It is clear from discussions on the rowdiness and bad manners of the British populace that drinking to excess was indulged in often enough to be considered a national pastime. Drunkenness was so common in Britain as to be designated ‘the great sin of our great cities’ and ‘that great curse of our population’ by two travellers.
Journals suggest that [continental] Europeans consumed large quantities of drink, but did so quietly and without giving offence. Their civility sharpened travellers’ awareness of the vulgar British way of drinking as if the goal were to get loud and rowdy. On the streets and at fairs in Britain drunkenness and blackguardism were common and very visible. Public festivities in Italy were thus a surprise to George Gissing who declared, ‘Ever since I came to Italy I have not seen one drunken man, not one.’
Many travellers found it refreshing to see so many Europeans able to amuse themselves in public without getting tipsy. Perhaps the British drank to excess because they were not as adept at amusing themselves naturally while in a sober state. Travel journals certainly suggest a deficiency in this area, as if amusement and pleasure aroused twinges of guilt in the British.
After attending a carnival in Italy, J.R. Green commented on the joyousness characterizing the revellers. Their naturally fun-loving spirit contrasted markedly in his mind with the typical crowd at an English fair whose fun and amusement had to be artificially created, not only by alcohol, but also by such ‘complicated apparatus’ as clowns, moveable theatres, vans with fat women and two-headed calves. Summing up the difference between English and Italian festivals, Green  remarked, ‘An English peasant goes to be amused, and the clown finds it wonderfully hard work to amuse him. The peasant of Italy goes to Carnival to amuse himself.... He is full of joyousness and fun...is himself the fun of the fair. His neighbour does the same.’
Travelling in Portugal, Margaret Law concluded that the rigorous work schedule in England accounted for people’s inability to amuse themselves. Unlike the Portuguese, the English worked too much, in her view, and were thus too weary to relax and enjoy their leisure time.
Admittedly, the southern Europeans were renowned for their pleasure loving cultures, but even the Germans seemed more amenable to relaxing and having fun that the English. Watching evening strolls in the gardens of Germany, Charles Wood thought them more lighthearted than any entertainments in England. People walked, sat on benches, talked and listened to music in such an easy, carefree manner, that Wood noted, ‘The English do not understand amusing themselves after this manner; they are more heavy even than the Germans, at any rate in their recreations.'
Marjorie Morgan, National Identities and Travel in Victorian Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 134-35.
Wednesday, September 08, 2010
'More heavy even than the Germans'
From a fascinating book on journals kept by Britons while travelling around the British Isles and elsewhere in the late nineteenth century (paragraph breaks have been added, and footnotes removed):