I don't know about you, but sometimes when I fall in love with a book I'm reading, I gobble it up, turning the pages as fast as I can, resenting interruptions like work. But with other literary love affairs, I read more slowly, savoring, unwilling to rush, not wanting the book to end. This was one of those books. As I was coming to the last chapters yesterday, I was reading only a page or two at a time.
It is an account of a tour of Greece that Emily Kimbrough took with three friends in 1955. When I came across a battered paperback copy at Half Price Books last month, I hesitated a moment about buying it, actually. I knew that she had written a series of travel books, but I wasn't impressed with the first I read, Forty Plus and Fancy Free (published in 1954). The cover proclaims it "The gay excursion of youthful grandmothers romping through Paris and Italy and 'doing' the Coronation." The trip culminated in London, where Kimbrough covered the Coronation by radio broadcast for CBS, and I did enjoy that part of the book. In general though I thought she tried too hard to be funny, maybe hoping to re-create the magic of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. She did the same thing at the start of her book We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood, stretching out the minor mishaps of a train journey (it improved once they arrived in Hollywood).
This book is very different, however, and infinitely better. It is dedicated to her mother, Charlotte Wiles Kimbrough.
If a love that was really passionate, and a devotion that was certainly lifelong, together with a not inconsiderable knowledge of the subject are qualifications, then Mother was a scholar of Greek. She taught me the Greek alphabet before I learned English letters . . . Her bedtime stories to me were of "Jason," "Hercules," and other heroes. By the time I got around to reading for myself "The Sleeping Beauty," I classified Prince Charming as one of the most sickening sissies I had ever encountered . . . [H]er favorite make-believe had always begun, "One day, when you and I are in Greece. . ." In 1955, Mother had been gone for thirty-one years, without ever having been to Greece . . . Nevertheless, to see Greece was an obligation I felt had been laid upon me.This really sets the stage for the trip she would take: a literary and historical pilgrimage. At times she was brought to tears by the reality of places she had read about and studied, and with memories of her mother. But this wasn't a deadly serious trip. There was always time for shopping, particularly for shoes, and delicious meals. One of her companions carried an assortment of bottles nestled among her shoes, and the four met together each afternoon for the "shoe-bag hour" of cocktails. Sometimes there were disagreements, and funny things happened along the way, which Kimbrough treated lightly. Her real focus was always the sights they were seeing and the people they were meeting.
Based in Athens, where they stayed a month, they traveled around by car and ship, seeing the big tourist sites but also smaller out-of-way places they had learned about. I in turn learned a lot about Greece from this book, and it made me want to read more. (I've already checked out one book she recommended, The Bull of Minos, about excavations in Mycenae.) If I am ever lucky enough to travel to Greece, I think I'll take this book with me, even if it's 60 years out of date. Kimbrough was writing a real travel guide, because at the time the Greek tourism industry was still developing. For readers who might be inspired to follow her, she included information about hotels and restaurants and guides, as well as helpful hints about comfortable clothing. The four women apparently traveled in dresses with those big 1950s skirts (not to mention gloves and hats), but at least three of them brought "topsiders" for comfort in tramping around.
Kimbrough's three friends were as well-read as she was, and as interested in Greek history and culture. Even better, they all had the same philosophy of travel. "We are not by our respective natures group minded . . . We like to explore for ourselves." They didn't try to see everything, they weren't tied down to strict schedules, and they liked to wander. I would sign on for a tour with them in a heartbeat.
After their time in Greece, they traveled north through Yugoslavia and from there to Italy. Then Kimbrough with one of the friends went on to England. There they stayed in London at the Indian Embassy with the High Commissioner, "Mme. Pandit." Maybe everyone reading this book in 1956 knew who that was. It was only later, googling something, that I discovered her to be Vijaya Lakshmi Nehru Pandit, the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru. I knew that Emily Kimbrough had been a noted hostess in Philadelphia and New York, as well as the long-time editor of Good Housekeeping, but I hadn't realized the kind of connections she had (Mme. Pandit had previously been her guest in New York).
In England, she and her friend Sophy set off on further pilgrimages, including trips to Winchester and Canterbury, as well as Jane Austen's house at Chawton. On the spur of the moment, she decided to hire a houseboat for a trip up the Thames. She thought the hire included someone to operate the boat, but when she learned otherwise, she volunteered Sophy for the job. I immediately thought of Three Men in a Boat, which Kimbrough doesn't mention. She does however cite Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors on the last page, which put the seal on my love for this book.
All week long, as I was reading, I had the urge to buttonhole people and share that love. The only thing that stopped me was knowing the looks of incomprehension and pity that I would get in return. I nearly broke my rule about not reviewing books I haven't finished, just to tell someone about it. Somewhere around the third chapter, I checked on Emily Kimbrough's other travel books. I discovered she wrote about boat trips with friends through the canals of France and Ireland, as well as return voyages in England and Greece. She also wrote a memoir about working in advertising at Marshall Field's, straight out of college. I will not attempt to conceal from you that there is a new Emily Kimbrough section of the TBR stacks, which will be increasing (the fruits of an early-morning binge on the ABE site). I am trusting that they will fall more in line with this book than with Forty Plus, but either way I expect to be amused and entertained, and probably to learn something.