This is a lovely little book that follows a rhinoceros – the eponymous Clara – as she travels around Europe in the mid Eighteenth Century. It was one of my Christmas presents from les petites, so I spent yesterday devouring it, in between cooking dinner and unwrapping presents.
I loved the outlandish concept of this book, and some of it’s vignettes were irresistibly funny – hair dressed “à la rhinocéros” anyone? Or the ruler who wanted a life sized porcelain menagerie to be housed in a new wing of his palace, which was also to be made entirely of porcelain? But it seemed hampered by the lack of primary evidence, the enterprising sea captain who escorts Clara is a rather sketchy character, and there are too many “must have” and “would have” moments that didn’t seem backed up by much evidence at all. In particular, I felt that the constant worry about who owned the rights to Clara’s image was a rather…. modern concern, and there didn’t seem to be much to evidence to support it. In some ways I think (in my rôle as cantankerous amateur historian) the book might have worked better if it had focused more on the detective work done by the author, and less on presenting the possibilities as certainties.
However, at the time Clara fascinated everyone from the fervently religious (was the behemoth from the Book of Job a rhinoceros?) to the most enlightened exponents of Natural History, and the book is a charming little study of Eighteenth Century society. Well worth a read.