Baedeker's Star Ratings

By Joan Milligan

Today’s travelers often strive to stay off the beaten track, to venture where others don’t dare, their Lonely Planet guide disguised in a Kindle reader. But in the 19th and early 20th century, it was de rigueur for the culturally careful to carry a guidebook while in Europe. It would be unforgiveable to miss the important “sights,” a concept guidebook publisher John Murray introduced to his readers. But it was publisher Karl Baedeker who came up with star ratings. Smart travelers would never again need to leave anything to chance when they toured the continent.

One of my favorite literary characters, Lucy Honeychurch, is a Baedeker girl. In E.M. Forster’s Room with a View (1908), she and her chaperone begin their trip to Florence with a distressing realization: their rooms have “no” view. They were promised a view. It is a forbidding sign.

The next morning “lady writer” Ms. Lavish (played by Judy Dench in the movie version), offers to show Lucy to Santa Croce:

Lucy said that was most kind, and at once opened her Baedeker to see where Santa Croce was.

“Tut, tut! Miss Lucy! I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker. He does but touch the surface of things. As to the true Italy – he does not even dream of it. The true Italy is only to be found by patient observation.”

After losing their way to Santa Croce, which had been visible from their penzione’s window, Lucy again reaches for her guidebook. Miss Lavish insists, “You are not, not, NOT to look at your Baedeker. Give it to me. I shan’t let you carry it.” Moments later Miss Lavish abandons Lucy, left to discover the church on her own:

She walked about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin.

Soon, when she meets up with the Emersons, a father and son also staying at the penzione, it is easy to see that the loss of the Baedeker might turn out to be the best, five-star, not-to-be-missed moment of her trip. George asks, “Have you looked at those saints?” Yes, she says, sharing her discomfort at not knowing which ones the art critic John Ruskin had said were best.

He did not know, and suggested that they should try to guess at it.

Today, Baedeker guidebooks are a "sight" of their own within Roesch Library's collection, full of turn-of-the-century maps, quaint tips, and tidbits. Check out Roesch Library’s Baedeker collection, including this one, a contemporary to Miss Honeychurch’s:

- Joan Milligan, Special Collections Cataloger

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