An Alarming Lack of Feeling: Urban Travel, Emotions, and British National Character in Post-Revolutionary Paris

By Thompson, Victoria E. | Urban History Review, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

An Alarming Lack of Feeling: Urban Travel, Emotions, and British National Character in Post-Revolutionary Paris


Thompson, Victoria E., Urban History Review


In the autumn of 1814 John Scott, radical journalist and son of an Aberdeen upholsterer, boarded a boat to France, eager to see the effects of the Revolution. As his ship approached Dieppe, he saw a large crucifix on the pier. This crucifix, Scott wrote in the account of his visit, "caused me to feel that I was about to land on foreign ground ... This feeling, when experienced for the first time, is a strong and a touching one." (1) Scott was not alone in his emotional reaction to visiting France.

Another traveller, gazing at moonlit Paris from the Pont Neuf, wrote, "How numerous and how various are the feelings which rush to the mind on such an occasion--there is a swelling of the soul which defies expression, and which can no more be communicated by description than we could convey an idea of sight to a blind man by a lecture on optics." (2) This traveller, like many other British tourists who flocked to Paris in the aftermath of the French Revolution, repeatedly described emotions felt while in the city. Travellers most frequently expressed emotions, particularly sadness and fear, when describing locations where important revolutionary events had occurred. These negative emotions were important in redefining national difference after the Revolution. The physical locations at which negative emotions were expressed were crucial in this process, and an analysis of these locations reveal patterns that help us understand how specific locations, or emotional landmarks, worked to define national difference. Expressing negative emotions in relation to these landmarks allowed travel writers to mark their membership in a community defined by trauma. At the same time, the contrast between the emotions of travellers and those of Parisians provided a means of differentiating between British and French national character on the basis of sentiment.

While the French had long played the role of other in the formation of English and British identity, the characteristics that defined the distinction between national self and other changed over time. (3) In the second half of the eighteenth century, Britons argued that French absolutism and Catholicism had produced a servile population, more interested in fashion and gallantry than in political liberty. (4) At the outset of the Revolution, observers such as Arthur Young celebrated France's adoption of what he considered to be British political practices and values. (5) As the Revolution moved in a more radical direction, however, the conviction that Britons were superior to the French because they were more committed to liberty was shaken by the British government's crackdown on radical political movements at home. British opinion split over the events in France throughout the Revolution, as some argued for French superiority. In undermining a shared belief in the fundamental difference between the two countries, the Revolution rendered British national identity unstable. While France still served as the other against which Great Britain was compared, the rules of the game had changed. What was meant by the category the French" in relation to "the British" was no longer clear. Indeed, it was precisely because France was such a consistent and significant other in the articulation of British national identity that the Revolution undermined certainty in British superiority. In order to re-establish a strong and clear sense of British identity, it was necessary to determine how the Revolution had changed the French. Travel writers played an important role in this process.

Post-revolutionary British travellers arrived in Paris during three periods: during the Peace of Amiens (March 1802 to May 1803), during the first Restoration (April 1814 to May 1815), and in the first few years of the second Restoration (June 1815 to ca. 1820). While travel to Paris was common before 1789 and during the early years of the Revolution, shortly after France declared war on Great Britain in 1792 Britons in France were subject to arrest. …

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