The Brave New World of Investment

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Author Biography

Joshua Thorpe graduates this year from the University of Leicester with a History BA. He will now complete an MSc at the London School of Economics, exploring empires, colonialism and globalisation.


The 1890s saw the yields on the Norwich Union’s traditional domestic investments begin to decline, forcing the firm’s capital abroad, in pursuit of the security and high yields required. The purpose of this paper is to consider how the firm’s perception of risk was shaped during this period. The study considers two factors: the information available to the firm and the influence of colonial status on investment decisions. By the end of the period, the firm was embedded in an expansive network of overseas branches. The senior officials within these branches were increasingly providing the directors in the head office with investment-related information. This study breaks new ground as it focuses on an aspect of the firm not covered previously in published work.

The Brave New World of Investment


In December 1904, the life clerks at the Norwich Union crossed Surrey Street to their new head office. The interior of the building was fitted with a large quantity of marble that had been mined from Italian quarries and was initially intended for Westminster Cathedral.[1] The level of opulence was not abnormal for the life assurance industry. In the most basic terms, companies within this industry invested their accumulated funds at interest while they waited for their clients to die. By gaining a healthy rate of interest the companies could indulge in lavish offices. Indeed, the District Inspector for the Norwich, after a stroll in London, remarked that in terms of ‘imposing and magnificent establishments, insurance ranks an easy first’.[2] However, the new head office was a marked change for the firm which just a decade earlier had been managing a fund of £1,872,270, which had been decreasing year-on-year.

The manner in which the firm invested its capital had significantly changed during the preceding decade providing an unmatched opportunity to understand what influenced investment decisions within the life assurance industry. The close of the century saw opportunities for domestic investments diminish substantially; the network of British railway lines was all but complete and other infrastructure and industrial development in Britain was more advanced than elsewhere in the world.[3] The yields on other domestic investments such as land and mortgages, which had been so favoured by the firm, had also declined having been saturated by foreign capital, especially from the US.[4] Falling rates of interest in Britain forced the directors to look further afield to gain the security and returns which they required. Indeed, as early as 1891, it was openly acknowledged within the assurance industry that part of the proverbial ‘mine has [sic] been worked out’.[5] Thus, with the difficulty of finding suitable investments in Britain increasing, almost half of all British life assurance companies extended their limits of investment between 1880 and 1896, allowing them to invest in the relatively higher-yielding colonial and foreign securities.[6]

This raises the question: what influenced the Norwich’s perception of risk? Two factors are fundamental in exploring the investments of the firm as their capital flowed overseas. The first barrier is informational and the second can be grouped as ethnic, cultural, and linguistic. The development of information technology during this period was dismantling the first barrier to investment. The British Empire provided a field in which the perceived differences in ethnicity and culture were minimised, consequently stimulating a more substantial flow of information.

The research in this paper will explore how the firm perceived risk as it ventured into investments abroad. The first section will focus on the increasing flow of information during the period under analysis, how it allowed the firm to engage in investments unavailable to other investors, and the effect that this had on the flow of capital. The second section will focus on empirical data relating to the investments, how the perception of safe investments within the empire provided an opportunity for more broad investments. It will also explore how professionalisation and the view of investments as a portfolio as opposed to an individual basis allowed the firm to adopt diversification.

The importance of this research is its contribution to an ongoing historical debate over whether insurance companies conducted their investments in a manner which did not best benefit the British productive sector. The central allegation is that British financial institutions invested an undue portion of their funds abroad, forsaking the domestic business sector. Insurance companies had ever-increasing importance as institutional investors and as such the development of insurance companies’ investment policies is significant within a broad set of issues concerning British economic development. Furthermore, this research will be able to provide details regarding the evolution of institutional investors’ investment policies and address the importance of information and empire to their decisions and perceptions of risk. The narrow focus of this research will add to the limited existing literature focusing on the Norwich and more broadly the assurance industry, therefore enabling a richer understanding of the influences on investment decisions.

The archives of the Norwich Union, although filled with sources, have been relatively neglected by scholars. There are two exceptions, both of which, rather than being historically analytical, had a more commemorative purpose. Robert Blake’s Esto Perpetua provides an account of the firm’s management hierarchy and explores how mortality rates were calculated.[7] Although these details are important, Blake does not focus on how the firm chose investments or what influenced its decisions. Jonathan Mantle’s Norwich Union: The First 200 Years, on the other hand, provides a narrative of the directors appointed at the firm. It is an illustrative book with numerous photographs and details of the changes introduced by each director, for example, holidays, new business, and bonuses.[8] Taken together, these contributions provide useful background information about the Norwich, from its daily running to the appointment of directors. However, absent from these contributions is a rigorous analysis of the firm’s investments.

The assurance industry more generally has also suffered relative scholarly neglect. This neglect does not arise from the lack of primary source material as Cockrell and Green have produced an extensive guide to the archives of British insurance companies, listing the types of sources available.[9] Published material on the companies generally focuses on how mortality rates were calculated and the management practices.[10] In 2003, Mae Baker and Michael Collins emphasised the need for widespread archival research to further our understanding of the insurance industry.[11]

Information: Cables, Connections, and Capital

By the close of the nineteenth century, there was a global network of cables that connected all of the world’s major financial centres. These reduced the past delays in communication from days, weeks, or months to just minutes. The London Stock Exchange (LSE), where brokers bought and sold securities on the Norwich’s behalf, was the pre-eminent financial centre in the world. Indeed, governments, municipalities, and private enterprises across the globe turned to London for capital. The result was that by the eve of the First World War (WWI) 5000 securities were listed on the LSE, the vast majority of which were for overseas locations, either colonies or foreign states.[12] During the period under review, the firm steadily increased its holdings of securities, particularly foreign bonds. This trend mirrored that of the insurance industry as a whole, with holdings of this type of asset increasing from 7 percent in 1870 to over 40 percent by 1914.[13]

With each company possessing a unique set of connections and indeed, each financial centre being part of a particular network, the information available to different firms and locations was intrinsically unique. The access to information fundamentally influenced the Norwich’s perception of risk and thus the geographical locations in which it invested. The inequality of information, or informational asymmetries, meant that each company possessed a different assessment and management of risk. This section will track the transformation of the flow of information accessible to the Norwich, assessing the extent to which this influenced its investment decisions.

Although a number of  contemporaries such as Keynes recognised that there was an inclination among many companies to invest in countries with colonial status, the cause of this tendency is debated.[14] Magee and Thompson deny that imperial patriotism determined the destination of capital, remarking that British capital was not influenced by ‘imperial piety’; instead, at the heart of their concept is the notion that investors were rational and entirely self-interested.[15] They argue that capital was directed to these particular regions as a result of the information which flowed through networks across the ‘British world’. Similarly, deep interpersonal connections existed with Americans, which helped to promote the dissemination of knowledge and a feeling of trust.[16] In this sense, knowledge of the location, which was naturally increased by the empire, reduced the perception of risk. In other words, the British investor was better informed about developments within imperial territories and thus more likely to view investments within these regions as relatively low risk.

The information available to the Norwich as it initially ventured into the stock market came primarily from brokers. The finance committee received lists of securities from multiple brokers, frequently as many as five, arranged by the amount of interest that they yielded. Many of the brokerage companies would be used throughout the period by the Norwich, including Messrs Buchanan & Fergusson, Basil Montgomery, and Gurney. The investments needed to provide an interest rate of more than 3 percent to allow the Norwich to generate sufficient capital to pay upon the death of a customer, but the capital also needed to be secure. The lists of securities were first received in 1891 following the extension of the rules of investment, which allowed the firm to broaden its holdings from domestic to overseas.[17] A method used to decrease the risk of investing abroad was to limit the amount of capital invested in any one security to no more than £10,000. This amount would steadily increase during the period and eventually double, demonstrating increased investing confidence.

At the finance committee meetings, the firm’s senior officials would decide which stocks would be selected as well as the amount of capital to be invested in each of these securities. If required, further information from the City of London was requested and obtained via telegraph, and after 1896 using the trunk telephone line. The information received from the City became part of the director’s input to the board of directors, which had the final say on all investments, and the finance committee.[18] The firm developed more confidence with its investing during this period and, as demonstrated later in this section, gathered information from its growing network of overseas branches, especially those within the ‘British World’.

The Institute of Actuaries occupied an essential role throughout the period by distributing information about investment practices via their journal. The Institute was also a place in which the leading figures of the insurance industry debated the best manner in which to calculate mortality rates, bonuses, and investment practices. A director of the Norwich, J. J. W. Deuchar, had been elected as a fellow of the Institute in 1883.[19] Damning testimonies about countries, and in some cases whole continents, provide an insight into the attitudes of individuals in the industry. For instance, A. G. Mackenzie, manager and actuary at the Credit Assurance and Guarantee Corporation, provided an assessment imbued with the language of a medical examiner of the situation of central and south American countries: their ‘family history is unsatisfactory, their constitutions uncertain’ he stated, ‘and their assurances are not to be accepted’.[20] From this, it is understood that uncertainty about this region was not only based on its history of civil unrest and revolutions, but also the fact that the region’s legal systems were considered insufficient to protect the firm’s capital. In addition, their guarantees were met with uncertainty as a result of past defaults. Following the Baring Crisis, a reassessment of the region was occurring en masse.[21] This assessment reveals a number of salient points: firstly, that those within the insurance industry could generalise countries, secondly, that the history of the country could influence them, and finally, that political events were particularly important in shaping investment decisions.

Information in terms of both quantity and quality was of crucial importance in the decision-making process. The nineteenth-century investor still lacked important information required to discriminate between rival investments.[22] Reports of political crises were a decisive factor in investment attitudes. On 26 November 1910, The Economist announced alarming dispatches about Mexico. The paper depicted it as ‘plunged into civil war’, referring to the political turmoil that engulfed the country which had been reported during the previous year.[23] A civil war was inevitably bad for investment, and as a result the Norwich was highly dismissive of Mexican stocks during and after this period, consistently rejecting various securities offering relatively high rates of interest.[24] In this sense the reputation of countries was not a fixed value; instead, investments within certain countries could become perceived as presenting more risk due to political events.[25]

Articles in the journal provide further insight into how an image of reputation about a country was formed. Speaking at the institute in 1912, G. E. May suggested that in situations where an office is not large enough to send out a senior official, external experts on the spot must be used in order to form an opinion on the safety of the investment.[26] Hayek has shown that due to the highly decentralised nature of information, practically every individual has some advantage over all others because they possess unique information due to their location.[27] Therefore, the ability to utilise so-called ‘men on the spot’ provided a distinct advantage with regard to the level of information to which a firm can have access.

