention it, which is what made me curious about it.

  1. Sandra says:

    What an unusual book! I’ve just had a quick read about it in the Persephone forum, intrigued as to what led to its inclusion in the category. “It is not by Persephone standards a page-turner, but one which rewards several re-reads. The comedy is so light that it is easily missed, the psychology subtly concealed.” It’s good to hear about one of the lesser-known Persephones, Helen 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I’m often surprised by the variety of books Persephone publish. I was curious to know what made them select this particular poem too, but now that I’ve read it I can see that it does include many of the themes and ideas that you would expect from a Persephone. And I agree that some re-reads would probably be necessary in order to fully appreciate it!

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    Most interesting. I like your review, though I rarely read anything quite that old. I know a little about Garibaldi from reading The Leopard by Guiseppe di Lampedusa some years ago but it did not go as far as that incident in Rome. I used to follow a blogger who was reading the entire Persephone collection.

    • Helen says:

      I think The Leopard is the only other book I’ve read with Garibaldi in it too. I knew nothing about the incidents in Rome until I read this book. There are so many Persephones now, I don’t think I’ll ever come close to reading all of them!

  3. cirtnecce says:

    oohhh! Thank You for a great introduction Helen! I had not heard of this one, but seems like a good read and I am relieved to hear that as a narrative poem it is not very difficult to follow!

    • Helen says:

      I sometimes struggle with poetry, but I found this book surprisingly easy to read. It was quite short too, so a good choice for the Persephone Readathon!

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