In this post, I am deviating from my usual food and garden blog entries to introduce a new venture into travellers’ tales. My first post in this category relates to an old book published in 1914 called Days In Attica by Ellen Sophia Bosanquet. Ellen lived in Athens for a number of years in the first decade of the 20th century as a young married woman. She read modern history at Somerville College, Oxford, and was also the daughter of a Northumbrian antiquarian and medieval historian, Thomas Hodgkin. In July 1902, Ellen Sophia Hodgkin married the classical archaeologist, Robert Carr Bosanquet who was then based in Athens.
Days in Attica is primarily an historical guide from the earliest antiquities through Byzantine, Frankish and Ottoman remains, particularly in and around Athens and Attica, although one chapter specifically deals with Crete. It was published in 1914, some eight years after Ellen last lived in Greece, but it is clear that, apart from the preface, the chapters in the book were written earlier, closer to the time she spent there and just prior to many significant historical events which I briefly outline below. Ellen envisioned Days in Attica more as a guidebook of antiquities, ‘a record of Athenian yesterdays’ as she says in the preface. However, it is interesting to note that Days In Attica contains Ellen Bosanquet’s observations on the contemporary Greek character (an amateur anthropology of sorts) as well as advice to people settling or staying long-term in the country. Just like the more commercial guidebooks of the day – Murray’s Handbook or Baedeker’s Guide – it is a snapshot of the era in which it was written, but told from the personal perspective of an early 20th-century educated female from a privileged socio-economic class, but also of someone tied to a particular place, a foreign academic enclave in Athens. In some ways, it is quite similar to my own situation, although set in a different time, under different historical circumstances.
More contemporary observations can also be found in her later books, The Tale of Athens and Late Harvest, both published in the 1930s. The Tale of Athens was written as an historical guide to the city, an update on Days In Attica, but Late Harvest is more a collection of biographical memoirs. As former British Ambassador to Greece, Michael Llwellyn-Smith points out in his book Athens (in Signal Book’s ‘Imagined Cities’ series), travellers to Greece – including Ellen Bosanquet – tend to look back with regret and nostalgia as time passes. It is quite clear that her later observations of early 20th-century Greece are told more as wistful reminiscences.
Ellen Bosanquet’s Greece, in the first decade of the 20th century, was a smaller country – extending north to the boundaries with Macedonia and Epirus, but not beyond, nor did it include many of the Aegean islands other than the Cycladic cluster and the Sporades in the Aegean Sea and, the Ionian Islands along the west coast. Crete, to the south, technically an Ottoman possession, was under the protection of the four great powers – Britain, France, Russia and Italy – who interceded after the Ottoman Empire sought to declare war on Greece as a result of the 1897 Cretan insurrection. And, Samos with its associated islands near the Anatolian coast formed an independent principality. The capital city of Athens was also smaller with many green spaces around the centre. And, although there were immigrants into the city from the surrounding countryside, the population had not yet exploded with the influx of refugees from Asia Minor as it would two decades later, a phenomenon which has great resonance with the refugee crisis today.
By the time Days In Attica was published, the country had changed. A liberal democratic government led by the charismatic statesman, Elefthérios Venizélos, prime minister from 1910-1915, was now in power. Venizélos is often credited with being the ‘maker of Modern Greece’ who instituted many constitutional and economic reforms. He was also a major proponent of the concept of the Μεγάλη Ιδέα, the ‘Great Idea’ that sought to unify all areas that had historically been Greek, and some scholars liken to an aspiration to recreate the Byzantine Empire. As a result of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), Greece, together with the other three countries of the Balkan League (Bulgaria, Montenegro and Serbia), wrested territory away from the declining Ottoman Empire, although infighting in the League resulted in further conflicts. Greece now extended further north into Macedonia and southern Epirus. Crete and the Samos Principality had also been incorporated into the Greek state. Despite these territorial gains, the end of the era was marked by the assassination of King George I of Greece in Thessaloniki on 18 March 1913, an event keenly and personally felt by Ellen Bosanquet. Yet, at the time of the publication of Days in Attica, it was a few scant months before another assassination – Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria – an event that precipitated WWI, and was to irrevocably change the world. In fact, Ellen Bosanquet, in The Tale of Athens poetically reminisces about a pre-WWI Athens, ending on a poignant note.