These individuals were often expatriates residing in a particular locale. However, in some cases, particularly within the ‘British World’, a native English-speaking population with comparable cultural values offered up native partners who had intimate knowledge of their immediate surroundings. The method of using external on the spot experts was adopted by the Norwich due to its overseas contacts, for instance, A. S. Preston, a British expatriate based in Alexandria, who offered advice about taking up investments in Egypt.[28] The knowledge that these experts could provide would stimulate investment in these regions. However, G. E. May was also quick to insist that these opinions were only to be used for the purpose of confirmation.[29] The concern was that these external advisors could direct firms towards investments in which they were themselves involved; consequently, the safest method of obtaining information was through an internal expert.

The Norwich was also in an excellent position to be able to send out senior representatives to inspect investments on the spot; this became likely when the firm was offered significant stakes in the underwriting of building works. Only a certain level of information and thus a particular ability to calculate risk was available to the officials in Norwich, and therefore staff members were sometimes dispatched to gain further information on the spot. The dispatching of senior officials to investigate potential investments was a marked feature of the pre-1900 period when the Norwich had less than twenty overseas branches and agencies; as such, no global representatives were available for the firm to investigate investments overseas. For instance, when offered an opportunity to invest in mortgages of high-class properties in Minnesota, the firm sent out a delegation to examine the business. The investment was organised by the Minnesota Loan and Trust company, whose President, A. Merrill, had been interviewed in relation to the scheme. The risk of the investment would be mitigated by taking equal stakes with the Law Union and Hand in Hand companies.[30]

By 1906, the Norwich’s involvement in Canada, another part of the ‘British World’, was becoming more pronounced. The country had been transformed during the late nineteenth century from a relatively small and dispersed population into an industrialised nation. In the 1890s the rate of settlement in the west of Canada had significantly increased as technological changes had allowed wheat to be grown at more northern latitudes.[31] The period 1901-1911 was to become known as the ‘Wheat Boom’, during which per capita income increased by 20 percent.[32] The industrialisation and thus urbanisation of Europe provided a large market, and the decreasing transport costs from the wheat fields on the Canadian Pacific made produce more competitive. Consequently, farming on the prairies became more profitable.[33] The growing affluent population located in the new urban centres required utilities and to accommodate these requirements municipal and provincial governments borrowed capital to pay for waterworks and electricity grids. The opportunities for investors had thus significantly increased during this period.

Having operated its branch in Toronto since 1899, the Norwich was in a favourable position to be able to take advantage of these opportunities. In 1906, the firm directed a native Canadian senior official within the branch, W. Kirby, to take on the role of granting loans to farms. Kirby granted a significant number of loans throughout the period with relatively high interest rates of up to 8 percent.[34] The firm was willing to offer loans from $1,000 to $5,000, and by limiting the amount of capital it could ensure that the risks involved were kept relatively low.[35] Kirby was given the authority to accept loans of up to $2,500; for loans above this amount he would have to seek approval from the board in Norwich. He was paid a commission of 1 percent.[36] His role was crucial as he had access to much more information than the directors who were thousands of miles away in the boardroom. The native senior officials that the firm utilised for investments had a greater familiarity with and knowledge of the developments taking place within the country in question. The Norwich’s network of branches allowed it to participate in opportunities that would be unattainable for other British investors.

By this point the stock exchange in Toronto had risen to become one of the world’s principal exchanges, offering an assortment of domestic securities such as utilities and tramways. The popularity of Canadian municipal investments was likely influenced by a belief that the imperial government would not allow a public entity within a colony to default.[37] Canadian investors would inevitably have been in a better position to participate in investments compared to outsiders, due to their familiarity and knowledge regarding the developments taking place within the country.[38] By 1911, the Norwich held almost £100,000 worth of stock that had been purchased on the Toronto stock exchange.[39] The significant level of investment was made possible by the director of the Canadian branch at Toronto, J. B. Laidlaw. The firm began to purchase relatively significant amounts of Canadian bonds in February 1910, which were initially purchased on the LSE with advice via cable from Laidlaw.[40] Despite requesting a larger commission for his role relative to his counterpart in the US, Laidlaw received the same commission of 1/8 percent; his investing powers were kept to $10,000 per security, but he was given autonomy to select the investments.[41] This allowed the Norwich to gain safe stocks yielding relatively high interest of 4 and in some cases 5 percent.

By the eve of WWI, the Norwich was embedded in a network of men on the spot. These men actively advised the directors and in some cases purchased stocks on behalf of the firm. The information available to the firm during the period fundamentally altered and helped to shape the firm’s investments as well as its perception of risk. Information could flow quickly and with relative ease throughout the British world via sophisticated communications technology. The Norwich was significantly better informed about developments occurring in regions in which it had branches, but this was not the only important factor; while having men on the spot was vital to the Norwich’s ability to discriminate between investments, it is clear that the additional insight provided by native individuals was essential. The collaboration with native employees and men on the spot was only possible with the same language. English as the Lingua Franca allowed the firm to engage in extensive investments in Canada and South Africa, the nature of which would be impossible in countries where English was not the native language. The following section will explore to what extent the British Empire influenced the investment locations. It will seek to answer the following questions: What were the imagined benefits of investing within the colonies? What were the actual benefits? Was the ‘empire effect’ an enduring influence or did the outlook of the Norwich change during the period?

‘Empire Effect’: Enduring Influence or Passing Phase?

The British Empire, assembled over more than three hundred years, encompassed no less than one-quarter of today’s sovereign states.[42] By the close of the nineteenth century, it remained the largest of the European empires. The colonies within the empire absorbed a vast amount of British capital, with as many as 71.4 percent of all railway securities listed on the LSE for construction of lines in these regions.[43] There was, however, much more to the empire than the red-painted areas that appeared on the map, as Britain also had a so-called ‘informal empire’ with influence in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. [44] With such an extensive world-system as the background to the period under review, the extent to which the empire influenced the Norwich’s investment decisions is an issue which requires further exploration.

Empirical research by Ferguson and Schularick suggests that borrowing costs for the colonies were lower in London than for those countries outside of the empire.[45] This has led to them coining the phrase ‘empire effect’ to explain why British investors preferred investing within the empire. According to Ferguson, control from the metropole encouraged the investors to view these investments as more secure. Investments of this type were likely to be considered akin to domestic investments rather than foreign ones. However, some historians have questioned this conclusion, for example, Chavez and Flandreau argue that a so-called ‘empire effect’ is easily misidentified. If factors such as the colonies having a younger population were not controlled for in the data, then what would be called an empire effect may have had little to do with the institutions of empire.[46] Much of the existing material on the export of British capital does not consider imperial patriotism as a significant factor in influencing the location of investment. This section will argue that imperial patriotism influenced the firm in the initial phase of internationalisation, providing a channel for investment with similar cultural and ethnic elements to the domestic sphere. It will also argue that this influence lasted for just under a decade as the assurance industry in general gradually shifted towards professionalisation, calculated risks and diversification.

As early as 1885, the potential of the colonies as locations for investment was recognised within the assurance industry. Thomas Bond Sprague, in his opening address to the Institute of Actuaries, foresaw an extensive period when the vast ‘unoccupied’ land in the colonies would require a significant amount of British capital for infrastructure and utilities to make it profitable.[47] These areas were prosperous regions with growing populations under the same crown and with the same laws as in Britain; capital could thus be invested there without the ‘feeling of doubt that must always attach to investments in foreign countries’.[48] The vast European empires did make it possible for capital to flow abroad as easily as domestically because the same currency and laws often prevailed.

A crucial element within Ferguson’s argument is the belief that the British government would intervene to protect against default in the colonies. Ferguson argues that close supervision from Whitehall converted investments in distant lands from ‘foreign’ into safer investments in the eyes of the investors. The British governors did, at times, try to intervene to protect the interests of British capitalists in the empire.[49] However, as Andrew Dilley has shown, while the areas within the empire were subject to some theoretical controls, the powers were rarely used in practice, and then only for diplomatic or ‘imperial’ interests.[50] It is problematic to attribute the empire effect to British control over the colonies, which were largely autonomous after the grant of Responsible Government. Indeed, in 1901 The Economist remarked that ‘for internal affairs’ the colonies were ‘almost independent republics.’[51] The British government had very little control over the capital invested in the colonies and investors were aware of this fact. Therefore, it cannot easily be argued that the firm was influenced by an impression that the British government would intervene to protect its capital.

Another possible explanation for the preference relates to the British government because its policies provided a tangible benefit for investing within the empire. Its policies may have encouraged the Norwich to favour investments in the colonies. The Colonial Stock Act of 1877 allowed colonies to issue inscribed stock, which was a type of security listed on a register; this would protect against loss, destruction, or theft.[52] This ensured a much more secure form of investment than had previously been available in the form of the ‘bonds to bearer.’[53] The colonies wanted their obligations treated at a level comparable to the British Consolidated Stock (consols). The subsequent 1900 Act allowed trustees who were not explicitly empowered by their deeds to invest in stocks of this kind, to invest in inscribed stock. As demonstrated by Bernard Attard, the confidence of the investor would be further increased by the Bank of England, the registrar of British national debt, and London and Westminster acting as the registrars of the inscribed stocks.[54]

Some borrowers clearly hoped to improve the marketability of their debt by associating themselves with the Bank of England.[55] The Canadian finance minister W. S. Fielding, for instance, thought that admission of Canadian stocks to the trustee list would be a ‘great advantage to Canada’ as it would enhance ‘the value of, its securities’.[56] The Act involved the colonial governments accepting that they could be superseded in legal terms by the imperial government if any legal provisions were altered in a manner that would be injurious to British stockholders.[57] Although the 1900 Act did open up more fields of capital for the self-governing colonies to utilise, the resulting flow of investment depressed the relevant interest rates even lower.[58] The Norwich held a significant amount of inscribed stock during the Victorian period but shifted away from this approach after 1900.

