From the eighteenth century on, English travelers, including such notables as Joseph Townsend, George Borrow, and Gerald Brenan, have produced some of the most penetrating and evocative descriptions of Spanish life and customs. This was not the case in the seventeenth century; for that period, accounts by English travelers are conspicuous by their absence. To illustrate this point, in J. M. Díez Borque’s La sociedad española y los viajeros del siglo viii, not a single English author is cited.
In her España vista por los ingleses del siglo xvii, Patricia Shaw Fairman sets the record straight. Such real English travelers to Spain as Robert Bargrave, William Cecil, Lady Anne Fanshawe, and Edward Hyde, along with such spurious travelers as the mysterious “C. J. (or J. C.),” did describe their impressions. While none of their works can be regarded as classics of travel literature, Fairman nevertheless examines them and other seventeenth-century English commentaries on Spain in loving and exhaustive detail.
The format of her book is simple; the technique, straightforward reportage. Observations—usually in the form of quotations—are arrayed topically. In this manner we learn how Englishmen regarded Spain’s topography, climate, and lodgings, and its peoples’ physical appearance and manners, their gastronomy, fashions, pastimes, government, religion, and culture. Although occasionally informative and sometimes entertaining, this compilation of quotations with brief introductory comments is more often repetitive, tedious, and to little point. Fairman does not use her material to probe the mental world of her English travelers; moreover, the portrait of Spain she re-creates merely reinforces the stereotype with which we are already familiar. Perhaps the only discovery of real historical significance is that Englishmen seem to have been more favorably disposed to Spain than those of us reared in England on William Maltby’s The Black Legend would suspect—a study Fairman curiously ignores. Perhaps this finding, however, simply underlines the truth that travel broadens and enlightens the mind.