Saturday, 26 April 2014

Need to Read: Travels with my Aunt

“I was once present at a premature cremation.” Such is Aunt Augusta’s memorable opening line when we first encounter her in this classic 1969 novel by Graham Greene. In just eight words, a pattern is set for the remainder of the book in a series of magnificent throwaway comments that leave us wanting to know more. (“They think my mother’s ashes are marijuana” is another classic, explained in the fullness of time.)

Cover of my Penguin edition
I make a bold claim that this is my favourite travel book, which is why I’m recommending it here – even though it isn’t a travel book at all but a novel, and written more than 40 years ago, which might as well be a millennium in this throwaway age. But you can still buy it (yes, in actual bookshops!) and I reckon it’s as fresh today as ever.
The man with the aunt is Henry Pulling. He’s 50, unmarried, un-travelled, lives in English suburbia and is a retired banker devoted to his dahlias. He has long been under the thumb of his unimaginative mother whose funeral features in the opening pages. It’s at the funeral that he first meets his 75-year-old Aunt Augusta, who quickly taps into his yearning to escape the confines of his upbringing (and current life) for her own shady purposes.
Aunt Augusta is witty, manic, promiscuous, unconventional and not always entirely likeable – she can be self-absorbed and cruel on occasion. But she’s the antithesis of her nephew and incurably romantic, adventurous and tolerant. She has a delightful and endearing insouciance too. “I have never planned anything illegal in my life,” she memorably says. “How could I plan anything of the kind when I have never read any of the laws and have no idea what they are?”
The novel is hugely funny and Aunt Augusta almost Wildean in her off-the-cuff (but surely carefully crafted) lines. Often there’s a darkness at their heart that makes me pause. I might quote her just once more: “Christmas it seems to me is a necessary festival; we require a season when we can regret all the flaws in our human relationships: it is the feast of failure, sad but consoling.”
Maggie Smith as Aunt Augusta in the
1972 film version of Travels with my Aunt
So what has any of this to do with travel? Well, Aunt August soon convinces Henry to abandon his garden and travel with her across Europe. There’s a great sense of restless movement in the story (part of which is devoted to riding the Orient Express across Europe), but this is a journey of discovery too. Henry is shortly being questioned by police, gets involved in smuggling, visits a Paris brothel and witnesses a murder. In the process, he awakens to all of life’s possibilities.
You could say the theme of this novel embodies every committed traveller’s predicament, caught between the safety and social acceptance of life in the suburbs, and the lure of adventure and unconventionality on the road. The novel isn’t black-and-white in its conclusions, and some have found the ending (which I wont reveal here) disturbing, but sheer entertainment and insightfulness lasts right to the end.
Short, witty and very easy to read, I’d say an outing with Aunt Augusta is well worth the time. I’ve just re-read it after 20 years and – unlike many of the other favourite books of my youth – found it thoroughly enjoyable all over again.

Have you read Travels with my Aunt? If you have something youd like to add, please leave a comment or recommendation, and join the conversation.


  1. Thanks for the tip, Brian. I'm always on the lookout for good travel reads. Did Maggie Smith live up to the book adaptation? I am re-reading Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun (must renovate something immediately!), and just found out her new book, Under Magnolia, is out this month. I've also recently inherited a box of books, with a couple of Paul Theroux travel classics in there (Dark Star Safari, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star). Nothing like re-reading the greats.

    1. Belle, I can't say whether Maggie Smith lived up to the book character as I never saw the movie version. The book remains a favourite… and Paul Theroux also one of my top travel writers. Maybe because he is a bit grumpy like me…