As Table 1 shows, overseas investments constituted a significant proportion of the firm’s portfolio towards the end of the period. The general trends are: a decline in domestic investments due to declining yields; rising investments in the colonies during this period due to the perceived security and higher yields; and increased foreign investments to a level on par with the colonies in 1905 and notably higher in the years subsequent. The firm responded to the declining returns for colonial government securities, which by the early 1890s were offering 3.5 percent or less.[59] The firm’s holdings of colonial government securities in 1891 was 12.1 percent, decreasing to 4.4 percent by 1901, while the Norwich increased its holding of municipal securities which it did not hold at all in 1891 to 19.7 percent by 1901.[60] The firm seems to have mitigated the decreased rate by taking on more municipal holdings in imperial territories.


Table 1: Norwich Union Investment Distribution by Type, 1891-1916, percent[61]

1891 1896 1901 1905 1911 1916
Domestic 66.9 21 1.4 1.5 1.6 21.1
Colonial 12.1 21.2 24.1 14 11.2 14.2
Foreign 5.2 11.6 15.6 14 30.4 21.6
Railway 15.8 42.6 38 24.9 56.7 43.2
Waterworks 0 3.5 20.8 45.6 0 0


The table also demonstrates that a sizeable amount of the firm’s capital was invested in railways. Railways were being built throughout the colonies as well as in the US, Latin America, and elsewhere. Indeed, together North and South America absorbed 80 percent of British overseas railway capital.[62] The US, for instance, was exploiting its interior and as a result expanding its domestic and foreign markets; furthermore, it was experiencing years of large-scale net immigration. While investments in infrastructural developments in the colonies may appear not to make sense, more understanding can be gained when the erroneous contemporary belief that the population of Great Britain would equal that of the US by the mid-twentieth century is taken into account.[63] The flow of capital allowed for the development of the colonies, which would be able to support the predicted overflow of Britain’s population.

The degrees of perceived foreignness and cultural distance may help to explain the firm’s initial preference for investments in the colonies after it reduced its holdings of domestic securities. In the 1970s, academics at the University of Uppsala proposed that the internationalisation of companies’ investments progressed in stages. The first countries which companies invested in outside of their own were countries which were the most similar to its own as they are perceived to offer more safety, companies then moved onto other more exotic markets. Uppsala theorists identified ‘psychic distance’ as a critical factor influencing investment locations.[64] Importantly, this concept may not correspond to an actual measurable difference in values, culture or institutions. Instead, it is the perception of the economic actor or actors and thus may have led to exaggerating or underestimating the degree of cultural distance involved. The investments of the Norwich flowed initially to the colonies which presented low psychic distance before it progressed towards higher-yielding foreign investments.

The psychic distance may have been lower for countries within the empire for a range of factors. The money invested in the colonies, whether a de jure British colony such as India or a colony all but in name like Egypt, was arguably more secure than capital invested in sovereign states. The gold standard was insufficient to decrease the psychic distance; members of the gold standard could suspend gold convertibility and could also default on their debts. To varying degrees and at different times, Argentina, Mexico, and Japan all did precisely that.[65]

The colonies did indeed offer promising fields of investment with the need for utilities and infrastructure to support their growing populations. To a large extent, the increase in the flow of British capital to the white settler colonies was related to their inherent development potential; these societies had few sources of capital of their own, meaning that they turned to Britain for investment. There were also racial notions that informed the trust in settler colonies. Indeed, in 1901 The Times informed its readers that the colonists had inherited the best traditions from Britain and they may be trusted to work out their own destiny in a ‘manly spirit’ and with the ‘practical sagacity that marks the British race’.[66] The authors of investment prospectuses often played on this sense of imperial solidarity and notions of race when trying to encourage investment.[67] The notion of shared identity minimised the perceived distance towards the colonies.

Towards the close of the nineteenth century, the assurance industry became much more professionalised. During the examination to become a fellow at the Institute of Actuaries, the applicant had to expound their views on the merits and demerits of a list of investments including colonial municipal securities, railway ordinary stock, and freehold ground rents.[68] The trend continued into the Edwardian period with the applicants being asked about British and American railway stocks and which country they would advise investment in at the present time and the reason for this.[69] Given this level of professionalisation, the notion of a significant patriotic bias becomes somewhat untenable.

Figure 1: Geographic Distribution of the Norwich Union’s Investments, 1911, percent[70]






In the Edwardian period the investment decisions of the directors within the life assurance industry, in general, were being imbued with actuarial thinking; with investments increasingly being viewed together rather than individually. As Graph 1 suggests, by 1900 the new watchword for most directors was ‘diversification’.[71] This was a marked change from the preceding period. G. E. May, addressing the Institute of Actuaries, acknowledged that ‘the last fourteen years had completely changed actuaries’ views concerning the investment of funds’.[72] He recognised that the investments of British assurance companies were diverse in their geographical distribution, a trend which he commended, and insisted that they should ensure that they did not overload ‘any particular country’.[73] Furthermore, he stated:

Since all of our assurance business is based on the law of averages, one would naturally have thought that this principle would have been given full weight when considering the question of the investment of funds. I am afraid, however, that in the past very little attention was paid to this point; the ruling consideration appears to have been to endeavour to satisfy oneself as to the safety of the capital in each investment considered by itself.[74]

This indicates that investments were viewed on an individual basis, suggesting that from the early twentieth century there was a gradual shift away from this tactic and towards viewing the spread of investments as mitigating risk. The old approach would have kept the Norwich out of risky markets and in the colonies where investment was considered to be safer. The foreign market offered relatively higher yields, but was inherently riskier. Thus, the Norwich and many other life assurance companies had to use strategies to try to mitigate the risk.[75] The main strategy that the Norwich used was to diversify its portfolio; by investing different amounts in disparate locations, it could be sure that should one default on payments, it would have little bearing on the firm’s investments as a whole. The method was reliant on the low correlation between different states, markets, and types of security and was a reaction to declining domestic yields, rather than a long-term plan.

As Graph 1 shows, by 1911 the Norwich’s capital had reached every continent of the globe. Argentina consumed a significant proportion of the Norwich’s capital (4.6 percent). Argentina was a distant country, without colonial status and without a shared language. However, as Philip Newman acknowledged while addressing the Institute of Actuaries in 1908, when attempting to categorise the investments into home, colonial, and foreign, Argentina should be substituted from the ‘foreign railways’ column as they are ‘largely financed from Great Britain’.[76] Indeed, the Anglo-Argentine relationship was tightly bound.

Developments in transportation in the nineteenth century had seen the fertile Argentine wilderness transformed into profitable agricultural areas.[77] It was British capital that helped to fund the expansive railway network in Argentina, and it was British-owned railways that contributed to the prosperity of the country.[78] This would have reduced the perceived risk as the people engaged in the building and running of the Argentinian system were British. It would have side-stepped the issue of cultural or perceived differences between the countries. Furthermore, British-owned companies ran these railway lines in Argentina. Even the features of the train lines were distinctly English, with stations designed to look like English cottages and signals to stop and go all written in English. Visitors to Argentina could therefore be forgiven for thinking that they had arrived at a British colony.[79] British-owned companies also augmented the level of investment in different regions. The British-owned China Clay Corporation, for instance, would have allowed the firm to invest £60,000 in debentures.[80] The debentures were offered to the firm through C. E. Cottier.[81] This was important because it was not dealing with natives directly; its investment was with fellow Britons.

During the Edwardian period, the Norwich held a far more comprehensive range of securities compared to the preceding decades. Rather than the traditional outlets of colonial securities, the directors had turned to those offering higher yields and mitigated the risk by scattering their capital far and wide. The period was marked by a gradual shift, first from domestic to colonial investments as yields on traditional investments declined, and then towards foreign investments as companies adopted diversification. The empire was a crucial first step into a world of opportunities. The cultural and perceived distance was small enough to mitigate the risk while the returns offered were better than those in domestic investments. However, the Norwich may be an anomaly with much broader research needed to discover if its pattern was unique or if it reflected the assurance industry in general. The firm’s pattern was by no means the only route a company could take: the Liverpool, London and Globe, for instance, had a relatively conservative outlook and kept its investments in low-yielding domestic railway securities.[82]


As Hayek suggested in 1945, information was fundamentally decentralised; thus, the Norwich’s network of branches served to ensure the directors were better informed.[83] Each financial centre possessed its own network of information but so too it seems did multinational companies like the Norwich, which had established a network of branches in order to gather information. The flow of information to the Norwich fundamentally changed during the period with new branches opening up in distant places around the world. The firm was able to gather information more quickly and with better quality than other investors in Britain. The rhythm and pace of the Norwich’s internationalisation was guided by the number of branches the firm opened during the period. Each branch was added to an expanding network in which the firm was embedded. These nodes took a more active role in the Edwardian period due to the possibility of entering into opportunities in the West of Canada or on the Transvaal, with the nodes functioning as lenders on the spot or utilising the New York or Toronto stock exchanges. The risk of investing in these opportunities was mitigated by the flow of information gained by the firm through internal employees such as Laidlaw and Kirby in Canada or external collaborators such as Preston in Egypt. The defining feature affecting the efficiency of the network was whether these nodes were natives, which was possible in countries with shared language such as the US, Canada or South Africa.

The internationalisation of the Norwich’s investment funds appears to follow that proposed by the Uppsala theorists, who suggest that internationalisation progressed with companies first investing in countries that they perceived to be similar to their own before progressing to more distant locations. Less tangible effects such as crown loyalty, the willingness of the British government to intervene, and cultural similarities, combined with more concrete benefits of investing in the empire such as inscribed stock, encouraged the firm to perceive these investments as significantly safer. The growing professionalisation of the industry and the high yields on foreign investments forced the firm to adopt a more actuarial outlook, using diversification to access high yields while keeping the risks relatively low. Anglo-Argentine railways and British-owned companies in foreign countries such as China also served to ease the flow of investment to these regions.

