Laetitia Houblon’s Letters and Women on the Grand Tour, by Jessica Campbell

During the eighteenth century, the Grand Tour became a popular phenomenon among the upper classes of English society. It became a rite of passage for aristocratic young men to spend anywhere between six months to four years travelling around Europe, to complete their education in becoming a gentleman.

But did you know that women went on Grand Tours too?

While the Tour was traditionally undertaken by young men, many women also travelled but have often been overlooked in history. Famous female travellers from the eighteenth century include Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Lady Elizabeth Craven, who both wrote interesting accounts about their travels.

Another lesser-known female traveller is Laetitia Houblon. Against the typical custom, Laetitia set out travelling in 1787 while in her mid-forties and describes her travels in a series of letters written to her family and close friends. These letters are part of the Archer Houblon Family Papers which are held at the Berkshire Record Office.

Image of Laetitia Houblon (1742-1828), found in The Houblon Family Its Story and Times, Vol.II by Lady Alice Archer Houblon (1907).

Female Grand Tourists, during the eighteenth century, were typically upper-class women accompanied by their husband. Interestingly, Laetitia embarked on her travels accompanied by her friend Miss Betsy Watson, in the hopes of improving Miss Betsy’s health by taking her to a warmer climate. The two women travelled as part of a group, and both ended up getting married while on their travels. In 1789, Laetitia married Baron Friedrich de Feilitzsch, making her a Baroness, and together they continued to travel as part of a group.

While Laetitia does not explicitly call her travels a Grand Tour in her letters, she visited many of the key Tour destinations including Paris, Florence, Venice, Genoa, Turin, and Dresden which she describes in her letters and can be seen in the image below.

Image showing the different places that Laetitia sent her letters from. Mentioning Nice, Venice, Como, Turin, and Paris. (Shown in the top right corner of each letter).

Through reading the letters, you can follow Laetitia on her travels around Europe and her time spent living abroad in Nice and Dresden, before returning back to England in 1807. The first letter in the bundle was sent to Laetitia in 1787, right before she set off on her travels. An extract from the letter is shown below, which writes that Laetitia is likely busy with ‘packing & goodbyes’.

Letter sent to Laetitia in England, dated 1787.
‘I did not immediately answer my Dear […]’s letter, as she declared herself to be worried to death, with packing & goodbyes, & suppose by the time this reaches London, you will also.’

Each letter includes updates on Laetitia’s travels. In 1787, from Boulogne France, Laetitia writes to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Susanna Houblon, saying ‘well my dearest sister my first writing from France is justly your due’. In another letter she writes about visiting a palace in Chantilly France, describing it as ‘such a museum I could have remained an age lost in admiration, the arrangement is so much preferable to anything in England’.  

Other letters from Laetitia to her friends and family include updates on her travel destinations. In one letter, Laetitia writes about her travel plans in Italy, stating:

‘our plan is not settled but I believe Florence will bound us to the south & that we shall resume our first project of the Lake Como in July & August & see as much of the north of Italy as possible before October’

Laetitia’s letter writing also reveals how dangerous travelling in the eighteenth century could be. Travelling across countries was typically very hazardous and time consuming; often in her letters, Laetitia writes about experiencing sea sickness and remarks on how fortunate she has been to avoid accidents along the way. In one letter she writes, ‘we are the most fortunate of travellers, not the slightest accident or disagreeable event having befallen us as yet’.

In her letters, Laetitia often describes the travel conditions in great detail, this can be seen in the two extracts below.

Letter from Laetitia describing her journey to France, dated 9th September 1787.
‘We set out about noon Friday, dined at Dartford, slept at Sittingbourne, breakfasted at Canterbury spent the rest of yesterday at Dover the tide not serving for us to come commodiously, & our good conductor would not permit us to do anything otherwise, so we sailed at 7 this morn & had the quickest passage known of 12 months only 4 hours ½; we were all sick except Mr. Wraxall & my courier, but recovered time enough to admire the coast & harbour’
Letter from Laetitia sent from Nice, France 1787.
‘I flatter myself my dear nieces are anxious to know how their aunt & cousin are safe arrived at the end of their long journey, God be praised it was impossible to make a short one with more care not having met with the least accident or inconvenience in traversing sea, rivers, plains & mountains 1000 miles, in lieu of the dirt & indelicacy with which we were threatened’

Laetitia’s letters also highlight how important letter writing while travelling was as it became the only way to keep in contact with family back home. In one of her letters, Laetitia mentions how much writing and receiving letters means to her, expressing that so much of her ‘felicity’ depends on it.

The letters include updates on family life back home and reveal Laetitia’s close relationship with her family. Through reading the collection, you can follow, in particular, Laetitia’s close friendship to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Susanna Houblon, who she regularly wrote to. In one of her many letters addressed to Mrs. Houblon, Laetitia writes ‘your friendship is my greatest happiness’, revealing their close bond.

The series of letters not only document Laetitia’s travels and demonstrate that women travelled during the eighteenth century too, but it is a representation of Laetitia’s relationship with her family and close friends while there are great distances between them. This is nicely expressed in a letter written by Laetitia where she writes that ‘many waters cannot drown’ the love expressed in her letters.

Letter from Laetitia to Mrs. Susanna Houblon, dated 9th September 1787.
‘many waters cannot drown love, to which I add nor sea sickness put you & your dear children out of my mind’

These papers are held at the Berkshire Record Office as part of the Archer Houblon Family Estate collection which contains a range of papers relating to the Houblon family history.

Jessica Campbell is an undergraduate History student at the University of Reading.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.

We have made every effort to abide by UK copyright law but in the instance of any mislabelling of images, please contact the author of the blog post. Many thanks to the Berkshire Records Office for their permission to reproduce these images.

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