Celia Fiennes (1662-1741) made her mark as the foremost female travel writer of her day, providing one of the most inclusive personal accounts of England since the Elizabethan era.
Celia Fiennes (pronounced fines) was born June 7, 1662 at the manor of Newton Toney in Wiltshire, England—not far from Salisbury. Her father was Colonel Nathaniel F. Fiennes, a member of the Council of State and Keeper of the Great Seal under Cromwell. Her mother—Nathaniel's second wife—was Frances (White-head) who came from a family of parliamentarians and dissenters. Both of Fiennes's parents were anti–monarchical activists descended from regicidal families and they brought their political views to bear in the raising of their children. Fiennes's grandfather was the 1st Lord Saye and Sele, a nobleman who led the House of Lords in what Who Was Who in World Exploration's Waldman and Wexler define as “the Puritan cause against the monarchy from 1628 to 1642.”
From Noblewoman to Journeyman
Fiennes—identified later in life by various sources as both a Presbyterian and a Protestant—grew up in a prestigious puritan family with daunting Parliamentary ties and contacts. Her siblings included two half–brothers from her father's first marriage and a younger sister, Mary, who eventually married and settled in London. It was the travels that Fiennes undertook, however—remarkable for her time, and even more so for her gender—and their eventual recounting that sealed her name in the annals of British history.
Sources vary on what year Fiennes began her treks into greater England. The first noted date of departure ranges from 1685 to 1690—making her age at the onset of her travels anywhere between twenty–three and twenty–eight. This discrepancy is attributed to a disconnect between her largely undated notes and posthumous attempts by scholars to establish a timeline. All agree that she ended her roving in 1702, having at that time traversed every county in England as well as having engaged in additional short explorations of portions of Scotland and Wales.
Fresh Air Bred Refreshing Perspectives
Fiennes initially claimed that her decision to travel was prompted by ill health—explaining in the preface to her original manuscript that she began her trips for the “change of aire and exercise,” according to the Vision of Britain Web site, as well as a desire to broaden her mind, since she felt that a person's body and brain should be equally occupied whenever possible, especially in reference to the fact that, at the time, women were discouraged from occupying either with vigor.
Her early trips—made in the company of her mother and various servants—took her to the southern English counties like Oxford, Bath and London. Fiennes's 1697 tour of the north of England and her ‘Great Journey’— undertaken in 1698 and covering over a thousand miles through Newcastle and Cornwall—were achieved on horseback and by coach, accompanied only by a few servants. Fiennes rode side–saddle, keeping detailed notes of her experiences and later compiled the material in a manuscript around 1702. In Margaret Willy's 1964 publication Three Women Diarists, the author explained how dates and times for Fiennes's recollections must be “deduced from internal evidence” because only one actual date is mentioned in the original manuscript.
Giantess Among Men
While travel writing was decidedly in fashion during Fiennes's day and she shared the spotlight with more famous counterparts like Charles Dickens and Daniel Dafoe, the intrepid diarist was the only female in this genre claiming mainstream attention. She usually stayed at inns or lodged with relatives and friends of friends, and despite its rough nature, her manuscript rewarded readers with accurate illustrations of the towns she visited—everything from the domestic, including prices and the virtues and inadequacies of the inns she stayed in, to detailed commentary on the political and religious climate of local life.
Fiennes's biographical entry in The Dictionary of National Biography Missing Persons described her unique attributes as a travel writer in a genre and country that normally defers to the culturally entrenched, “She was interested in the modern rather than the ancient, preferring Nottingham to York … formal gardens and waterworks to ancient houses. The sharpness of her observations on numerous aspects of contemporary life has made her journal a prime source for social and economic historians.”
The attention that Fiennes paid to industry and progress made her accounts unusual and valuable in their own right, and whether she was taking her readers into a cave or a cathedral, her writing garnered praise for its readability and natural style—in The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, her style is described as “quirky”, “opinionated”, and “enthusiastic.” Willy admitted that Fiennes “tends to prattle on about all she sees and does with a fine disregard for spelling and punctuation and a tumbling breathlessness,” yet pointed out that “this in itself is part of her appeal, communicating far better than any more polished narrative the eagerness of her exploration.”
As reviewer James Munson noted, history and travel writing in particular have a tendency to overlap. Fiennes was traveling during a time of expansion for England's middle classes in the midst of a movement bent on discovering the treasures of one's native land rather than the previous age's focus on and curiosity in more exotic destinations. Fiennes's accounts proved valuable because she immersed herself in that changing social environment, including descriptions of the dangers and discomforts she endured on her travels—from riding accidents that unsaddled her to inns so crowded that people slept three to a bed amid “froggs and slow–worms and snailes.” She became an expert judge of products and services like spa waters, beer and local architecture and prefaced her manuscript by saying that while she hoped to correct and improve the writing, she hoped it is helpful despite the fact that her female status may have resulted in access to fewer sources than that which a gentleman might have enjoyed. As the Cambridge Guide to Literature in English explained, however, the accounts penned by Fiennes “constituted the most comprehensive impression of the [English] countryside since the work of [William] Camden.”
