Throughout the Victorian period the idea of Europe often held a contradictory place in people’s imagination, one of appeal and danger.
The continent was seen as a place of history, culture, leisure and education but was also subject to a difficult relationship with Britain because of imperial rivalries. Many Victorian novels played up to this very contradiction and as one researcher at the University of Warwick found, Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit was no exception.
Dr Charlotte Mathieson, Early Career Fellow at the English and Comparative Literary Studies department, has done a lot of work on Dickens and Travel, often focussing her research on Little Dorrit and Europe to explore the apprehensions that Victorian Britains held of the continent.
She said: “The novel really demonstrates this tension in the idea of Europe and it oscillates between both embracing continental openness and retreating into national enclosure.
“We have got the appeal of Europe as a place of leisure, pleasure and wealth – the Dorrits travel through the Alps and Italy following their rise in fortunes but to a large extent Europe is kept away from the more serious and financial concerns which are tied up in Britain.
“But underpinning this there is always a sense of Europe as an unsettling space, right from the start of the novel Europe is set up as a space of dangers, alienating landscapes, uncertainty and instability.”
Basing Little Dorrit gave Dickens another chance to execute his astute use of satire in his writings, this time taking on the tourism market and the early ‘Brits abroad’ attitude.
Charlotte added: “Europe had always been a popular destination for British travellers and the grand tours of the 18th century had established it as the place to visit. So throughout the 19th century, with the development of transport technology and the beginning of tourism infrastructures, travel became quicker, easier and more crucially more affordable.
“There was a real sense everyone was going round Europe following the same route, viewing the same popular tourist site and perceiving everything from the same perceived opinions set forth in the guidebooks so this is what Dickens is getting at in his depictions of Rome and Venice.
“That sense that everyone gives themselves over to the tourist opinion walking about looking at everything through someone else’s eyes, so he is very scathing really.”
In this podcast Dr Charlotte Mathieson explores how Dickens represented Europe in his novel Little Dorrit.