What’s travel without the promise of sex? The roast without the gravy, the vodka martini without the twist, the ice cream without the chocolate sauce. Whether we go with an S.O. or by ourselves, and whether we admit it or not, the possibility of sex is always in the back of our minds when we travel for pleasure. Like good food, exotic locales, plush accommodations, and new clothes, sex forms part of our vacation fantasies of relaxing and being pampered. The appeal of the best James Bond movies was, among other things, that they were the sexiest travel brochures imaginable. See sunny Rio (or Tokyo, or Jamaica, or Geneva, or Biarritz)! Outwit evil geniuses! Kill their henchmen! Seduce their women! You’ll never meet a woman named Pussy Galore back home.
Sex as an inherent lure of travel is the heart and loins of “Sultry Climates,” Ian Littlewood’s scholarly divertissement of a book. Littlewood’s subject is the Grand Tour, the tradition that began in the 18th century of yearlong Continental sojourns undertaken by young Englishmen as part of their education and seasoning. The official accounts have stressed the Anglo traveler being introduced to foreign customs, foods, manners. And maybe because sex — or, more to the point, pleasure — was (and is) thought too frivolous a subject for serious intellectual consideration, the sexual pursuits of these English travelers have been relegated to journals and letters while art and culture take preeminence in the histories and guidebooks.
Drawing on those journals, Littlewood has attempted to rectify the imbalance. He divides his subjects into three categories: the Connoisseur, the traveler who was essentially on a cultural shopping spree for artifacts as well as manners; the Pilgrim, a type that emerged in the 19th century, who was on a voyage of self-discovery and fulfillment; and the Rebel, who undertook to leave behind the sexual restrictions imposed at home. The last two models, Littlewood argues, were crucial for gays and women looking for outlets for their sexuality.
It was inevitable that the Tour, which at first strove to maintain an essential Englishness in the tourists despite their exposure to Continental culture (the young men were often chaperoned by tutors) would give way to freer, easier encounters, ones in which Britishness was not presumed to be superior. Littlewood charts the rise of tourists who “like servants of empire dressing for dinner in the jungle … detect a landscape that is hostile to their values and can only be held at bay by close attention to form.”
One of the travelers Littlewood identifies as a Pilgrim, E.M. Forster, captured the type in the character of the Rev. Eager from “A Room With a View.” “Italian in the mouths of Italians,” Forster writes, “is a deep-voiced stream, with unexpected cataracts and boulders to preserve it from monotony. In Mr. Eager’s mouth it resembled nothing so much as an acid whistling fountain which played ever higher and higher, and quicker and quicker, and more and more shrilly, till abruptly it was turned off with a click.” (We can presume that the name of Forster’s heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, combining as it does the sensual and the sacred, was meant as both an expression and a consecration of the sexual nature of the Pilgrim’s quest.)
Sometimes the shackles imposed on Grand Tourists came from within. Littlewood writes movingly of James Boswell’s struggle to remain the good, dutiful son and resist the sexual opportunities his two-and-a-half year tour gave him. “Maintain character,” one journal entry reads. “If you whore, all ideas change.” Soon after, he is giving evidence of how cloistered his life had been by speaking of regaining his youth. He was only 23 at the time. In contrast to his earlier entries, Boswell eventually includes notes like “Be self. Be original. Be happy … Marry not but think to have fine Saxon girls.”
Littlewood charts the change from the spectatorship — and thus distance (and thus the financial and social security) — of the Connoisseur to the less detached participation of the Pilgrim. In “Italian Journey,” Goethe records, “My purpose in making this wonderful journey is not to delude myself but to discover myself in the objects I see.” Littlewood makes the point that travelers are beyond the scrutiny of their native land and thus freer to act on their impulses.
How though, do you reconcile those impulses on your return? Perhaps you don’t. He writes of the enormous importance of Mediterranean travel for women like Mary Shelley and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Sometimes their release was found in something as simple as a gondola ride, pleasure as indolence, freed of social duty. For homosexuals, the release was perhaps even more profound. Nothing in “Sultry Climates” better illustrates Littlewood’s thesis of how the sexual side of travel was kept out of official accounts than his chapter on the classical and literary scholar John Aldington Symonds, whose “Memoirs” recounts the homosexual life of a married man with four daughters. “Memoirs” was not published until 1984. A visit to a London male brothel had been a revelation for Symonds, and yet his travels abroad were split between his physical impulses and his desire to sanctify male companionship.
Symonds’ life, the relationship he formed with an adolescent, which Littlewood notes was “cemented” by Symonds’ loan of £3,000 to get the boy’s family out of debt, highlight two of the most controversial, and thorniest, areas of “Sultry Climates”: the tourist’s romantic glorification of prostitution and the Grand Tour as the first instance of the reviled contemporary practice of sexual tourism.
Both stem from the superior economic position that tourists are in. And both are subject to moralistic dismissal. While noting that he finds some of the behavior he records here “repulsive” (and being very clear that some of his subjects were pedophiles) Littlewood is also smart enough to know that that attitude won’t get him very far. In the introduction he writes,
Most of the figures with a major role in this book behaved in ways that now excite public indignation: they went abroad and paid for sex, often with young people … I have no interest in writing an apology for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sex tourism, but nor do I intend to spend much time condemning it. Adult readers can presumably make their own moral judgments without reassurance from the author … I am suspicious of moral outrage that finds sexual targets more congenial than others. Why, for instance, does sexual exploitation trouble us so much more than the various kinds of exploitation that provide us with cheaper consumer goods? … At a comfortable distance … we can deplore this rough commerce in human beings, confident of our own moral decency.
That flouting of conventional morality is, of course, particularly suited to the Rebel, a type among whom Littlewood includes Byron, J.R. Ackerley, Christopher Isherwood, and Joe Orton, with his ecstatic accounts of the pedophiliac joys he found in Morocco. Littlewood is suspicious of those who try to sanctify their sex-for-money arrangements. And of course we unfairly cut more slack for people whose literary talent we recognize than for the anonymous average middle-aged man frequenting Bangkok bars.
Still, Littlewood is aware how difficult it is to judge such relations. Who can say that some of the prostitutes those travelers encountered didn’t make their lives sweeter? And who’s to say that the money offered by some travelers, like the money Symonds paid his young lover, didn’t make lives easier? That the arrangement is exploitive is undeniable; the question of whether it blights the life of everyone who participates in it is open to question. The labels “victim” and “villain” may certainly apply in many cases. Using them to automatically tar customer and prostitute alike is an abdication of making distinctions.
It may sound like faint praise to call “Sultry Climates” readable, but I intend it as high praise. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve picked up some cultural study or history on a promising topic only to be stranded with the dullness that has become equated with seriousness of purpose. Littlewood is lively and accessible and erudite. He doesn’t clutter up the text with footnotes, and (excluding notes) “Sultry Climates” runs to just 214 pages. He’s also not too hoity-toity to take in bits of popular culture, like “Shirley Valentine” or the endless British soap “Coronation Street,” that illustrate his themes. He may, for this season at least, have raised the level of beach reading. “Sultry Climates” is the perfect companion for anyone who wouldn’t be caught dead with an airport paperback — though I wouldn’t want to wager which one provides more juice.