A city of orange trees and violet beds; of new white marble houses behind very old dark pine; of public gardens planted with seedling trees; of private gardens demurely circling around a central palm….There were donkey-hawkers with glass show-cases set upright on their panniers; there were shoe-shine boys dressed in grey cotton jumpers; there were men carrying trays of sesame-covered rolls and yaourti sellers with shining bowls of the sour curd made from sheep’s milk…There were country folk strolling through the town in gay Albanian dress and the farmers in their highly coloured carts; there was the modern theatre built and patronized by royalty, and the jolly little open-air theatres patronized by anyone who had a drachma to spare; there were lace-sellers from Cyprus spreading geometric webs on sunny hotel steps, and the handsome Rhodian who turned up each spring with his exciting bundle of embroidery and faience…So, the surface of life ticked on…And then suddenly everything was changed….
Old travel accounts, like Days In Attica, The Tale of Athens and some essays in Late Harvest, are a productive focus for scholarly research. There is even a sub-study specifically devoted to women travellers. In a recent article in one such study, Martha Klironomos discusses British women travellers to Greece in the late 19th and early 20th century and categorises them by how they discuss their surroundings – both the setting and the inhabitants. Klironomos puts Ellen Bosanquet into a category she refers to as ‘sociological-anthropological travel narratives’. This category, invariably, includes discussions of contemporary Greeks that range from descriptions of romanticised folk displaying residual characteristics of the glories of their ancient past to a degraded ‘other’ as orientalised subjects. Both of these attitudes – and the whole spectrum between – were common conceptions of that time. Many students of Hellenism (both men and women, foreign and local) fell into the former romanticising category and Ellen Bosanquet is no different. Throughout her book, she can be seen to be seeking a lost ideal past, one that never really existed. In fact, the rather poetic chapter titles in Days In Attica reflect this: ‘Promise’ (Archaic Greece), ‘Fulfilment’ (Classical), ‘The Afterglow’ (Roman), ‘Age of Chivalry’ (Medieval), ‘Dark Ages’ (Ottoman), etc.
What I find significant in Klironomos’ article, however, is the fact that women travel writers, like Ellen Bosanquet and unlike many of their male counterparts, are interacting with and discussing the people that they encountered (or as Klironomos puts it, the zone of contact between British-guest and Greek-host), even if this encounter is mediated through a dragoman, a local guide and interpreter. It is also significant that in the early 20th century, with the growing tourism industry, foreign (middle-class) women had greater access to the Greek countryside – and subsequently to more local inhabitants. Access was further facilitated by the new railway system, a fact that Ellen Bosanquet deemed important enough to provide a sketch map of the railway around Athens in Days In Attica. Interestingly, the map also marks the path of the legendary Theseus. True to her Hellenic romanticising, she points out that the modern rail route follows for a good portion with Theseus’ route ‘marked by the names of the places where he met and overcame the monsters on his path’ and even speculates that the landscape is unchanged and is just as it appears on vase paintings or is described in the ancient literature.
It is this search for the survival of traces of ancient Hellenic past in the landscape and in the character of its inhabitants that marks her as a romantic. This was a woman who was a product of her time, educated with certain ideals about the ancient Hellenic world. My own observations while living here, as I am ending my first few months in residence, will perhaps provide an interesting counterpoint.
1914, Days In Attica, Macmillan: London.
1932, The Tale of Athens, Methuen: London.
1938, Late Harvest: Memories, Letters and Poems, Chameleon Press: London.
2008, “British Women Travellers to Greece, 1880-1930”, pp. 135-157 in Women Writing Greece: Essays on Hellenism, Orientalism and Travel edited by Vassiliki Kolocotroni and Efterpi Mitsi, Rodopi: Amsterdam.
2004, Athens: A cultural and literary history, Signal Books: Oxford.