England! A land of beautiful women, roast beef and terrible salads. Peter Moore looks at the work of Nikolai Karamzin, a Russian who crossed the Channel in 1789
About a decade ago it seemed that everyone from the middle classes upwards was off on a gap year: building walls in Peru, herding children about Namibia, trekking through the Amazon and drinking wildly on Thai beaches.
Like enduring a paper round, stealing a cigarette, getting a mobile or grabbing a first kiss, the gap year became a feature of the late 20th century childhood. It was a brief period of liminality between the order and stability of the family home and the chaos of life as a student.
But while gap years had hit the mass market for the first time, they certainly were not a new invention. For hundreds of years rich Englishmen have jollied off on European tours, eager to improve their schoolboy French, experience an opera in Vienna, view the marvels of renaissance Italy and have a flattering portrait painted in Florence.
And, of course, people also came in the other direction. Enthusiastic members of the French, Spanish and Prussian nobility would cross the Channel to Dover, Sandwich or Ramsgate where they would catch their first glimpse of the white cliffs, the green rolling hills and meet a population that gorged on beef and potatoes and drove itself mad with ale, claret or gin.
Looking back at the impressions of these foreign visitors reveals much about the national character of the English: their views, their aspirations and their oddities.
A particularly good account was left by the Russian author Nikolai Karamzin, who could barely conceal his excitement at landing in Dover in 1789. Here are three extracts from his book, Travels from Moscow, through Prussia, Germany, Switzerland, France, and England.
Karamzin’s excitment on arriving in England:
‘We now discover Dover, and the lofty-light-houses. The shore is covered with sand-hills. The packet is not far from the harbour; but we are not yet beyond the reach of danger; a storm may drive us out to sea, or our vessel may strike upon some hidden rick, and be swallowed up by the foaming abyss. But no! We are safely landed: we are in Dover, and in England – in the country which, from my earliest youth I loved with such enthusiastic ardour; and which, with respect to the general diffusion knowledge, and the character of the people is certainly one of the first in Europe.’
Karamzin on Dover and female beauty:
‘The homes in the towns and the villages are built of brick, and covered with tiles; they are not painted or white-washed. Every where the smell of the pit-coal proved very disagreeable to the nose of a stranger. The streets are broad and clean. Close to the house there is a pavement of flagstones, for the convenience of foot-passengers; and although Dover is but a small place, we meet almost at every step with handsome women, and modesty and good-nature depicted in their countenance. Yes, my friends, England is certainly the land of female beauty; and the stranger, who – especially if he came from France, where beauty is so rare a phenomenon – the English women do not please, must have a heart of marble. I have been sauntering about the streets of Dover for several hours, merely for the purpose of feasting my eyes with a sight of the charming faces, which one every where meet with in this town.’
Karamzin on English food:
‘At Canterbury, the capital of the county of Kent, we drank tea in the English fashion, namely very strong, almost without milk, and accompanied with buttered rolls. At Rochester we dined, likewise in the English style, for we had nothing but beef and cheese. I called for some sallad [sic]; and they brought me some kind of herbage, with vinegar poured over it. The English in general do not much care about sallad and garden herbs. Roast beef and beef-steaks are their usual food; and hence their blood becomes thick, and themselves phlegmatic, melancholy, and not unfrequently self-murderers.’
image credit: parksy1964