Rough Road to Publication
Fiennes's finished manuscript was first excerpted in a Southey miscellany, then eventually transcribed and published under the title Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary in 1888 by a relative who had acquired it. This first official edition is described by scholars as both coarse and incomplete, and it wasn't until 1947 that Christopher Morris edited and released a scholarly edition titled, The Journeys of Celia Fiennes that separated her travel into four geographical components (considered by academics to be the “definitive” edition). Another edition titled The Illustrated Journeys of Celia Fiennes was published in 1982 and described in a December, 1982 Choice review as a “a well–produced edition that makes the energetic and enlightening travels of Celia Fiennes more accessible.” The reviewer, however, also criticized the fact that The Illustrated Journeys was an abridged edition (trimmed to make room for color plates)— maintaining that the 1947 and 1949 Morris editions are still the best choice for true scholars.
Fiennes never married and had no children, and in fact, very little is known about her personal experiences between the close of her travels and her death. It is known that Fiennes's mother died in 1691, and the author moved to London to be near her sister Mary's family. Fiennes died in 1741 on the 10th of April in Hackney, London and was interred in Newton Toney. She is believed to have died in the home of one of her nieces.
Willy found it ironic that so little can be established about Fiennes's later years, despite the fact that she found fame as a diarist. She theorized that Fiennes's original claims of fragile health as the impetus to travel were “the excuse of an unconventional spirit, in an age when the English gentlewoman was still so restricted in mobility, to satisfy a restless itch for action and her lively impulses of curiosity in everything going on around her.”
Departed, but Not Forgotten
Fiennes's lively travel accounts went on to inspire Nicholas Crane to host an edition of the television program Great British Journeys for the BBC that aired on August 28, 2007 in which he rode and pushed his bicycle along Fiennes's 1698 tour, “puffing away as he regales [the audience] with anecdotes and Fiennes's no–nonsense prose” according to the London Times television viewing guide. In addition, the March 2, 2007 edition of the Liverpool Echo invited would-be authors to write contributions for a new publication that would emulate the style of Fiennes in describing Liverpool as part of a celebration of the city's 800th birthday. The winning authors would have their writing published in the same work along with some of Fiennes'.
Rings on her Fingers and Bells on her Toes?
On a more whimsical note, sources continue to bicker when faced with the disputed suggestion that the “Fine lady upon a white horse” of the children's rhyme Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross was, in fact, referring to or inspired by Celia Fiennes. On June 1st, 1988 travel writer Alison Payne—astride a white horse—followed a police escort out of Hyde Park to re–enact Fiennes's ‘Great Journey’ as part of that year's tercentenary celebrations of William and Mary's reign. Payne participated in the event to raise money for a skin treatment and research charity, and in reports Fiennes is identified as “linked” to the nursery rhyme. Others argue that it is a possibility because she had relatives who owned Broughton Castle near Banbury—and contend that the term fine in the rhyme is a distortion of Fiennes.
A reader of the London Times, however, (in response to a later claim published by that paper) stated that the roots of the nursery rhyme lie in pagan fertility rites, and because “the ‘High Cross’ at Banbury was destroyed in 1602”— sixty years before Fiennes' birth—the connection between the diarist and the fine lady of rhyme was nothing more than so much “cock and bull.”
Described by Waldman and Wexler as “one of the first women known to have traveled for the express purpose of seeing and experiencing new places at a time when most overland journeys were difficult,” Fiennes will be remembered not only for having the courage and determination to satisfy her curiosity and wanderlust, but for expending the time and energy to record her experiences for posterity. While the work of her colleagues might always move to the front of the line, most seem to agree with Willy, who closes her book's section on Fiennes with the suggestion that her manuscript “forms a social picture quite as absorbing as any drawn by her more famous contemporaries.” After all, historians must capture the attention of the reader before they can pass on their knowledge, so the engaging nature of Fiennes's accounts assure them pride of place among the achievements of her generation.
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“Celia Fiennes,” London Borough of Hackney, http://www.hackney.gov.uk/ep-celia-fiennes.htm (October 14, 2007).
“Celia Fiennes, Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary,” A Vision of Britain Through Time, http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/text/contents_page.jsp?t_id=Fiennes (October 14, 2007).
“Did Celia's 17th C Rides Inspire a Nursery Rhyme?” Travellers Tales, http://www.port.ac.uk/research/gbhgis/mediaresources/freearticles/filetodownload,23047,en.pdf (October 14, 2007).
"Fiennes, Celia." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fiennes-celia
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