Miss Knight Abroad

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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.”