‘Dessein’s’ hotel in Calais was immortalized by Laurence Sterne’s novel, A Sentimental Journey, first published in 1768. The hotel was run by Pierre Dessin and his family.
In Gone to the Continent, Martin Brayne gives us a series of snapshots of British travellers’ experiences at this romantic destination.
Fans of Georgian and early Victorian social history will find much to enjoy in this engaging exploration of the L’Hotel d’Angleterre’s visitors. Calais was the start and end point for thousands of Brits journeying on the Continent, whether for business or pleasure.
Visitors included young barristers like Harry Peckham; the poet William Wordsworth, with his sister Dorothy and wife Mary; and novelist Fanny Burney (Mme D’Arblay). Using original sources and contemporary letters and diaries, Brayne relates the perils of the Channel crossing; seasickness; the battles with petty officialdom; food and drink; and theatrical performances in the hotel. Famous debtors like Beau Brummel, Emma Hamilton and Charles James Apperley (Nimrod) also stayed in the hotel after fleeing their creditors in England.
I enjoyed the book immensely. I was particularly interested by the story of the Nottinghamshire lace-makers who settled in France and set up factories there, in an attempt to escape the post-Waterloo economic slump at home. (Nottingham was home to Luddite attacks on machinery during this period). Later, during the 1848 revolution in France, many of these English families returned home. However, there are still lace-makers in Calais today, some descended from these English migrants.
The book has several charming contemporary illustrations (some plates are in colour), and contains detailed references, a bibliography, and appendices.
As Brayne says, ‘The Calais of Sterne and Mrs Thrale, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Beau Brummell and Harriette Wilson, Thackeray and Dickens has long since disappeared but thanks to what is written by and of them, they can still be seen dining at Dessein’s, sauntering about the Place d’Armes or strolling on the sands.
Old Calais lives on’.