This paper has provided new research and brought this together with long-standing debates about the economics of imperialism, drawing links between the ways in which the Norwich received information and how this stimulated investment in the colonies. It has utilised numerous quinquennial reports in order to demonstrate how the firm mirrored the Uppsala internationalisation model, venturing first into countries which were perceived as most similar to the firm’s home nation. Records of over 400 securities have also been employed to demonstrate the geographic distribution reached in 1911, thus providing a clearer understanding of how life assurance companies functioned during this time of significant change and why their capital flowed overseas instead of being invested domestically. The study has also unveiled rich details about how assurance companies weighed up investments during this period of immense change. Finally, this paper has established the ways in which the firm and the industry in general responded to a period of fundamental change in which the yields on traditional domestic investments fell and information technology significantly changed.

[1] P. Rogers, Westminster Cathedral: From Darkness to Light (London, 2003), p. 8.

[2] F. A. McKeand, The Palatial Halls of Insurance (Norwich, 1897), p. 21.

[3] E. Hutson, ‘The Early Managed Fund Industry: Investment Trusts in 19th Century Britain’, International Review of Financial Analysis, 14 (2005), p. 442.

[4] H. Cockburn, ‘Opening Address by the President’, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 39 (1905), p. 5.

[5] A. G. Mackenzie, ‘On the Practice and Powers of Assurance Companies in regard to the Investment of their Life Assurance Funds’, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 29 (1891), p. 213.

[6] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 1, NU3938, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 28/10/1890; D. Paulin, ‘Life Office Investments Retrospect and Outlook’, Transactions of the Actuarial Society of Edinburgh, 3 (1896), p. 239.

[7] R. Blake, Esto Perpetua: Norwich Union Life Insurance Society, 1808-1958 (London, 1958), p. 62.

[8] J. Mantle, Norwich Union: The First 200 Years (London, 1997), pp. 44-45.

[9] H. A. L. Cockrell and E. Green, The British Insurance Business, 1547-1970 (London, 1976).

[10] G. Clayton, British Insurance (London, 1971); P. J. Franklin and C. Woodhead, The UK Life Assurance Industry (London, 1980); H. E. Raynes, A History of British Insurance (London, 1964); O. Westall, The Historian and the Business of Insurance (Manchester, 1984).

[11] M. Baker and M. Collins, ‘The Asset Portfolio Composition of British Insurance Firms, 1900-1965’, Financial History Review, 10 (2003), p. 138.

[12] J. Rutterford, M. Upton, and D. Kodwani (eds), Financial Strategy: Adding Stakeholder Value (Chichester, 2006), p. 8.

[13] P. Scott, The Property Masters: A History of the British Commercial Property Sector (Oxford, 1996), p. 27.

[14] N. Ferguson and M. Schularick, ‘The Empire Effect: The Determinants of Country Risk in the First Age of Globalisation, 1880-1913’, The Journal of Economic History, 66 (2006), p. 283.

[15] G. B. Magee and A. S. Thompson, Empire and Globalisation: Networks of People, Goods and Capital in the British World, c. 1850-1914 (Cambridge, 2010), p.170.

[16] A. Smith, ‘Patriotism, Self-Interest and the “Empire Effect”: Britishness and British Decisions to Invest in Canada, 1867-1914’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 41 (2013), p. 66.

[17] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 1, NU3938, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 18/02/1891; Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 2, NU3939, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 02/09/1896.

[18] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 6, NU3943, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 03/07/1908, No. 11/06/1909, No. 09/07/1909.

[19]Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 24, no. 4 (1884), p. i.

[20] Mackenzie, ‘On the Practice and Powers of Assurance Companies’, p. 203.

[21] K. J. Mitchener and M. D. Weidenmier, ‘The Baring Crisis and the Great Latin American Meltdown of the 1890s’, The Journal of Economic History, 68 (2008), p. 476.

[22] N. Ferguson, ‘Political Risk and the International Bond Market between the 1848 Revolution and the Outbreak of the First World War’, The Economic History Review, 59 (2006), p. 78.

[23] The Economist, 14 August 1909, p. 323; 26 November 1910, p. 1072.

[24] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 7, NU3944, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 119, p. 132, p. 218, p. 235.

[25] M. Tomz, Reputation and International Cooperation: Sovereign Debt Across Three Centuries (Princeton, 2007), p. 25.

[26] G. E. May, ‘The Investment of Life Assurance Funds’, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 46 (1912), p. 140.

[27] F. A. Hayek, ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’, The American Economic Review, 35 (1945), p. 521.

[28] L. Mak, The British in Egypt: Community, Crime and Crises, 1882-1922 (London, 2011), p. 131; Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 6, NU3943, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 01/05/1908, No. 16/10/1908.

[29] May, ‘Investment of Life Assurance Funds’, p. 141.

[30] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 2, NU3939, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 22/09/1897.

[31] R. Pomfret, The Economic Development of Canada (London, 2006), p. 147.

[32] G. W. Bertram, ‘The Relevance of the Wheat Boom in Canadian Economic Growth’, The Canadian Journal of Economics, 6 (1973), p. 545.

[33] A. G. Green, ‘Twentieth-Century Canadian Economic History’, in S. Engerman and R. Gallman (eds), The Cambridge Economic History of the United States (Cambridge, 2000), p. 202.

[34] Board Minute Book, NU1402, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 22/04/1910, No. 17/06/1910; Board Minute Book, NU1403, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 30/09/1910, No. 07/10/1910, No. 25/11/1910, No. 09/12/1910, No. 12/05/1911.

[35] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 5, NU3942, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 25/05/1906.

[36] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 5, NU3942, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 25/05/1906.

[37] A. Smith, British Businessmen and Canadian Confederation (Montreal, 2008), p. 34.

[38] R. C. Michie, ‘The Canadian Securities Market, 1850-1914’, The Business History Review, 62 (1988), p. 48.

[39] Stock Exchange Securities: Valuations, NU4298, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 7.

[40] Financial Committee Minute Book, No. 7, NU3944, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 125.

[41] Financial Committee Minute Book, No. 7, NU3944, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), pp. 128, 139, 164, 166, 202.

[42] J. Darwin, Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (London, 2012), p. 1.

[43] I. Stone, The Global Export of Capital from Great Britain, 1865-1914 (London, 1999), p. 414.

[44] J. Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970 (Cambridge, 2009), p. 1.

[45] N. Ferguson and M. Schularick, ‘The Empire Effect’, p. 297.

[46] M. Chavez and M. Flandreau, ‘High and Dry: The Liquidity and Credit of Colonial and Foreign Government Debt in the London Stock Exchange, 1880-1910’, The Journal of Economic History, 77 (2017), p. 9.

[47] T. B. Sprague, ‘Opening Address by the President’, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 25 (1885), p. 82.

[48]Sprague, ‘Opening Address by the President’, p. 82; The Insurance Gazette and Provident Societies Chronicle, 1 July 1886, p. 4078.

[49] M. Umerura and R. Fujioka (eds), The Palgrave Macmillan Comparative Responses to Globalisation: Experiences of British and Japanese Enterprises (London, 2013), p. 84.

[50] A. Dilley, Finance, Politics, and Imperialism: Australia, Canada, and the City of London, c.1896-1914 (Basingstoke, 2012), p. 92.

[51] The Economist, 6 July 1901, p. 1007.

[52] A. Dilley, Finance, Politics and Imperialism, p. 95.

[53] B. Attard, ‘Imperial Central Banks? The Bank of England, London & Westminster Bank, and the British Empire before 1914’, in O. Feiertag and M. Margairaz (eds), Les Banques Centrales et L’État-Nation (Paris, 2016), p. 198.

[54] Attard, ‘Imperial Central Banks?’, p. 203.

[55] Attard, ‘Imperial Central Banks?’, p. 193.

[56] The Economist, 30 August 1902, pp. 1351-2.

[57] O. Accominotti, M. Flandreau, R. Rezzik, and F. Zumber, ‘Black Man’s Burden, White Man’s Welfare: Control, Devolution and Development in the British Empire, 1880-1914’, European Review of Economic History, 14 (2010), p. 55.

[58] B. Supple, The Royal Exchange Assurance, p. 335.

[59] J. J. W. Deuchar’s Letter Book, NU657, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 171.

[60] Quinquennial Valuation Statements, Vol. 1, NU727, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 3, p. 15.

[61] Quinquennial Valuation Statements Volume 1, NU727, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 1891, 1896; Quinquennial Valuation Statements Volume 2, NU728, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 1901, 1905, 1911, 1916.

[62] Stone, The Global Export of Capital from Great Britain, p. 13.

[63] P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism, 1688-2015 (Oxford, 2016), p. 19.

[64] J. Johanson and J. Vahlne, ‘The Uppsala Internationalisation Process Model Revisited: From Liability of Foreignness to Liability of Outsidership’, Journal of International Business Studies, 40 (2009), p. 1412.

[65] Y. Cassis and É. Bussière (eds), London and Paris as International Financial Centres in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2005), p. 73.

[66] The Times, 10 October 1901, p. 7.

[67] Umerura and Fujioka, The Palgrave Macmillan Comparative Responses to Globalisation, p. 74.

[68]Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 33 (1897), p. 438.

[69]Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 41 (1907), p. 598.

[70] Valuation of Stock Exchange Securities as on 30 June 1911, NU4298, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA).

[71] J. H. Treble, ‘The Pattern of Investment of the Standard Life Company, 1875-1914’, Business History, 22 (1980), p. 184; T. Alborn, Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800-1914 (Toronto, 2009), p. 174.

[72] May, ‘The Investment of Life Assurance Funds’, p. 166.

[73] May, ‘The Investment of Life Assurance Funds’, pp. 159-160.

[74] May, ‘The Investment of Life Assurance Funds’, p. 136.

