Review of Elisabeth Jay, British Writers and Paris 1830-1875

My research focuses primarily on the intersections between literature and science in the nineteenth century. Recently, though, I’ve been getting more and more interested in another aspect of nineteenth-century culture: the relation between definitions of Englishness and Britishness, and the ways in which literary writing might have helped to construct these mismatched but overlapping national identities. I started thinking about this a few years ago when I read and reviewed Robert J. C. Young’s book The Idea of English Ethnicity. Moving to Scotland in 2015, though, without question sharpened my awareness that my understanding of ‘English Literature’ in the nineteenth century was too firmly and parochially English, that I hadn’t thought seriously enough about the ways in which Irish, Scottish, and Welsh cultures were subsumed within or marginalised by the prevailing Englishness of Victorian national identity.

The Brexit debate, too, has made me think about how Englishness and Britishness were defined in relation to Europe in the nineteenth century, and I’ve just finished reading a book which explores that issue. For the Victorians, Paris was a synecdoche not just for France but for Europe more generally, and Elisabeth Jay’s British Writers and Paris 1830-1875 persuasively shows that British authors were consistently ambivalent about the city. Many were happy to meet the demand for cautionary tales of Paris as a hub of scandal and immorality. This sensationalist view has retained its currency in the twenty-first century: in the 2008 film Taken, for instance, a wholesome American teenager travels to the city, is promptly kidnapped, and narrowly escapes being sold into prostitution by evil European gangsters. Mary Clarke Mohl, who hosted a popular salon in Paris, told a nineteenth-century version of the same story, warning that ‘it is a horrible fact that there are people who catch handsome young English girls in London and send them over here for vice.’ Horrible yet titillating, ‘facts’ such as these helped to cement Paris’s status as the epitome of the nineteenth-century city, a more extreme version of the ‘modern Babylon’ that the journalist W.T. Stead described in his writings about Victorian London.

This was also, of course, one of the reasons why the Victorians were so fond of Paris, either as a place to visit or as a more permanent home. Many British writers based themselves there, and perhaps the most impressive feature of Jay’s book is its detailed consideration of the various enticements that brought them to the city. In addition to its attractive reputation for hedonism, there was also its cosmopolitan and international cultural life; a sizeable expatriate community willing to pay for English-language publications; a plethora of European literary genres ready to be adapted or plagiarised; and a thriving print trade which gave to writers, and especially to journalists, a degree of social prestige that was rarely attainable in Britain. As Jay points out, authors ranging from Dickens, Thackeray, and Walter Bagehot to the radical novelist and journalist George Reynolds used stints in Paris, often writing for newspapers and periodicals, as a means of launching or consolidating their literary careers. Nearly as much as London, Manchester, or Edinburgh, the French capital in the mid-nineteenth century was a centre of British intellectual culture.

But the Victorians’ cosmopolitan embrace of Paris was checked by other, more nationalistic and nervous, responses to the city. Effectively closed to the British during the wars with France between 1793 and 1815, it remained an alien and alarming place, and reflections on the upheavals of the 1789 revolution were an omnipresent feature of British writing about the city. After 1815, lingering fears about French anarchy and militarism were assuaged (but also heightened) by a national habit of historical tourism, as British travellers flocked to the Parisian locations connected with the defeated revolution. For the majority of these travellers, Jay suggests, ‘Paris embodied not only France’s history but its quintessence.’ Another, less polite, way of putting this might be to say that Paris was all that many British tourists knew of France, and that descriptions of the city were often used, in the work of British writers, to encapsulate a set of sweeping assumptions and stereotypes about French culture. And especially after the Europe-wide revolutions of 1848 and the internationalist radicalism of the 1871 Commune, Paris was identified as a symbol not just of France but of a general European approach to politics, violent and chaotic, that was inimical to British interests and sensibilities.

Jay’s arguments about British attitudes to the city’s revolutionary history aren’t wholly consistent. On the one hand, she claims that the radicalism of the Commune, and the brutality of its suppression by the French army, fundamentally altered Victorian opinion on the city, bringing about ‘a deep rupture between past and present not only for Paris itself but for the relationship the British maintained with Paris.’ On the other hand, and more convincingly, she suggests that such ruptures shaped British attitudes throughout the nineteenth century. With each successive revolution and restoration (the July Revolution of 1830, the 1848 revolution, Napoleon III’s coup d’état in 1851), the topography of Paris was transformed along with its social and political structures. Streets were renamed, monuments erected or demolished, and these recurring breaks with the past bothered the majority of British writers who shared, however critically, the Victorian commitment to a slow and steady kind of progress, an ideology of political reform dependent on the gradual development of traditions and institutions. Jay comments that the Parisian ‘practice of erasure, of everything from political leaders to buildings and street names, evoked in the British consciousness a fear of the loss of memory’s moral function, and reinforced a commensurately strong commitment to tracing origins and lines of descent.’

This is a tantalising claim, but Jay’s book doesn’t really examine how this conservative reaction to Parisian revolution contributed to nineteenth-century constructions of British national identity, or of the distinctions within that identity between the politics and culture of England, Ireland, and Scotland. I’ll discuss that question in my next post.



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