Musing On The Sea Of Brittany

Although Britain is separated from France by a shared ‘sleeve’ of water, the Channel retains its power both as a border and a route to freedom.

The English Excurtionists at Calais, English 19th-century engraving.

Martin Brayne’s and Renaud Morieux’s books provide us with a welcome reminder that, ‘rather than a natural frontier between natural enemies’, the English Channel was and still is a shared space of contact and exchange. 

In Gone to the Continent, Brayne gives us a delicious account of how, between 1760 and 1860, Calais was a place of romance, sometimes of intrigue, or even of sanctuary from the law. In any event, the French port was a place where ‘the first shock of difference’ (Mary Wordsworth) could be experienced. 

Letters, journals and numerous literary works testify to the impact Calais has made on the British traveller and this book is in itself a kind of manifesto for the benefits of travel and cultural encounter. Indeed, where there were religious, social and moral prejudices before crossing the Channel, weary English travellers disembarking on the pier head at Calais at the end of the 18th century immediately reassessed their preconception in favour of a more accepting sense of difference. As the young Edward Nares, future Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, wrote enthusiastically in a letter dated 1785: ‘The carriages, carts, horses and even dogs were different.’ Not the least of the many surprises this book has to offer is to see how Calais captured the affection of so many travellers. Brayne’s ingenious study of the popular Hôtel d’Angleterre and his portrait of its owner, Dessein, vividly depict the vagaries of history through the rise and fall of an institution that was one of the most renowned in the town.

Scholars, lovers, writers or criminals (before an extradition treaty was signed with France in 1876), all passed through the French port; some of them ended their lives there (such as Beau Brummell and Emma Hamilton). One of the many merits of the book is the way it recounts the richly textured history of Calais and offers numerous testimonies and extracts, such as one taken from a short but evocative text published by Charles Dickens in The Calais Night Mail (1861). It reminds us that between England and France, there is a maritime border to be crossed: 

It is an unsettled question with me whether I shall leave Calais something handsome in my will, or whether I shall leave it my malediction. I hate it so much, and yet I am always so very glad to see it, that I am in a state of constant indecision on this subject. 

Morieux focuses on this natural border and examines the Channel as a zone of contact in the 18th century, at a time when France and England were thought to have engaged in a ‘Second Hundred Years War’, a theory put forward by the historian J.R. Seeley in 1884.

Deconstructing the myth of Britain’s insularity, Morieux shows that the ‘narrow sea’ was, in fact, a fluid frontier between states and a space of exchange between peoples. This fastidiously researched, well-documented book explores the real and symbolic space, scrutinising the lives of French and English fishermen, as well as smugglers and merchants. Mostly, the author demonstrates how the Channel as a physical space always was, despite hostilities in times of war, a magnet, the facilitator of intellectual, scientific and economic exchange. 

Morieux’s erudition is highly commendable and is never abstruse, managing to keep his reader fully engaged even in the labyrinthine evocation of Ancien Régime ordinances and legal documents. His account is rendered lively by the sobering description of a fight for natural resources during the 18th and 19th centuries, one which still remains relevant today for fishermen on both sides of the Channel, as the innumerable documents that recount fishing incidents prove. In this nuanced and well-documented account, the author is compelled to establish that sometimes the fishermen’s enemies were not to be sought abroad but on home soil; and that there were in fact expressions of cross-Channel solidarity in the face of state politics. As is made plain in both books, however, ‘state borders are filters’ and there is no doubt that the way the administrations operated this filtering system depended on the context and on the state of Anglo-French relations. 

Whatever the symbolic construction which seeks to exaggerate the rivalry between the two countries, there has always been a de facto social appropriation of the space superficially separating the
two nations, particularly at times of political upheaval, but ever connecting them, too. 

Gone to the Continent: The British in Calais, 1760-1860
Martin Brayne
Queen Anne’s Fan 302pp £14.95 

The Channel: England, France and the Construction of a Maritime Border in the Eighteenth Century
Renaud Morieux 
Cambridge University Press 418pp  £74.99

Nathalie Aubert is Professor of  French Literature at Oxford Brookes University.