[75] Y. Cassis, Capitals of Capital: A History of International Finance Centres, 1780-2005 (Cambridge, 2006), p. 96.

[76] P. L. Newman, ‘A Review of the Investments of Offices in Recent Years’, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 42 (1908), p. 304.

[77] A. G. Ford, The Gold Standard, 1880-1914: Britain and Argentina (Oxford, 1962), p. 81.

[78] W. R. Wright, British-Owned Railways in Argentina: Their Effect on Economic Nationalism, 1854-1948 (Austin, 1974), p. 5.

[79] D. Rock, The British in Argentina: Commerce, Settlers & Power, 1800-2000 (Cham, 2019), p. 182.

[80] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 7, NU3944, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 63.

[81] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 7, NU3944, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 63.

[82] Investment Ledger, CLC/B/192/MS11677/006, London Metropolitan Archives, London (LMA).

[83] Hayek, ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’, p. 521.

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In this article David Robinson considers the discursive construction of Italian identity by British travellers in the early nineteenth century, through the lens of Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism. David challenges Said’s construction of a purely East-West binary, showing how intra-European binaries were similarly constructed, through the combination of apparently objective ‘academic’ knowledge of Italy, and a more ‘imaginative’ construction of the peninsular through popular literature, including travel writing.


David Robinson

Author Biography 

David Robinson is a second-year, AHRC-M3C-funded PhD student supervised by the Department of History at the University of Nottingham. His thesis is entitled ‘Orientalism or Meridionism? Comparing Imperial and European Travel Writing in the Creation of British and European Identity’ and explores the British construction of Italy and India as cultural and geographical spaces contributing to British identity formation.

Italian Orientals

As John Urry notes, traveller’s observations are not innocent: ‘people gaze upon the world through a particular filter of ideas, skills, desires, and expectations, framed by social class, gender, nationality, age and education.’[1] Travel writing describes encounters with alterity which both reflect and reinforce the writer’s identity, while simultaneously constructing the identity of the ‘other’. As Carl Thompson explains, travel is an encounter with alterity, and travel writing is the record of the negotiation between self and other, and thus reflects the differences which constitute identity.[2]

The construction of Italian identity also mapped onto Britain’s internal ‘others’, for example, a licentious aristocracy, the bestial lower classes, and unsupervised women, in a period when the middle classes were vying for greater socio-political authority. As part of that contestation, they increasingly configured Britain’s national superiority as emerging from values with which they self-identified. For example, domestically centred, Protestant morality and purposeful industry. Italians were often portrayed in opposition to such values, as were the British aristocracy and lower classes. An Italy, discursively configured as inferior, was thus a mirror for British national, and middle class, superiority.

Orientalism-Constructing Knowledge of the Eastern ‘Other’

Edward Said described how the meaning of India, and ‘the East’ generally, was configured through discursive Western fantasies that portrayed ‘the East’ as exotic, uncivilised, pre-modern and dangerous. By implication, ‘the West’ becomes the rational, modern, and civilised corollary of the East. Orientalism, is far more than simple stereotyping, as Said put it, not ‘an airy European fantasy about the Orient but a created body of theory and practice.’[3] Said contended that Orientalism works in an ‘academic’ sense, with ‘objective’ knowledge of the East generated through scholarship in Oriental history and culture.

Bernard Cohn claimed that, in invading India, the British ‘invaded and conquered not only a territory but an epistemological space as well.’ The British created ‘forms of knowledge’ which ‘bound the vast social world that was India so it could be controlled.’[4] The British assumed the authority to investigate, observe, research, collate, categorise, write about and define what it was to be Indian, claiming ‘a kind of intellectual authority over the Orient within Western culture’.[5] Eighteenth-century scholars of the Orient were sympathetic to, and genuinely interested in, ancient Indian culture, history, and religion. Later, in the early nineteenth century, the influence of Utilitarians, particularly James Mill and his 1817 hegemonic History of British India, led to a scathing view of Indian culture as degraded and backward, and of Indians as requiring wholesale re-education along British lines. As Ronald Inden points out, however, sympathy or otherwise is not the point:

a genuine critique of Orientalism does not revolve around the question of prejudice or bias, of the like or dislike of the peoples and cultures of Asia […] scholars whose attitudes seem at polar opposites do not disagree here in any major way about the facts of Indian history, facts which constitute India as a veritable glass-house of vulnerability, forever destined for conquest by outsiders.[6]

Where Mill and the Utilitarians were contemptuous, sympathetic Orientalist scholars tended to represent the East as a ‘civilisation of dreams’, yet both are constructed fantasies.[7]

A key difference then, one which differentiates between Orientalism and simple ‘othering’, is that the body of knowledge Orientalism creates has the appearance of objectivity and authenticity. Knowledge produced by scholars has the apparent ability to objectively construct the reality of the East, and, therefore, supposedly represent the East more accurately than can the inhabitants themselves. Orientalism is a discourse imposed from the outside, one which erases difference between individuals and denies those described the opportunity to respond or refute the construction. Orientalism translates into real power, given that the body of knowledge produced for eighteenth and nineteenth-century colonisers justified and ‘enabled the Orientalist and his countrymen to gain trade concessions, conquer, colonise, rule, and punish in the East.’[8]

Said draws on Foucault and the relationship between knowledge and power in developing these ideas:

without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage-and even produce-the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.[9]

Flaubert’s description of an Egyptian courtesan for example, was influential onWestern ‘understanding’ of Oriental women.[10] Flaubert spoke for the woman, offering no opportunity for her to speak for herself and no recourse to dispute what Flaubert said about her and, by extension, about all Eastern women. Following Foucault, Said shows how such knowledge about the East is produced within an asymmetric power relationship, where the observed and described have no ability to refute, respond or write back. For Said, the asymmetric power balance between the described and the describer in Flaubert’s account, reinforced through actual and metaphorical sexual conquest, ‘fairly stands for the pattern of relative strength between East and West, and the discourse about the Orient that it enabled.’[11]

In parallel with ‘academic’ knowledge about the East, Said describes an ‘imaginative’ form of Orientalism, whereby writers in various genres have a preconceived notion of an Eastern mind-set, an Eastern ‘way of being’:

Poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and Imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on.[12]

An on-going exchange between ‘the academic and the more or less imaginative meaning of Orientalism’ extends hegemonic knowledge of the East throughout Western culture. Here Said draws on Gramsci’s distinction between the coercive and consenting institutions of political and civil society respectively, whereby ‘culture […] is to be found operating within civil society, where the influence of ideas, of institutions, and of other persons works not through domination but by what Gramsci calls consent’.[13] Even apparently innocent portrayals of the East suggest a strange and exotic, even dangerous place. Take for example, the dispute over the 1993 Disney release, Aladdin, and the lyrics to the opening song:

Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam
Where it’s flat and immense
And the heat is intense
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home

Despite Arab-American protests, the word ‘barbaric’ was retained, as was a scene depicting the threatened amputation of Princess Jasmine’s hand for stealing an apple for a hungry child.[14] Orientalising depictions of the East are not, Said claimed, simply historical artefacts but ongoing constructs. Nor are they necessarily overtly political or deliberately racially offensive, as this children’s film demonstrates.

The interchange between the academic and ‘imaginative’ forms of Orientalism combine in ‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.’[15] This is Orientalism as a ‘corporate institution’ which takes advantage of a helpless and inferior East, and justifies, even valorises, authorises and facilitates the colonial activities of European nations. Of course, Orientalism configures not only the East, but also ‘helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience’.[16] Where the East is irrational, pre-modern and inferior, the West is the opposite.

Said applied Orientalism exclusively to a discursive construction of an East-West binary, and perhaps the broadest criticism of his work is that he constructs the West as inherently and ubiquitously racist and imperialist. Said’s work has subsequently attracted both adoration and vitriol in equal measures. Other scholars have applied Orientalism to, for example, the Western construction of ancient Greece as the ‘cradle of civilisation’, as a European ‘myth of origins’. Anna Carastathis argues ‘that the function of Hellenism in constituting both the fantasy of Europe and Western hegemony has an Orientalist structure.’[17] Carastathis argues that Western Europe has denied Greece a real identity and its own heritage, ‘in fantasies of white supremacy’ which simultaneously places ancient Greece as the origin of Western civilisation and modern Greece as Western Europe’s ‘other’.[18]

British travellers to Italy similarly separated modern Italy from its own classical past. The British appropriated this past to associate themselves as the heirs to classical civilisation. As the periodical writer Francis Jeffrey said in the early nineteenth century, ‘an Englishman bears a much greater resemblance to a Roman, than an Italian of the present day.’[19] Saree Makdisi has argued that around the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was no essential or stable Western, nor British, or even English identity. Instead, he argues, these things were in the making, and before the British could assert any Occidental identity, they had first to rid themselves of their own internal ‘orientals’. Makdisi shows how racialised language was aimed at groups of white indigenous British people such as the ‘London Arabs’, how the lower orders were depicted as ‘bestial’, and the aristocracy categorised as vain, effeminate and sexually immoral. Orientalist language was used by groups as diverse as the nascent middle classes, religious Evangelicals and political radicals.[20] Similarly, Indira Ghose points out that Utilitarian and Orientalist constructions of India are both discourses of colonial domination, and that disagreement between the two factions can be mapped onto domestic disputes between the traditional aristocracy and the reform-minded middle classes.[21]

In what follows, I shall demonstrate how nineteenth-century British travellers similarly used an Orientalist configuration of supposedly objective ‘academic’ history, and ‘imaginative’ Gothic and Romantic literature and travel writing, to identify Italy and Italians as inherently irrational, superstitious, pre-modern, perpetually liable to foreign oppression, and thus inferior to a modern, rational, and constitutional Britain. Italians were, therefore, configured with many of the characteristics also imposed on Indians. Finally, I will discuss the specific example of the portrayal of Italian women and domesticity by British travellers. Such portrayals explained in an ‘objective’ way, why Britain was inherently  a more civilised and advanced nation, but also mapped on to socio-political debate back home; in this case, a strategy to align a superior British identity with the growing socio-political authority of the British middle classes.

