Clara's Grand Tour

Glynis Ridley

Read June 2007

We all know Dürer's magnificent illustration of a rhinoceros. We might also have had a vague unease that there's something just a bit wrong with it. It's not...really....a rhinoceros, at least not one that was drawn from the flesh. The story of that rhino is indeed quite a tale, involving a Portuguese king, a Pope, and a storm (as Dos Passos narrates).

This is not the story of that rhino, but rather of a later specimen that made a tour of the principal locations of Western Europe in the middle of the 18th century. It was the perfect specimen for a time of relative peace, prosperity, religiosity and also the scientific spirit, each phenomenon providing its own motives for the general populace wanting to spend their money to view a creature of the greatest exoticism (so great, indeed, that most advertisements placed this Indian rhino in Africa, and the audience cared not a whit).

The story of a rhino that toured Europe's fairs and viewing grounds is not particularly enlightening material, and in the hands of a weak writer the result would alternate between the freakish and the maudlin. It was therefore with great trepidation that I approached this book. Fortunately, Ridley is up to the task. She is not a writer playing at writing history but a historian who can write, and the result is quite satisfying, a surprisingly smart book about a caricature of a topic. To be sure, about the seventeenth time Ridley reminds us that we are reading about the only rhino on the entire European continent, we wonder if there is some magic number of repetitions she was aiming for; and not even her skill can entirely hide the fact that ultimately, there isn't a whole lot of there there. But she keeps the road elevated and we have a jolly good time in the process.

There is a good account of the difficulty of transporting to unwieldy a beast. Clara's owner was fortunate to have nurtured her from a young age, so she was entirely comfortable (as much as a captive animal can be: there is a stunning little passage about the loss of her horn) in human company, developing a particular affection for the smell of tobacco and for oranges. As a good historian, she investigates the origins of Dürer's image and offers an interesting proposition for it (p. 89), and excoriates the silliness of the British Museum (p. 86). She explains the digestion of a rhino, and notes the use of fish oil to keep Clara cool (with a predictable assault on the olfactory senses, though none of the mentions of her in the journals of the moneyed classes find fit to mention this—perhaps a sign of those noxious times). Amidst repeated dives into quite entertaining trivia (Casanova, for instance, offers a little jest), however, Ridley fails to go into such details as how Clara's owner could “own” Clara's likeness—a topic that would have made for an excellent digression into copyright law and a great deal more. Indeed, the only intellectual pleasures here are small, as when Ridley discusses the formation of images and the growth of scientific inquiry. But then, it is churlish to complain: one is surprised that it is possible to write a respectable book on this topic at all, much less such a pleasant one.