It’s Best to Be British: European Travel Writing and Creation of National Identity in All the Year Round

Brienne Thornbury
Oxford Brookes University

Victorian periodical travel narratives were a useful way to educate
and entertain readers with tales of foreign lands, and proved an
effective instrument for the advancement of national identity. In this
genre of writing, British authors often constructed a collective
public identity by holding it up against what was perceived as
European identity. In some ways, Britishness was definable only by
what it was not. The travel narratives that appeared in All the Year
Round took the form of sketches rather than prescriptive itineraries.
Practical information, such as the best places to dine or sleep was
instead the domain of the guidebook industry, which was concurrently
experiencing rapid expansion. These travel narratives evidently
appealed to persons across the range of the economic spectrum. All the
Year Round found a wide audience in mid-century Britain and its sales
did not solely include those who could actually afford to visit the
places described.

The variety of places written about in Charles Dickens’s last
periodical is enormous. This paper will focus on the writing about
near neighbour Europe, which makes the strongest showing of number of
articles in the travel genre, partly boosted by the popularity of
France and Italy as travel destinations. Many of these articles
contain examples of the British tendency to hold themselves apart from
the continent. Britain was perceived as being more politically stable
and economically advanced than countries like Italy and Spain, which
were backward and had a suboptimal order of priorities. Based on
contemporary reviews, few British people challenged this
interpretation of the wider world. Even the most seasoned travellers
and travel writers were committed to not having their worldview
developed with travel. Their preconceived notions and Britain’s
wealth influenced the construction of national identity and prevailing
attitude of superiority. There is often flagrant and unapologetic
British-centric ideology in the pages of All the Year Round.

For a multitude of reasons, Nineteenth Century British travellers
earned a reputation for elitist, bad behaviour abroad. Catholic versus
Protestant pressure was one additional component of the larger tension
between travelling Britons and the people they encountered on the
continent. Religious prejudices were often reinforced, instead of
being broken down, on their travels through Catholic-dominated Europe.

The prevailing attitude of British exceptionalism found in the pages
of All the Year Round was not a new phenomenon; it is well-documented
in the years of the Grand Tour as well. A special kind of arrogance
contributed to British national identity and continued to grow as
Victorian Britain made economic and territorial advancements. This
attitude was reflected in both the pieces Dickens composed, as well as
those he commissioned, for his popular journal.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900