Constructing Knowledge of Italy 

Joseph Luzzi opens his account of Italian Romanticism with a description of a modern Alitalia advert, telling the tourist to ‘fire their therapist…do something monumental…give in to temptation’. In doing so, the Italian national airline ‘draws on a myth, formed by writers in the early nineteenth century, of Italy as a premodern, sensual, and unreflective (hence, analyst-free) oasis.’[22] Such descriptions represent a ‘habit of thinking about Italy as an eminently premodern corpus of cultural traditions, a habit that emerged in the Romantic literary movements of Europe in the early nineteenth century.’[23]

The idea of Italy as a Romantic literary construct in the minds of British (and German, Swiss, French etc.) travellers is well established.[24] As David Laven observes, ‘by the late 1810s British engagement with Italy had come to be shaped heavily by a handful of Romantic poets and writers.’[25] The writers to whom Laven refers however, (Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, John Keats, Germaine de Staёl, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning for example) were themselves informed by what Walchester calls, ‘a complex chain of reference’ which included: ‘eighteenth-century accounts, which draw on Italian Renaissance poetry, which in turn refers to Classical descriptions of Italy.’[26] For example, the work of popular Gothic novelists such as Anne Radcliffe, itself informed by descriptions of Italy by historians and eighteenth-century travel writers, was instrumental for later Romantic authors and their tales of Italian rape, incest, and murder.[27] In turn, these views of Italy became hegemonic in the minds of travellers to Italy and were reflected in their travel writing.

Romantic literature was also ‘intimately linked’ to, and informed by, Italian history and politics.[28] Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88) and William Roscoe’s Lives of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1795) stimulated public interest in classical and medieval Renaissance Italy, as did the Genevan historian Sismondi’s Histoire des Republiques Italiennes au Moyen Age (1809-18). Slightly later British historians such as Henry Hallam and George Percival recycled much of this earlier work in their own accounts of Italy, View of the State of Europe During the Middle Ages (1818) and the two-volume History of Italy (1825) respectively.[29] Italy was ubiquitously portrayed as having slumped into ‘decadence and defeat’ since its days of glory.[30] Such views were also informed by earlier historical views of Italy. Inspired by national pride, jealousy of superior Italian commerce and diplomacy, and as a reaction to Catholic Inquisitional persecution of Protestants, sixteenth and seventeenth-century British travellers often described Italians as lascivious, corrupt, vicious, treacherous and deceitful. [31] In 1570, Roger Ascham, a poet, writer, Tudor Royal tutor, and secretary to the Privy Council declared that in nine days in Italy, he witnessed more sin than in nine years in London.[32] Contemporary continental politics also played its part in Italy’s portrayal, for example in Napoleonic apologist Count Daru’s condemnatory eight-volume account of Venice, Histoire de la République de Venise (Paris, Didot, 1819). For Daru, Venice’s moral collapse justified Napoleonic conquest. Whether accurate or not, such accounts were influential on the creation of semi-historical Romantic productions.[33] Between 1815 and 1840, episodes of Italian history inspired semi-fictional creations by Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Bulwer Lytton, Robert Browning, Mary Mitford, Walter Landor, and Felicia Hemans. In reverse, a literary construction of Italy influenced academic writing on Italy, as in the case of George Percival, whose historical account ‘reads rather like a series of romantic tales than a connected historical study.’[34]

Unsurprisingly, the themes which garnered most attention and came to form the British view of Italy in the first half of the nineteenth century, were

the violence and unrestraint of passion in Italy, with all the gruesome horrors and miseries resulting from it…the exciting, almost incredible adventures of men of extraordinary courage and personality…the struggle for freedom of peoples subjected to tyrannous rulers.[35]

A slew of plays and novels were predicated on themes of Italian revenge and delight in torture, murder, and rape. Emerging from such work, was a view of Italians as passionate and potentially talented but irrational, violent, jealous, and unable to control their emotions and energy or direct them to positive moral, political, or civic ends. The popular novelist Anne Manning wrote in her own account of Italy that, historically, ‘the energy and violence which marked their national character was often directed to evil purposes by such dark and vindictive passions.’[36] Following a popular belief, one also held regarding Africa and the East, Manning attributed some of the Italian temperament to the hotter Italian climate, producing ‘emotions of hatred and jealously which in our cooler climate occasionally ruffle our bosom, and are mastered by steady principle and placid temperament.’[37] In a later account of Italy, and in a slightly different vein, the Countess Blessington also discussed the climate in Rome, and praised young Englishmen for (apparently) resisting the ‘temptations of this luxurious capital…the delicious habits of the dolce far’ niente [carefree idleness]…[to] which the climate disposes people’.[38] Blessington published several accounts of life in London and travel in Europe, where she befriended Byron, and was well disposed towards Italians, praising the men for their particular skills in music, their gallantry, and their talent for seductive amour. By contrast, she made the (dubious) observation that young Englishmen were studious and rational, and used their Italian experience to gain knowledge and skills to aid a ‘future career of utility.’[39] Italian women were delightful, although with a ‘naivete resembling that of children.’[40] Different travel accounts thus ‘objectively’ observed that the Italian climate produced passion in its people, which could turn alternatively towards sensual luxury, childish indulgence, or jealous and violent anger, whereas northern climates produced a rational, sober, and purposefully industrious character.

As Inden observed regarding India, the point here is not the extent to which travellers criticise, praise, or sympathise with Italians, but how Italy is configured as naturally and inherently a certain way, through the ‘objective’ observation of evidence. Italian ‘nature’ explained both their past triumphs and present fallen state, and why Britain had surpassed Italy morally, politically, civically, and economically. Although critical of the outcomes of Italian ‘nature’, Manning expressed pity for Italian victims of inherent disadvantages, those of ‘prevailing example, the influence of climate, and the imperfect moral restraint of […] [Catholic] religion.’[41] Describing the events between 1797 and the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, Manning depicts Italy as an impotent trophy to be tossed between the French and the Austrians. Manning’s Italians, like Blessington’s, are somewhat naïve and infantile, unaware of their own self-interest, at once looking to Napoleon as a patriarchal ‘guardian angel’, and complacently content to be rid of him when once again under the Austrian yoke.[42] Manning conceded that some Italians had been awoken to their lack of freedom but implies that Italian religion, prejudice and general nature meant that achieving freedom was likely to be an uphill struggle.[43] History and the observations of travellers thus empirically demonstrated the natural inferiority and irrationality of Italians, and such views were supported and promulgated through popular fiction and travel literature.

Manning mentions the negative influence of the Catholic religion on Italy, and this was a regular feature of travel discourse. Most travellers were at least interested, often fascinated, by Catholic rituals. After English Catholic emancipation in 1829, there was a British revival of Catholicism and many more positive and balanced accounts of the Italian church.[44] For many however, and particularly in earlier accounts, Catholicism was suffused with superstition and ritual, intimately linked to Italian social and political weakness. The painter, poet, writer, journalist and friend to influential Romantics such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, William Hazlitt’s 1826 travel account is typically scathing, particularly regarding the religion’s use of confession ‘to get rid at once of all moral obligation, of all self-control and self-respect, by the proxy of maudlin superstition.’ Hazlitt concludes that Catholicism, ‘suits the pride and weakness of man’s intellect, the indolence of his will, the cowardliness of his fears, the vanity of his hopes.’[45] The nature of Catholicism was woven into knowledge formation about Italy, a fundamental part of the reason why Italians lacked purpose, industry, and political freedom. Maria Graham’s 1820 account of the campagna east of Rome sets out to describe the present-day ‘peasants of the hills’ and

their actual manners as may enable others to form a judgement of their moral and political condition and to account for some of those irregularities which we do not easily imagine to be consistent with the civilised state of Europe, but which for centuries have existed in the patrimony of the church.[46]

Graham, the author of two popular and widely-reviewed travel accounts of India and the wife of a military officer, associated Catholicism with superstition, noting ‘how closely the Roman church has followed the Pagan ceremonies in her festivals.’[47] Graham implies that Catholicism was at odds with free-thinking rationalism, and with fair, just and effective government. Graham suggests that Catholicism’s preference for show over substance and its encouragement of idolatry, inculcated submission in Italian people, hindered their ability to think for themselves or engage with political life, and failed to develop in them, a strong and proper work ethic. Graham described the Italian

state of moral lethargy [which] produces great indifference as to public interest, and renders them acquiescent under any government, so long as they remain in peace, and can sit every man under his own vine and his own fig tree.[48]

This was opposite to the middle-class sentiments of hard-working ambition and political inclusion promoted back home.

The glory of Italy’s past only served to heighten the sense of modern-day decline and to emphasise Italy’s inability to recapture its former heights. Sismondi’s contrast between Italy’s potential which ‘remained in the fragments of the broken colossus’ and the failure of modern Italians to realise the possibilities, added to their moribund image in the eyes of the British.[49] This is the sense that is captured by French novelist Madame de Staёl’s enormously influential 1807 Corinne, ou l’Italie, a novel based on de Stael’s own Italian journey and widely read in Britain. De Staёl describes an Italy of great potential but populated by effeminate men lacking purpose or political drive. As de Staёl’s British protagonist Oswald considers, ‘the Italians are more remarkable for what they have been, and might be, than for what they are.’[50] The influence of Corinne was such that ‘perhaps more than any other work of its time, it provided a paradigmatic interpretation of Italian society, politics, and character’, although as Robert Casillo is quick to point out, ‘Staël often follows in the path of seventeenth and eighteenth-century travel writers whose attitudes and judgments she shares’.[51] For many travellers, Corinne exemplified British superiority over Italy. As Francis Jeffrey suggested in the Edinburgh Review, ‘it is Great Britain and Italy, the extremes of civilised Europe, that are personified and contrasted in the hero and heroine of this romantic tale’.[52] It is also notable that Jeffrey configures Britain as male against a female Italy. As Jeffrey also points out, ‘what a difference between the ancient Romans and the modern Italians.’[53]

