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Miss Knight Abroad

June 2024
10min read

For a provincial belle from Natchez, the Grand Tour was a priceless introduction to Europe’s art, its feudal pomp, and its tourist trade

For upper-class Americans of the 1850’s the Grand Tour of Europe was at once the fullfillment of a lifelong ambition and a flamboyant way of letting their neighbors know that they had arrived. To lives made wealthy by the whirring wheels of northern industry or bumper harvests of southern cotton, they were anxious to add a patina of culture; the Grand Tour seemed the quickest and surest method of absorbing something which America lacked but which time-mossed Europe possessed in ample measure.

So nouveau riche Americans, with John Murray’s guidebooks in hand, oh’d and ah’d their way around the British Isles and the Continent, stopping in Rome or Florence to have their portraits painted in oils, their profiles preserved in enduring marble, or their silhouettes struck in cameo. And when they came home again, their objets d’art, their Paris clothes, and their tales of adventure marked them as folk worthy of admiration and envy.

The summer of 1854 saw a typical family of American tourists, Mr. and Mrs. John Knight and their sixteen-year-old daughter Fanny, sail from New York on the fast steamer Pacific of the Collins Line. Mr. Knight, my great-grandfather, was a retired cotton merchant of Natchez, Mississippi, who had worked hard for years; now he wished to spend his money seeking to restore his shattered health at foreign watering places and educating his attractive, dark-eyed daughter. Their tour was to last five years, and to take them to all of Europe’s major cities—and even to the warm sands of Egypt.

Recently I came into possession of their great ironbound trunk (below), passed down through the family and unopened since 1882. Inside, among many other mementos of the trip, was Fanny’s lively diary. Her story—illustrated with passports, hotel bills, old prints, cartes de visite, and even a sonnet written to her by an amorous Italian—is told on the next fourteen pages, largely in Fanny’s own words.

The diary begins with a note on June 24, 1854: “This clay at 12 o’clock we bade farewell to the shores of my own clear America. How my bosom throbbed as I heard the cannon sounding from our boat and from other vessels around us, announcing our departure.” Her mother became seasick almost immediately, “and Pa was just managing,” but Fanny was having the time of her young life. To her intense delight she was on her way to becoming, in the literal sense of the words, a Woman of the World.

London … and The Queen

During the twelve-day voyage to England Fanny Knight took a lively interest in her fellow passengers, among whom were a groom of sixty and his bride of twenty-one. “Strange to say,” Fanny confided to her diary, “I never see them together.” Also aboard were two young American girls en route to Spain to join a convent. One of them tried to persuade Fanny to go with them, but found her too much attached to the “sinful pleasures” of the world.

Sinful pleasures were scarce in Queen Victoria’s London. Hiring a Bath chair, the Knights rode to suburban Sydenham, where the famed Crystal Palace built for the Great London Exhibition of 1851 had been reconstructed. There it stood in all its glass-and-metal glory, housing mawkish neoclassic sculpture, “curiosities” from far-flung and romantic places, and a bewildering array of objects in wood, metal, pottery, and heavy cut glass—all crowded together higgledy-piggledy. It bore the authentic stamp of Victorian England—a mixture of religiosity and worship of the machine, the Mammon of the age. The stamp impressed itself upon the soft wax of the Western world: the Knights were delighted with the Palace and the elaborate grounds.

But for young Fanny the high light of their visit to London was a glimpse of Victoria herself. “The Queen passed us on the street in her carriage today,” she wrote. “She was on her way to the Duchess of Gloucester’s to attend a juvenile ball with the children. Prince Albert rode beside her, and in front of her sat the Princess Royal Helena and the Prince of Wales, all looking very neat and modest. The Police seemed very proud of their Queen as she sat there in her pink silk bonnet. One of them said to Pa: ‘She looks just like a little girl!’ "

Pageantry in Paris

The next stop was Paris, where Fanny and her mother, alter the fashion of American ladies then and now, shopped for gowns, gloves, and fripperies in lace. “Hoops are still in vogue,” Fanny noted. “On the Champs-Elysées, the ladies occupy so much room in the carriages that it is as much as one can do to find out the poor gentlemen’s heads, which are peeping out from the flounces which envelop them. The men always remind me of so many modest little daisies afraid to show their heads.”

The capital was extremely gay. One Sunday morning Fanny arose to find all Paris preparing for a fete in honor of Emperor Louis Napoleon. The military was out, hand organs played in the streets, and great crowds surged along the boulevards. In the evening everything was a blaze of lights. The wily Louis was endeavoring to make the populace forget the bloody struggles of 1848, and he was succeeding admirably: already hundreds of buildings that had been reduced to rubble had risen again.

