Monday 19 August 2013

A Frenchman in Brighton in the 1850s

Francis Wey, a French writer, travelled to England in 1856 with the idea of recording his impressions of the English and English life. His account refers to many details of clothes, from the marvellous riding-habits of ladies in Hyde Park to the rags of beggars on the London streets. Yet Wey is extremely surprised to find that English men bathe in the sea naked. On a visit to Brighton Wey, believing that he should respect local customs, reluctantly abandons his clothes in the safety his bathing machine and ventures cautiously into the sea. However, after a long swim he learns a rather odd lesson about English prudishness.

He writes:

‘I spent two days at Brighton, where an Englishman, I am told, can find enjoyment. […] In fine weather bathing takes place in full view of the front, swarming with idlers of both sexes. Men go into the water stark naked, which surprised me, knowing how easily shocked English people are. Never shall I forget my bathe at Brighton! It was on a Sunday, at the time at which worshippers return from church. I had been assigned a cabin in which to undress. It was a wooden construction on wheels placed at the water’s edge, with steps half-submerged by the waves. Getting into the sea was easy enough, as my cabin screened me from view.

Unfortunately, I went for rather a long swim, as I wanted to get a good view of Brighton from afar. […] When at last I regained my depth, I found that my cabin, which I had left with water lapping the hub of the wheels, was now high and dry at fifteen paces from the sea. To put a finishing touch to my discomfort, three ladies, a mother with her daughters, had settled themselves on camp stools in my direct line of approach! They seemed very respectable females, and the girls were both pretty. There was no possibility of reaching my cabin without passing in front of them. They each held a prayer-book and they watched me swimming about with serene unconcern. To give them a hint without offending their modesty, I advanced cautiously on all fours, raising myself by degrees as much as decency permitted. […] As the ladies did not move, I concluded they had not understood my dilemma […]. What was I to do? Remain in the water and inconvenience my host, or emerge from it and affront the ladies? I determined on the latter course. After all, why had they settled just there? I rose slowly, like Venus, from the waves. Striving to adopt a bearing both modest and unconcerned, reminiscent of the lost traditions of innocence of a younger world, I stepped briskly past the three ladies who made no pretence of looking away. I felt the blood rushing to my face. […]


Bathing machines at the seaside

When at last we got home, Sir Walter [his host] teased me good naturedly about my misadventure, and his wife told me that she knew the ladies, who were very puritanical! They disapproved of bathing on Sundays and had adopted that unexpected method of discouraging Sabbath-breakers. Could one conceive a stranger mode of teaching a transgressor to be virtuous or of performing an act of religious fervour?

I would, perhaps, have omitted this incident, but for its bearing on various observations I have made on the inconsistency of English prudishness. In reality it is mostly offended by words. If one can replace the actual expression by some euphemism conveying exactly the same meaning, all is well!’

From: Francis Wey, A Frenchman Sees the English in the ‘Fifties, trans. Valerie Pirie (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1935), pp. 296-299


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