For many then, modern Italy was ‘a land of barbarians’, in contrast to its glorious Greco-Roman and Renaissance past.[54] This in no way detracted from Italy’s popularity as a travel destination. Indeed, the poet and travel writer Mary Shelley compared the transit of English travellers to Italy with that of rats crossing a stream over the bodies of their drowned companions: ‘we fly to Italy; we eat the lotus; we cannot tear ourselves away’.[55] Shelley draws a distinction between residents of Italy like herself, better informed and sensitive to the ‘real’ Italy, and the hordes of ‘rats’ scurrying across the Channel, ‘guidebook in hand’.[56]  Many residents however, simply ignored Italians or reduced them to stereotypes.[57] The poet Walter Savage Landor, resident in Florence from 1821, claimed he took ‘no interest whatsoever in the affairs of Italians: I visit none of them: I admit none of them within my doors.’[58] Percy Shelley, sympathetic to Italian independence, wrote of Venice in a letter of 1818, that it was ’a wonderfully fine city’, yet of the ‘avarice, cowardice, superstition, passionless lust’ of the people.[59] Separating the city from its modern context, Shelley reveals the historical and literary influences on his opinion, describing palaces with dungeons ‘where these scoundrels used to torment their victims…where the sufferers were roasted to death…where the prisoners were confined sometimes halfway up to their middle in stinking water.’[60] The juxtaposition of the beauty and luxury of the palace with the horror and degradation of the dungeon became a common theme recycled from historical and literary accounts. The historian George Perceval famously wrote of Venice that, ‘her prisons and her palaces were contiguous’, describing the ambivalence of ‘the double nature of Venice, their extremes of misery and joy’. Such views were reinforced by the popular symbolism of the Bridge of Sighs, from which prisoners had their last glimpse of Venice whilst crossing from the Doge’s palace to the prison. Perceval also notes the debt owed to Byron as ‘one of the key-stones of the arch’ in the configuration of a romanticised Italy, yet thought that Byron paid too little attention to ‘all her silent crimes’.[61] Bryon had, however, already written two historical tragedies in The Two Foscari and Marino Faliero, tales which included Italian intrigue, murder, revenge, torture, libel, and political corruption. A year after his letter above, Shelley published The Cenci, an ‘historicised and Gothic vision of Italy’,  in a story of incest and parricide based on an apparently true story from Ludivico Antonio Muratori’s 1749 Annali d’Italia.[62] Shelley was aware of the commercial potential of the work, telling his publisher that it was ‘written for the multitude’.[63] His private correspondence above, however, shows the degree to which historical accounts of Venice, such as Count Daru’s, intermingled with popular Gothic fantasy in Shelley’s own imagining of Italy.

In the same letter, Shelley reveals another popular trope in constructions of Italy: their inability to contest foreign oppression or their own despotic rulers. Shelley writes of Venice, ‘which was once a tyrant, is now the next worst thing, a slave; for in fact it ceased to be free or worth our regret as a nation from the moment that the oligarchy usurped the rights of the people.’[64] Italy was a slave to its own nature as much as to foreign oppression. The degraded aspects of Italian character, which had taken them from classical and Renaissance triumph to domestic despotic oppression, now left them unable to regain their independence in the face of foreign domination. Disparagement of Italian character was by no means restricted to Venice, even when Italians did attempt to throw off the Austrian yoke. The 1821 Neapolitan failed uprising served only to ‘place in a clearer point of view the cowardice, versatility, profligacy and total want of character of the Neapolitan nation…it would be a waste of words to say more of them.’[65] Lord Normanby, a long-term Italian resident, commenting on the failure of the Piedmont uprising of the same year wrote, ‘it grieves me to be compelled to treat in a mingled vein of ridicule, these attempts to obtain rational liberty.’ Normanby concludes that the Italians deserved a ‘point of view more ludicrous than either hateful or demanding sympathy.’[66] The general tenor of such comments perhaps reflected British guilt and self-justification, for ignoring Italian independence in favour of a strategic need for European stability in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat. The British acquiesced to Austrian rule in Italy, partly over fears for the security of their Indian territories.[67] Subsequent failures of Italian uprisings only showed they had been right in their judgement; there had been ‘no confidence that the Italians could be trusted with their own destiny’ and ‘the Italians seemed unable either to re-enact their past or to seize the promise of their future.’[68] Italy was not colonised by the British, but it was largely subjugated to foreign domination, and its status as such played a part in maintaining Britain’s stability as a colonising power elsewhere. Orientalist constructions of Italy as naturally submissive to oppression thus suited a broader British agenda and justified Italy’s continued subjugation.

Italian resident Mary Shelley, anonymously reviewing Lord Normanby’s account of Italy, takes a slightly more sympathetic view but one which still configures Italy as intrinsically unsuited to resistance. Shelley suggests that Italy lacked, not the desire for freedom, but the organisational drive to effect it. The rich and poor of the cities cared more for their wealth and security respectively than to risk them in rebellion; the senior academic community were too naturally timid to resist; their younger students lacked any sense of higher moral purpose; the peasantry of the countryside had no thought of political liberty at all.[69] Yet still, Shelley believed emancipation would eventually come because Italy was such a repository of natural talent, although not of the kind best suited to the type of purposeful activity required to achieve freedom. Their talents were of a different stripe, ‘untaught courtesy, their love of the fine arts, the poetry with which their sunny sky endows them’.  Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Shelley suggests this ‘native genius’ was the ‘foundation stone…of Italian liberty…though no superstructure is thereto added’.[70] Natural Italian artistic genius was both their blessing and their hindrance to freedom in an Italy configured as a pre-modern Romantic fantasy.

Prior to Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, Italy was largely unavailable to most British travellers and therefore for most of the first post-Napoleonic travellers, unknown through personal experience. Presumably this served to heighten the view of Italy discursively created through many of the historical and literary texts discussed above, the view of Italy most commonly available. Regardless, as Laven concludes, British views of Italy in the first half of the nineteenth century were, ‘the product of a dialogue, which was not only transnational, but shaped by the relationships between different creative arts and academic disciplines.[71] (My emphasis). As this last point makes clear, the discursive configuration of Italy and Italians in the eyes of the British has obvious parallels with Orientalism, as a body of apparently objective knowledge formed through the interchange of academic and imaginative ideas. As Cavaliero observes, the ‘attitudes that the younger generation of British Romantic poets took towards Italy…were reflected in the notions of other writers and through them of politicians.’[72] The concept of Italy with which travellers arrived in the country was one informed by historians, Gothic and Romantic writers, and previous travellers. This is the construction of Italy evident in many of the travel accounts of the early nineteenth century.

In the following section, I will discuss how British travellers utilised ‘Orientalised’ Italy to describe Italian domestic formations, comparing them negatively to their British counterparts. In doing so, British travellers implied the superiority of Britain as a nation. Such observations, however, also intersected with ideas emerging back home: that the success of the nation was intrinsically linked to domestic formations with specifically middle-class characteristics, during a period when that class agitated for a greater share of socio-political authority. As we will see, however, some travellers used such observations to contest the constraining and oppressive nature of middle-class British domesticity.

The Discourse of Domesticity

The importance attributed by British travellers to appropriate domestic arrangements reflects not just national superiority, but a particular view of domesticity advanced by the middle-classes; the importance of separating the roles of men and women into public and private spheres. Davidoff and Hall have detailed the importance of the ‘separate spheres’ arrangement as key to the growing authority of the middle-classes between 1780 and 1840. The role of women as the moral centre of the middle-class household, the educator and nurturer of children, was portrayed as essential to the general flourishing of the nation. Sons were brought up to learn and respect their public, civic and political responsibilities, and daughters to understand their importance in providing a similarly nurturing home. Kay Boardman notes that, ‘for middle-class Victorians, the home and the management of it was central to their perceptions of themselves as a social group’ in a ‘complex network of class allegiance.’[73] As Davidoff and Hall point out, through the example of their domestic arrangements, the middle-classes, ‘placed themselves in opposition to an indolent and dissolute aristocracy, and a potentially subversive working class’.[74] By doing so, they staked a claim for greater socio-political authority. As discussed above, this is consistent with Makdisi’s observations regarding the identification and marginalisation of Britain’s internal ‘others’ as part of the process of configuring ‘Occidental’ British identity. As Rattansi puts it,

the processes which led to the formation of Western modernity also involved an inferiorisation and government, or regulation and disciplining of internal Others such as women, children and the rapidly growing urban working class. Thus, ‘internal’ questions of the forms of incorporation of these subalterns into the national culture and polity became conflated with and superimposed onto issues involving the forms in which the ‘natives’ of the colonies were to be discursively comprehended and ruled.[75]

Both Rattansi and Makdisi refer to a connection between the Eastern and domestic ‘other’, however, as I will discuss, the same strategy can be seen, when employing the Italian ‘other’.

Returning to the travel writer and novelist Anne Manning, Italian weakness was as much moral, domestic, and civic as it was military. Although critical of French excess, Manning concedes the advantage conferred by the many French improvements made to Italian institutions, lamenting that the Austrians had not maintained such developments, and that Italians had barely missed them once absent.[76] For example, Manning describes the French introduction of ‘liberal education’ to combat the ‘ignorance and bigotry of most of the Italian ladies’, in institutions run by French women in the absence of suitable Italians. A ‘liberal education’ was essentially domestic instruction, vital to the development of the ‘character and disposition of their sons.’ [77] It was the introduction of superior Northern European domestic practices that gave Manning some hope that the younger generation of Italians might fight for the freedom their parents were incapable of achieving, given the ignorance, bigotry, superstition and fatalistic submission of the latter.[78]

In an account which Lord Normanby claimed was based on personal experience and observation, he describes a doomed marriage between a high-ranking young Englishwomen and an Italian Count. In doing so he implied the superiority of English domestic relationships and the inferiority of their Italian counterparts.  Normanby suggested that Italians had no sense of national pride or spirit and no concept of civic duty, due to their foreign masters forbidding involvement in politics. Consequently, ‘forbidden to dream of ambition, the Italian devotes himself to love.’[79] This outlet ‘for all their enthusiasm’ inevitably led to the degrading spectacle of Italian domesticity. Matilda, the poor English unfortunate whose head is turned by the Italian natural talent for seduction, is forced to accept the humiliation of her new husband’s infidelities. Worse, she is obliged to consent to a cavalier servente, or male companion, when her husband characteristically tires of her company and becomes inattentive. When Matilda complains that she is being sexually harassed by the cavalier servente, her husband laughs it off, suggesting this is her affair and not his, and a silly,excessive English over-reaction.[80] Italian domestic arrangements are portrayed as both a symptom and the cause of Italy’s foreign domination. Italian domesticity failed to produce and nurture sons with national and civic pride who valued, and would fight for, political freedom. Their inability, however, to engage in political and civic life was what led to such domestic arrangements in the first place. The sexually and morally licentious view of aristocratic domesticity clearly maps onto a similar view back in Britain. Lord Normanby’s support for middle-class domesticity might appear an anomaly, coming as he did from an aristocratic lineage. Although elected as Tory MP for Scarborough in 1818, Normanby spoke up for Catholic Emancipation and parliamentary reform. Displeasing his family with these liberal views, Normanby resigned in 1820.  Returning to parliament, helater crossed the floor and became a prominent Whig politician.[81] Normanby’s apparent support for Whiggish middle-class domesticity in his writing perhaps reflects his political conflict with his aristocratic Tory family.

