History Book Reviews

The Smell of the Continent – Richard Mullen and James Munson

With its proximity to Great Britain, and the sheer amount to see and do, Europe was always going to become a prime tourist destination for the English. But the concept of tourism is a (fairly) recent invention that is barely recognisable today from its roots in the “Grand Tour”. Some things however, have not changed and Richard Mullen and James Munson examine various aspects of what can effectively be called the birth of British tourism on the continent in their superb “The Smell of the Continent” – The British Discover Europe.

Our journey (if you’ll excuse the pun) begins shortly after the Battle of Waterloo, and takes us through the Victorian age to just after the Great War. This was an age of technical progress, and naturally this had a part to play in the growth in popularity of mass travel. Steam ships and railways reduced journey times significantly from the days of the horse and carriage, making a day trip to France possible, and along with the first package tour operators (does the name Thomas Cook ring a bell?) brought continental travel within the budget of many ordinary people. Previously, travel had been the domain of the privileged, who often spent a month – or two – taking in the classic sights or “lions” around Europe. Mullen and Munson are blessed in that many letters and journals from the time survive, giving a fascinating insight into just what made the Victorian traveller tick.

The growth of mass market travel brought with it a distinction (that survives to this day) and that is the distinction between a “traveller” and a “tourist”. The word “traveller” almost suggests a thirst for knowledge and self-improvement, whereas the term “tourist” is often used in a much more derogatory fashion – Florence compared to Faliraki (to use an extreme example) if you will. Whilst this distinction was largely applied by the British themselves in an act of snobbery, the Europeans simply referred to them as “Les Anglais”, “Inglese” or “Englander”.

To the continentals, the British were (and still are to a degree) a completely alien breed. Their addiction to tea, “home comforts” and other quintessential English behaviours were entirely at odds with many Europeans. Especially to those off the traditional tourist routes suggested by the guidebooks of the time. Whilst the “ubiquitous Murray” no longer survives, the Baedeker guide book is still the choice of many of us. British behaviour abroad has changed little over the last 200 years – and this is where a common myth applies.

Although the over consumption of alcohol is an issue, there is something that happens to the English as soon as they cross the Channel. As soon as we leave our shores, we become one of the most obnoxious, intolerable races on the planet. We become incapable of thinking for ourselves and are ignorant of local customs and language. The worst offenders? Middle class professionals who should know better! This was as true in the Victorian age as it is today – it is our own self-importance that prevents us from accepting the fact.

This exceptionally well written book is punctuated with images that include Punch cartoons reviling British behaviour abroad, advertisements for portable tea making equipment (the author would recommend you follow the Victorians’ example and take your own tea abroad), and paints a wonderful picture of the early years of continental travel. If you appreciate self-deprecation, you’ll enjoy this extremely entertaining voyage through the infancy of the British exploration of Europe.

Jonny Mardling

Jonny Mardling

Jonny Mardling is the Editor of The History Herald. He has a keen interest in Second World War and Cold War history, and with a great grandfather who was killed during the Battle of the Somme, he also has a fascination with First World War history.

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