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New Perspectives on the Creation of British Identity: The Diaries of John Byng, 1781-1794
My doctoral research centres on travel and identity in late eighteenth-century Britain. Specifically, I focus on a series of travel journals written by the Hon. John Byng (1743-1813). I use a variety of theoretical frameworks to analyze British regional and national identity formation in a global context.
Numerous authors have written on the process that created Britain, both as a geographic entity and as a national character. Linda Colley and Gerald Newman, for instance, have approached the topic from different directions and yet made significantly similar conclusions. Both view the creation of Britain as a melding of three distinct national groups – the English, the Scottish, and the Welsh – into a relatively homogenous whole through a prolonged struggle with a hostile other. Colley, for example, argues strongly that Catholic (and later revolutionary) France formed a powerful oppositional `other’, which acted as a catalyst in bring such distinct groups together into a unified entity.
My reading of Byng’s journals, however, indicates that such analytical approaches need to be modified significantly. Written between 1781 and 1794 (and published upon their rediscovery between 1934 and 1938), Byng’s journals offer a detailed and provocative look at rural England and Wales during a time of considerable change. Despite his privileged upbringing and highly placed establishment connections, Byng was unhappy with the months he was forced to spend in London. His yearly `rides’ were his escape and solace. Unfortunately for him, though, there was little rural idyll apparent in the provinces. Though not politically motivated as other contemporary commentators, such as William Cobbett and Arthur Young, Byng was a keen observer of the effects that industrialization, urbanization, constant warfare, and agrarian change were having on the countryside. It is within this commentary on change that Byng offers very telling hints that a much different approach to British identity theory is needed. While `English’, `Welsh’, and `Scottish’ distinctions are very much alive for Byng, he also recognized that regional and local identities played just as important a role in the creation of ‘Britian’. The people Byng encounterd were very rooted in their own worlds and highly connected to their counties, towns, and villages. Turnpikes, canals, and growing urban populations were beginning to dilute this sort of regionalism. Nevertheless, Byng was able to identify both strongly lasting traditions and loyalties and complex provincial relationships with the metropolitan centre. While such loyalties and relationships are difficult to isolate, the exercise is important because the understanding gained provides a significantly more nuanced appreciation of how British identity was formed.
To understand fully this approach and engage with the ideas such work has generated, I have had to broaden this project’s methodological and research base. Starting as a strictly historical analysis, my work now encompasses cross-disciplinary theories drawn from literary studies, critical theory, and, postcolonial theory. Indeed, postcolonial thinking is a key factor in recreating and re-contextualizing Byng’s environment in a manner via which substantive understandings of identity can be developed. Drawing from the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty, I argue that to achieve this goal it is necessary to turn the colonial eye back inward on Britain and see exactly how centre/periphery relationships dictated cultural, economic, and social interchange throughout the British isles. Furthering this, and using aspects of Mary Pratt’s `contact theory’, I will demonstrate that Byng was, in fact, moving through contact zones where a very particular and highly important form of transculturation was at work. Finally, utilizing the excellent examples of Tzvetan Todorov and Stephen Greenblatt, I will draw the historical element of Byng’s world back into the discussion, reengaging with and expanding the existing historiography of identity, nation, and British nationalism.
Byng's works have not been explored in any particular detail since the journals were first published in the 1930s.
- Byng, John. The Torrington diaries: containing the tours through England and Wales of the Hon. John Byng (later fifth viscount Torrington) between the years 1781 and 1794. Cyril Bruyn Andrews, ed. 4 vols. London: Eyre and Spottswoode, 1934-38.
- A version of the fourth volume of the above edition (the Henry Holt US printing) is available to read online, for free, at the Internet Archive.
Because of their antiquarian interest, several abridged versions have appeared over the years with different editors. I list some of them here:
- Byng, John. The Torrington diaries; a selection from the tours of the Hon. John Byng between the years 1781 and 1794. Cyril Bruyn Andrews, ed. Fanny Andrews, abridg. Arthur Bryant, intro. London: Eyre and Spottswoode, 1954.
- ---------- The Torrington Diaries; A Literary Account of English Life and Thought in the 18th Century. Bothaina Abd-El-Hamid Mohamed, ed. Cairo: 1958.
- ---------- Byng's tours: the journals of the Hon John Byng, 1781-1792. David Souden, ed. London: Century in association with the National Trust, 1991.
- ---------- Rides Round Britain. Donald Adamson, ed. Anne Hayward, ill. London: Folio Society, 1996.
Regardless of the lack of any serious scholarship on Byng, his journals are referred to by numerous academics looking to add colour to a wide range of arguments. Any search on Google Scholar, for instance, will yield tens of articles that include reference to Byng.
- The National Archives of the United Kingdom's Your Archive wiki has a good page on the location of the orignial manuscripts of Byng's journals.
- Wikipedia also has an entry for Byng.
Image: Thomas Rowlandson, Dr Syntax Sketching at the Lake (1819).
Department of History
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