‘A Little Britain on the Continent’: British Perceptions of by Pieter François

By Pieter François

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Amongst the most visible characteristics are the growing numbers of travellers and the popularity of Belgium as a destination, the middle class background of the travellers, the budgets and pace with which they travel, the tension between the standardized tours they make on the one hand and the desperate search for authenticity on the other, and, finally, the all British environment in which they travel. The world of travel changed fundamentally during the nineteenth century. The number of British travellers rose spectacularly, technological innovations made travelling more comfortable, there was an important democratisation of travelling to the Continent, as it was opened up for the middle classes, and the motives to choose Belgium as the travel destination also underwent some serious changes.

The sameness or otherness with the familiar home-context proved often to be the strongest criterion to write an observation down in the accounts or not. Travel accounts are, therefore, often more interesting sources for the history of the observers, than for the history of the observed. In addition travel accounts do not necessarily select those elements that are most relevant for present-day historians. Interesting topics can be hardly touched upon and they can refer endlessly to aspects judged less relevant.

Travelling for business purposes was common, but resulted in a relatively small number of accounts. The spectacular nineteenth-century growth of travel for leisure did result in a large amount of travel accounts and guides. However, acknowledging that the main motive of the travel was leisure became only ‘bon ton’ by the end of the century. In the mid-nineteenth century purposeful travelling was still regarded as much more respectable and the early Victorian travellers were, therefore, masters in disguising the true motives of their travels.

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