CLARA’S GRAND TOUR by Glynis Ridley


Travels with an Eighteenth-Century Rhinocerous
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An Indian rhino does Europe.

Clara was just a babe but already trained as a party piece when she was taken, in 1791, from Calcutta to Leiden by Dutch sea captain Douwemout Van der Meer. The captain, explains Ridley (English/Univ. of Louisville) in the sure tone of one who has done her homework, knew a rare commercial opportunity when he saw one. Despite a woeful history of rhinos quickly dying once they arrived in Europe (if not while still aboard ship), Clara survived in style. Her hardiness was due to her youth, perhaps, or to the bonds she’d readily made with humans, or to the 150 pounds of vegetation she was fed each day. Crowds thronged to ogle and even touch this mysterious beast that, among other things, served as a fabulous tool in the advancement of comparative anatomy. Clara also sparked great debates about the respective roles of theology and natural history, a subject then occupying many minds among the European intelligentsia, royalty, and clergy. Ridley surveys the full range of historical understanding (or misunderstanding) of the rhinoceros. Pliny saw it as a paradigm of a powerful, brutal, stupid beast. Albrecht Dürer carved a fantastical, long-influential woodcut based entirely on hearsay. The rhino was cast in the Bible as a Behemoth, giving Job a taste of the mysteries of divine creation, but some pre–King James versions turned rhinos into unicorns, considering them more appropriately wondrous examples. French mathematician Maupertius would find evidence of God in the beast; Voltaire would scoff. On a lesser note, though more visible, was Clara’s influence on hairdos of the day.

An event-filled narrative that captures the wonder of Clara’s march through Europe—and of the mindsets she altered. (8 pp. b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: March 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-87113-883-2
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2004