I find it impossible sometimes not to view the historical period I investigate through the lens of current affairs. The current debates about the place of Britain in the world, and foreigners’ place in Britain, inevitably resonate in my research, which is about European travel in the nineteenth century.
At the moment, I am reading Ivan Goncharov’s report of his journey around the world in the 1850s. He writes a lot about his experiences in the south of England. His observations on the languages spoken by the English still apply today. To understand the following, it is good to know that French was the language spoken throughout Europe by travellers, diplomats, merchants and other people who wanted to communicate across borders. French, not English, was the European lingua franca. And yet, Goncharov writes:
everyone who wants to go to England must willy-nilly acquaint himself [with the English language]: whoever doesn’t know it, better not go to England. Here, like something rare, they hang a sign saying, in large letters, Ici on parle français.
Like a nineteenth-century equivalent of the signs you see on hotels in some countries nowadays – ‘we speak your language’, touristic shops and hotels in Goncharov’s London could distinguish themselves by speaking the common European language. Speaking this common language was not self-understood, let alone speaking further languages.
The isolationist views that many Britons today hold are still related to the low proportion of people who understand a foreign language. To make things worse, if the UK leaves the EU it may lose access to the Erasmus programme which allows European students to spend a semester abroad and improve their linguistic skills. If we don’t pay attention, Goncharov’s observation might therefore only win in poignancy the coming years.
The reason for both those isolationist views and the relative lack of interest in foreign languages has a lot to do with the economic history of Britain. A second episode in Goncharov’s visit sheds light on this. This episode, too, may sound familiar to travellers of the present day. As Goncharov landed in England, the famous Duke of Wellington had just died. He had fought Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo and in terms of popularity could be termed the Churchill of the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly therefore, Wellington merchandise was selling like hot cakes. Goncharov could not resist buying something, and so he bought
a medallion of some sort from a boy. I wanted to give him fourpence for it, but by mistake I took from my purse a ten-kopeck piece. The little boy caught up with me, threw the money at my back, screaming like a stuck pig: “No use, no use!”
Paying euro-cents instead of pennies: it is a mistake I have made myself many a time when returning to Britain after a short trip abroad… and every time there was the suspicion with the person I was paying, that I was trying to play a nasty trick on them. The reason they thought so, was of course that the British economy and the pound sterling are among the strongest of the world. And they were so in Goncharov’s days as well as our own. For instance, because of their relative wealth, the British elite of the nineteenth century could easily travel around Europe and settle down cheaply in Italy or Spain.
However, it will depend on the coming British-European negotiations for the movement of people and goods, and on the strength of British industry, whether this comfortable position will stay the same. Ironically, the very possibility to keep an isolationist outlook will depend on the intercultural communication skills of British negotiators…
I have quoted from Klaus Goetze’s (!) English translation of The Frigate Pallada with St. Martin’s Press (New York, 1987), pp. 32 and 37.