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Putting the "Lust" in "Wanderlust"

Ian Littlewood's Sultry Climates: Travel & Sex

The Ponte di Rialto, the Piazza San Marco, the Basilica della Salute... According to Fodor's or Frommer's, these are the highlights of a trip to Venice. But not according to Lord Byron.

"Since last year," he wrote to friends in 1819 from Venice, "I have run the Gauntlet ... the Tarruscelli -- the Da Mosti -- the Spineda -- the Lotti -- the Rizzato -- the Eleanora -- the Carlotta -- the Giulietta -- the Alvisi -- the Zambieri -- the Eleanora de Bezzi (one of Gioaschino, the king of Naples's, mistresses) ..." Byron's idea of visiting Venice, it seems, included not just visiting the official landmarks, but also visiting bakers' wives, courtesans and countesses.

Byron was not alone in pairing foreign adventure with sexual adventure, Ian Littlewood tells us in his delightfully torrid book Sultry Climates: Travels & Sex. Byron's is only one of the wicked stories Littlewood uses to illustrate the integral -- if unacknowledged -- role sex appeal plays in tourism.

From the exclusive gentleman's Grand Tour of the 18th century, to the popular Club Med after World War II, Littlewood covers an impressive range of relationships -- heterosexual, homosexual, pedophilic, commercial and kinky. The author of literary companions to Paris and Venice, Littlewood knows the highbrow side of travel, but lucky for us, he is also interested in all the stuff that good taste usually excises from "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" essays: Littlewood's book puts the lust back into wanderlust.

Sultry Climates is more than a trashy Harlequin novel, however. Drawing from diaries, letters, biographies and novels, it is an impressively researched book, in which fantasy is checked by the reality of venereal diseases and political turmoil. It is when he investigates the dynamics of gender, class, race and power -- not just taking for granted that exoticism spurs eroticism -- that he makes his most interesting observations of how a change in place leads to a change in morals. Sultry Climates may be sinful, but it's got enough intelligent analysis to allay any guilt about reading smut.

Dividing his tourists into four categories -- the connoisseur, the pilgrim, the rebel and the sun-worshipper (who combines the previous three types) -- Littlewood incisively probes the motives for going abroad. Though he focuses on respectable Englishmen and Americans traveling through Europe, North Africa and Tahiti, Littlewood examines the privilege that underlies their mobility.

Littlewood argues that the affair between John Addington Symonds and Angelo Fusato showed the marks of the developing Victorian social conscience. While it is debatable whether Symonds's attempts to bring friendship and romantic love into his physical desire for a Venetian gondolier actually made their relationship any less exploitative, it is clear that Symonds did more for his companion than did most of Fusato's patrons. While most of them were after only a no-strings-attached night of hot sex with a working-class Italian, Symonds bought Fusato his own gondola and even enabled Fusato and his girlfriend to set up house. These acts might not have wholly reconciled sexual appetite to Platonic love, but it is fascinating to read how tortured Symonds was about the whole thing.

While a book like this might have tempted its author to moralize -- whether to condemn the evils or extol the virtues of free sex -- Littlewood is thankfully not interested in sermons. He just sets out the historical facts of the matter and lays bare the conflicted emotions involved. What emerges is a book that is clever, but not heavy, a book that shows us how complicated the pursuit of pleasure is as it unfolds against a matrix of historical events, cultural improprieties and personal idiosyncrasies.

Indeed, summer vacation will never be the same again. (Well, certainly not backpacking through Europe -- our modern-day version of the Grand Tour -- anyway!) It makes one wonder, what would Littlewood say about a trip to Disneyworld?

Sultry Climates: Travel & Sex
By Ian Littlewood
Hardcover: 248 pages (April 2002)
Da Capo Press; ISBN: 0-306-81155-3

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