“The Emperor has a twofold design in view,” Fanny wrote, “the embellishing of the city, and keeping the people out of mischief, for he well knows that his security lies in keeping the working class employed so that it will have no time to meditate revolution. We have seen the Emperor several times, as well as the Empress Eugénie. Louis Napoleon is a fine looking man—at least he appears that way in an open phaeton—is rather pallid and wears an immense moustache … He dresses plainly in a dark blue cloth suit with gilt buttons and a plain black hat. The Empress has the most beautiful neck and shoulders that I ever saw, and her bust is considered one of the finest.”

Many years before, Louis Napoleon’s uncle, Jérôme Bonaparte, had married a beautiful American girl, but his family had refused to recognize her. Now, as Jérôme passed them in the royal cavalcade, Mrs. Knight and her daughter indulged in a bit of chauvinism, mixed with womanly solidarity. “Ma remarked to me,” Fanny wrote, “that Prince Jérôme looked rather superannuated although his wig is so black. It is hard to believe that this old man was once the dashing lover of Mistress Betsy Patterson in Baltimore!”

From Paris the Knights toured the Low Countries and visited the Field of Waterloo, where they encountered an enterprising British coach operator (see top left). Then, as winter neared, they turned southward along the path to Rome.


A Winter in Italy

A large and cosmopolitan artists’ colony flourished in Rome during the 1850’s, and it was considered fashionable for visitors to the city to make the rounds of the studios, looking at works of art, admiring and criticizing, and often buying. Fanny and her parents visited almost fifty studios and were for the most part pleased with what they saw. But their interest in culture was kept firmly within the bounds of Victorian propriety. Mrs. Knight kept a travel diary, too, and to it she confided: ”… we went to Mr. William Page’s studio and saw two of his Venuses. They are entirely too nude, one being in a lying posture, the other standing on a dolphin. At the studio of John Gibson, an English sculptor, I did not care at all for his painted statue of Venus, as the pink colouring of the marble makes her look indecent.”

The artist whom the Knights visited most often was young Edward Sheffield Bartholomew, a shy, lame sculptor from Hartford, Connecticut. Fanny and her mother “sat for their busts,” and Mr. Bartholomew gallantly squired the ladies around Rome. They walked wondering through the baroque vastness of St. Peter’s, and one evening after dinner, as Fanny was walking in the Piazza del Popolo, she saw the Pope himself—it was Pius IX—pass quite close to her. “He was attended by two Cardinals,” she wrote, “while two heralds on horseback announced his approach. The cortege was very plain and unpretending, his carriage being the only object which had any pretensions to grandeur and style. The pope looked remarkably well and seemed pleased.”

The tourists remained in Rome for some time—long enough to participate in the social life of the international colony. And in Rome, too, Fanny began acquiring some of the intellectual attainments which, in her father’s mind, had been one of the purposes of their tour. She studied music and art, and took lessons in Italian from Signor Vincenzo Sanguinetti, a most attractive gentleman. The winter passed pleasantly in the warm Italian sun, but with the return of spring they would be off again. One evening Signor Sanguinetti called for a farewell visit. Bowing low over Fanny’s hand, he placed in it a note (above, right), beautifully decorated with gilded cupids, bows and arrows, and a pink Venus reclining in a sea shell towed by swans. It was a sonnet he had written to the “lovely damsel” from Natchez—a romantic memento for young Fanny Knight as she headed south with her parents for Naples.


Tall Alps and Kremlin Towers

From France the tourists went to Switzerland and climbed one of the snow-capped Alps to the famous Hospice of St. Bernard. They visited the grisly “Dead House,” where the bodies of travelers who had perished in the snow were ranged about the walls in the attitudes of their final agonies, uninterrable because of the hard, rocky ground and incorrupt in the cold, dry mountain air. Among the Knights’ fellow guests was Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who the spring before had been caned in the Senate by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina. “I certainly do not think [Sumner] a flattering specimen of an American Senator,” wrote Fanny, a loyal southerner. “I never justified Mr. Brooks in his conduct, and to say the least think he acted in a most ungentlemanly manner, but I do think Mr. Sumner deserved all he got.” When she saw his signature in the guest register as “The Hon. Charles Sumner, Senator of the United States,” it was more than Fanny could stand. “I think it in very bad taste,” she wrote, “for an American in particular to be his own trumpeter.”

