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Rosemary Mitchell, ed., Mutual (In)Comprehensions: France and Britain in the Long Nineteenth Century

Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013, 290 p., ISBN: 978-1-4438-4777-3
Richard Hibbitt
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Rosemary Mitchell, ed., Mutual (In)Comprehensions: France and Britain in the Long Nineteenth Century, Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013, 290 p., ISBN: 978-1-4438-4777-3

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1To what extent is the identity of the self created by comparison with the Other, and to what extent does this creation rely on partial understanding, deliberate misreading, or the unique insights afforded to the outsider? The multifaceted construction of identity and so-called national characteristics encourages both cultural exchange and biased arguments that downplay or simply ignore contradictions. Part I of this collection of essays explores French reflections on the British and vice versa; Part II focuses on diverse examples of collaboration and conciliation. The emphasis is wisely on lesser-known areas of nineteenth-century culture: there is nothing on familiar subjects such as the international exhibitions, British responses to the Dreyfus Affair, or French responses to the trials of Oscar Wilde. In the opening chapter Françoise Baillet disputes the critical consensus that Gustave Doré’s engravings of London are exaggerated flights of fancy or caricatures rather than examples of mimetic social realism, arguing that his illustrations provide an emotional yet accurate representation of the ‘humble industries’ and the destitute. Juliette Pochat shows how the enormously influential educationalist Frédéric Le Play, who championed the advantages of British schools over their French counterparts, conveniently ignored the issue of working-class education and posited the public school as an exemplar of the entire British education system. The existence of stereotypical xenophobia is evident in Di Drummond’s analysis of the British engineers who constructed the Paris-Le Havre railway in the 1840s (financed largely by British capital and built partly by British workers): disparaging remarks about the strength, diet and tools of the French workers place this exchange in the wider context of colonialist discourse and the belief in British technological and ‘racial’ superiority, with an interesting subtext about the changing status of Irish and Scottish navvies working for English engineers in France. A more nuanced view is evident in representations of the French peasant in British travel writing, agricultural texts and painting: Karen Sayer shows how the French system of métayage interested British observers and how British painters were influenced by French counterparts such as Jean-François Millet and Rosa Bonheur, raising questions about representations of representations and of the Other as a form of nostalgia for one’s own past, mythical or otherwise. The next essay explores a specific example: Marialuisa Bignami suggests that Joseph Conrad’s maritime descriptions echo his reading of Pierre Loti on both stylistic and narrative levels, testifying to the interest in the precision of nautical language shared by these sailor-writers. In contrast, Charles Dickens’s depiction of his family’s 1844 journey through France in the opening chapters of Pictures of Italy comes across as lazy and clichéd: Nathalie Vanfasse shows how much of it seems to be based on John Murray’s A Handbook for Travellers in France (1843); what is interesting is that some of these second-hand descriptions re-emerge in Dickens’s later novels in English contexts, proving that Pictures of Italy is a valuable intertext. Part One ends with an essay by Nathan Uglow on Thomas Carlyle’s neglected historical study ‘The Guises’, which argues that Carlyle drew on pre-modern French notions of the dynastic patriarchal family in his thinking on morality; by locating this text in the trajectory of Carlyle’s ongoing synthesis of French sentimentalism and German Bildung, Uglow shows how these debates were part of a wider European intellectual exchange.

2Part II begins with Rosemary Mitchell’s essay on Anglo-Catholicism in three Anglo-French historical novels by Charlotte M. Yonge, each of which reveals a different nuance: an initial argument for Anglicanism as the via media between Roman Catholicism and Calvinist Protestantism is subsequently tempered by a more sympathetic view of France, personified by St Vincent de Paul, and finally by a growing support for ecumenism in the context of fin-de-siècle scepticism and nascent secularism. A gradual Franco-British reconciliation is also apparent in Jules Verne’s novel on the Indian revolt of 1857, La Maison à Vapeur (translated as The End of Nana Sahib: The Steam House): Arkiya Touadi suggests that Verne’s initial criticism of heavy-handed British colonialism, in comparison to greater French respect for human rights, gives way to a united front against a common foe, exemplified in particular by the treatment of female characters. A more speculative approach is adopted in Claire Huguet’s analysis of diverse analogies between Cézanne’s painting and Hemingway’s prose, which also makes an illuminating contribution to text and image studies: among other points Huguet proposes a parallel between Cézanne’s use of blank spaces and Hemingway’s ‘iceberg theory’, musing on silence, allusion and notions such as ‘binocular vision’ and narrative perspective. A similar point of convergence is proposed by Zineb Bouizem, who examines the post-Enlightenment attitudes to both corporal and capital punishment in Victor Hugo’s Le Dernier Jour d’un Condamné and Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: both writers argued for penal reform, including an end not only to the spectacle of public executions but to the death penalty per se, in the context of an ongoing debate about the alleged biological or social causes of criminality. Reciprocal understanding is also evident in Odile Boucher-Rivalain’s exploration of French views of Victorian architecture, focusing on the writings of the architectural critics César Daly and Napoléon Didron, whose thoughts on architecture and morality in the context of Fourier-inspired social reform and the 1840s Gothic revival evince a measured ambivalence towards contemporary practices (Daly makes a catty remark about the mock-Egyptian peristyle of Temple Mill in Leeds, now an arts centre). In the final essay Isabelle Avila discusses the interactions between the French and British geographical societies in the 1870s, showing how geography aimed for international scientific collaboration but was inevitably inseparable from national self-interest and colonialist expansion; although there was much mutual recognition and collaboration, it is interesting to note that the French practice of translating British maps was not reciprocated.

3Mutual (In)Comprehensions is a richly interesting and well-researched book, in which each chapter provides new insights into the relationship between the two cultures. The introduction is somewhat cursory in its treatment of related theoretical questions and existing scholarship; it would have been interesting to learn how the construction of national identity relates to Benedict Anderson’s concept of the imagined community or to Manfred Beller and Joep Leerssen’s work on imagology, for example. The publisher seems to have employed a spellchecker rather than a proofreader, given that certain typos catch the reader’s eye (‘sew seed’, ‘love-portion’, ‘Burundian’ for ‘Burgundian’, ‘ouc’était’ for ‘oùs’était’, etc). But these caveats do not detract from the quality of the essays themselves. It’s also interesting to note that many of the questions that exercised our predecessors are still relevant today. What might Gustave Doré and César Daly make of the ever-growing gulf between the rich and the poor in present-day London, with its food banks, poor doors and anti-homeless spikes, where social housing stock is sold off in order to capitalize on the ridiculously inflated private investment/rental market, insouciantly forcing key workers (nurses, teachers, cleaners, firemen, etc.), families and pensioners out of the communities where they have lived for decades? What progress have we seen since Frédéric Le Play wrote about an English education system that was ‘believed to enable the preservation of an elite class with high moral standards’ (41), when rich individuals can preserve their wealth by donating money to political parties or paying for ‘non-dom’ status instead of paying proper taxes to the government? This book shows us how history repeats itself and how we can still learn from the past (although the British may not want a revolution of their own, some more equality would be very welcome). Finally, it’s a pity that contributors to this volume do not receive a copy of it, let alone royalties: if people didn’t take the trouble to write, publishers would have nothing to publish.

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Electronic reference

Richard Hibbitt, « Rosemary Mitchell, ed., Mutual (In)Comprehensions: France and Britain in the Long Nineteenth Century », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 81 Printemps | 2015, Online since 06 September 2015, connection on 07 December 2019. URL :

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About the author

Richard Hibbitt

University of Leeds

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Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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