Another winter in the Italian sunshine was followed by a trip to Russia, where Alexander II had ascended the throne in 1855. At St. Petersburg their luggage was searched and all their books taken away so a censor could examine them. In Moscow—which they reached via an American-built railroad—they visited the magnificent gold and white apartments of the empress in the Kremlin, watched droshky races, fireworks, singing gypsies, and a “Bear Woman,” and went to a prison to see criminals and political prisoners leaving for Siberia. “It was a most heartrending scene,” Fanny wrote. “The poor creatures looked pale and thin; they wore the prison garb and had their heads shaved with the exception of a small spike on the top. There were some women among them. Many kind persons were present who gave the exiles money, for without it they would certainly starve on the road to their inhospitable home. The prisoners were chained and hand-cuffed, and must go on foot all the way to Siberia where most of them will work in the mines for life. The parting of the prisoners from their families and friends was most distressing; their cries were heard until the order for the drums to beat was given, and the exiles proceeded on their journey. The prisoners shed not a tear; they seemed to have lost all emotions of any kind, just a numbness remained. Thank God I was born neither a serf nor a prince in this land!”


Up The Nile in Style

As another winter neared, Fanny’s lather was anxious to head south before his chronic asthma became troublesome. Egypt was then the Florida of the well to do, and boat trips up the Nile had become fashionable. At Cairo they found a dragoman who agreed to manage everything for the sum of £250. A boat, called the Luxor, was fitted out with furniture, beds and bedding (the sheets were to be changed once a week, the table linens twice), a coal stove, and provisions of the best quality. An American flag was run up at the stern, the captain and his crew of Nubians came aboard, and on February 17, 1859, the Luxor raised her sails to the breeze.

Along the way the boat stopped to allow the party to make side excursions—to the Temple of Karnak, the pyramid of Cheops, the falls at Aswan. Fanny and her parents rode in donkey chairs to various ruins, picking up archaeological souvenirs.

From Aswan they headed downstream again for Cairo. “The captain’s wife,” Fanny noted, “a rather good looking Nubian woman with pearly teeth, saw him off at Assuan, and wafted him a blessing by throwing dates into the water. The captain has a wife at Cairo, also, and another, his favorite, at Luxor. Abdul Wahee, the head cook, has had five wives, but has sent all but two away, as he is in the habit of doing after they reach the age of twenty-six.” The Luxor reached Cairo on April 7 after covering 250 miles in a little over seven weeks.

Next stop was Alexandria, where Fanny dropped in at the Union Dispensary to order a bottle of honey of rose. The apothecary’s assistant, a dark, handsome young man, waited on her, and looked with obvious appreciation upon his pretty young customer. That evening he brought the package around to the Knights’ hotel and stayed to pay a call. “When he bade me farewell,” Fanny wrote, “he handed me a small note and requested me to read and answer it. Its contents surprised me exceedingly …” The young Egyptian had written:

… Were I only charmed by your beauty, I would perhaps have won my passion, but love in its full extent has darted my heart. In declaring to you my intentions I do but follow its dictates. They are, to offer you my hand, for my heart has ever since been captivated by you. … I beg you to let me have an answer on the subject; howsoever it may be, let me be acquainted with it, for on your accepting or declining it depends my happiness for life, or total despair. …

But Fanny did not reply.


“New York looks … somewhat shabby”

In the last week of July, John and Frances Knight and their daughter boarded the iron-hulled paddle steamer Persia, pride of the Cunard Line, bound for home. They reached New York on August 3 and Fanny, in one of her last travel-diary entries, wrote: “New York looks very lively and bustling and somewhat shabby, but how glad I am to be at home again! … I tell Pa that, after being so long in Europe, I will be entirely forgotten by all my friends, and in my old age will feel myself a stranger in my own land, should all my youth be spent in foreign countries. I am still proud of being a daughter of America, and will ever prefer my motherland to any other. … Pa has decided that we shall pass the winter in New Orleans, so I shall see HIM again!!”

“Him” was Thomas McDannold, a young New Orleans lawyer who had been attracted to Fanny during a previous meeting, who would remain her ardent suitor through four years of war—he served with a Louisiana regiment in nineteen major battles—and who would finally win her hand in 1867.

Throughout the remainder of her life Fanny never forgot her Grand Tour. For whatever might be said, then or now, about the snob appeal of such a sojourn, it was an education, one which would have been hard to match. In a few brief years—and those her most impressionable ones—young Fanny Knight had seen at firsthand many of the crowned heads of Europe. She had seen the fruits of one revolution—in France—and the seeds of another—in Czarist Russia. She had been introduced to the cultures of the ancient world, of the Renaissance, and of her own time. And she had visited most of the countries whose emigrants would, in the next half century, so profoundly alter the character of her own.

It was an expensive education, to be sure (the first two years alone, John Knight calculated, cost him over $12,000), but it was infinitely superior to the provincial female seminaries which were the only institutions of higher learning then available to women in the United States—even to the daughters of the wealthy. For a young woman with Fanny’s spirit, curiosity, and quick mind, the Grand Tour was a treasure that sustained her richly to the end of her days.

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