In reviewing Normanby, Mary Shelley agreed with some of his general observations regarding Italy, but utilised them to critique English domesticity in a different way. Shelley was ‘far from advocating the Italian conjugal system, which puts the axe to domestic happiness, and deeply embitters the childhood of the offspring of the divided parents’, but pointed out that an Italian woman would be equally unhappy in an English marriage.[82] Shelley asks how an Italian woman would fare with

the toils and dullness of an English home…her snug, but monotonous fireside, her sentry-box of a house…the necessity of forever wearing that thick and ample veil of propriety which we throw over every act and word.[83]

To English women, social constraint was ‘the music, the accompaniment by which they regulate their steps until they cannot walk without it; and the veil before spoken of is as necessary to their sense of decency as their very habiliments.’[84] The unconventional Shelleys had left England under a fair degree of social and financial disapprobation, and Mary, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, would no doubt have been particularly sensitive to the strictures of English social and domestic conventions. Shelley concludes by suggesting that Matilda, the unfortunate victim of Italian domesticity, had been offered far more freedom than would have been possible in England, yet ‘even the excess of freedom does not permit her the exact liberty she wants.’[85] Shelley implies that English women were as entrapped by domesticity as Italians were by despotism. Matilda is so conditioned by domestic restraint, she does not know how to react to relative freedom.

Mary Shelley’s critique is reminiscent of de Staёl’s in Corinne. The aristocratic Oswald must decide between marriage to the talented and vivacious Italian Corinne, and a conventional and demur Englishwoman. Oswald’s friend, Mr Edgarmond, whilst acknowledging Corinne’s beauty and talent, exclaims ‘none but English wives will do for England…of what use would she be in a house?’. He continues,

now the house is everything with us, you know, at least to our wives. Can you fancy your lovely Italian remaining quietly at home, while fox-hunts or debates took you abroad? The domestic worth of our women you will never find elsewhere…where men lead active lives, the women should bloom in the shade.[86]

De Staёl has been interpreted here as sympathising with the repression of English women  under English domestic arrangements, as Shelley appears to be doing. Indeed, in his review of Corinne, Francis Jeffrey acknowledges the accuracy with which de Staёl portrays ‘the almost total separation of the male from the female part of society’.[87] Jeffrey suggests however, the negative aspects of this have been exaggerated, that it is a ‘necessary consequence’ of a superior and politically engaged nation.’ Jeffrey draws attention to what he describes as de Staёl’s portrayal of the superiority of English men, derived from, ‘having some object in active life, and some concern in the government of their country.’[88] Indeed, given her positive comments regarding the English political and diplomatic landscape generally, it was unlikely that de Staёl ‘disputed Jeffrey’s broad conclusions’.[89]

Here, Shelley and de Staёl offer examples of what Kathryn Walchester describes as a trope among female travellers, whereby ‘women writers both manipulate the discourse of the domestic sphere and transgress its boundaries to offer various perspectives on European politics.’[90] In doing so, however, both writers contribute to a totalising configuration of Italian domestic life, one which suggests that Italian domestic arrangements are intimately linked to their lack of political freedom. ‘Effeminate’ and ‘licentious’ men are unable to exercise appropriate control over their households and, consequently, given freedom from domestic duties, Italian women fail to raise children who recognise their civic, political, and social responsibilities.  The reviewer Jeffrey seems to suggest that the suppression of women’s expression and individuality within British domesticity is a necessary and justifiable consequence, a noble sacrifice that superior English women make for the greater national good. No wonder then, that whatever de Staёl or Shelley’s intentions, even many nineteenth-century women ‘argue in essays or fictions that cultural differences in female conduct represented not legitimate differences of convention but deviations from a single real standard: that of British Protestant domesticity’.[91]

Clearly then, the comparison between Italian and British domesticity configured Britain as the superior nation. Not only was British domesticity morally superior, but emerging from it was the sense of social and political responsibility that had facilitated Britain’s rise as a free and stable nation at home, and a world power abroad. Thus gender difference was co-constitutive with a discourse of middle-class superiority, one transferable to claims of national superiority. In a famous article on women travellers, Elizabeth Rigby, later to become Lady Eastlake, a writer for the influential and conservative Quarterly Review, compared English women with their foreign counterparts. Rigby noted that, ‘the foreign lady can in no way be measured against her’ because of the Englishwoman’s ‘very habits of order and regularity which make her domestic’.[92] English superiority was attributable ‘to nothing less than the domesticity of the English character’.[93] Mary Poovey points out that the portrayal of middle-class women, from the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, moved from emotionally and sexually unstable, to domestic angel, the nation’s ‘moral hope and spiritual guide’.[94] Such portrayals demonstrate an inherently patriarchal view of women as unstable and dangerous, unless properly supervised within a male-controlled domestic environment such as that promoted by the middle-classes. For the lower classes, ‘separate sphere’ domesticity was effectively an impossibility, given the economic requirement for women to work. They were entrapped by a circular argument which stated that their lower-class deficiencies were caused by their lack of domestic qualities, yet their economic status prevented them from such domesticity in the first place. By the 1860s, one anonymous author noted that

It seems a bold statement to make, but it is put forth under a deep conviction of its reality and truthfulness, that the want of domesticity among women – of the working classes especially – is a great source of most of the ‘social evils’ which are as a plague spot upon the nation at the present time.[95]


Travellers, novelists, poets, and academics in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries used a combination of ‘objective’ academic knowledge and ‘imaginative’ cultural representations of Italy to configure Italy as ‘other’ and Britain as its superior corollary. Such strategies have clear parallels with Edward Said’s Orientalism and suggest that the discourse which Said identified has far wider applications than as purely an imperialist East-West binary. Travel literature is a useful genre to consider in this respect, intersecting as it does, the objectively observed ‘academic’ and ‘imaginative’ forms of Orientalism.

Orientalising descriptions of Italian domesticity were superimposed onto questions of class and gender back home. Stoler and Cooper point out that to properly understand the role which Orientalism plays in the construction of the foreign and domestic ‘other’, ‘metropole and colony’ must be seen within ‘a single analytical field’.[96] As I have identified, gender, class, national superiority, and configurations of British and Italian identity can also be seen in the same co-constituting analytical frame. As Cohn identified as regards India, it seems that the British also invade an ‘epistemological space’ in Italy, to configure superior British ‘identity’ as essentially Protestant, male and middle-class. Although neither ‘Eastern’, nor a formal colony, ‘knowledge’ of Italy played a part in Britain’s self-identification as an Imperial power.[97]


[1] J. Urry, The Tourist Gaze 3.0 (London, 2011), pp. 1-2.

[2] C. Thompson, Travel Writing (Abingdon, 2011), pp. 10-11.

[3] E. Said, Orientalism (London, 1978), p. 14.

[4] B. Cohn, ‘Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge’, in A. Howe (Ed.), The New Imperial Histories Reader (Oxford, 2010), pp. 117-124, 118.

[5] Said, Orientalism, p. 27.

[6] R. Inden, ‘Orientalist Constructions of India’, Modern Asian Studies, 20 (1986), pp. 401-46, 409-10.

[7] Inden, Orientalist Constructions, p. 408.

[8] Inden, Orientalist Constructions, p. 408.

[9] Said, Orientalism, p. 11.

[10] Said, Orientalism, p. 14.

[11] Said, Orientalism, p. 14.

[12] Said, Orientalism, pp. 10-11.

[13] Said, Orientalism, p. 15.

[14] Los Angeles Times, 10th July 1993. (Accessed 4/10/17).

[15] Said, Orientalism, p. 11.

[16] Said, Orientalism, pp. 9-10.

[17] A. Carastathis, ‘Is Hellenism an Orientalism? Reflections on the Boundaries of

“Europe” in an Age of Austerity’, Critical Race and Whiteness Studies, 10 (2014), pp. 2-17, 2.

[18] Carastathis, ‘Is Hellenism an Orientalism?’, pp. 4-5.

[19] F. Jeffrey, ‘Review of “Corinne, ou l’Italie.”’, Edinburgh Review, 11 (1807), pp. 183-95, 194.

[20] S. Makdisi, Making England Western (Chicago, IL., 2014).

[21] I. Ghose, Women Travellers in Colonial India: The Power of the Female Gaze (Delhi, 1998), pp. 22-5.

[22] J. Luzzi, Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy (London, 2008), p. 1.

[23] Luzzi, Romantic Europe, p, 52.

[24] For example, see the seminal, C. P. Brand, Italy and the English Romantics: The Italianate Fashion in Early Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1957); C. Hornsby (Ed.), The Impact of Italy: The Grand Tour and Beyond (London, 2000); L. M. Crisafulli (Ed.), Imagining Italy, Literary Itineraries in British Romanticism (Bologna, 2002); L. Bandiera & Saglia, D., (Eds.), British Romanticism and Italian Literature. Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting (Amsterdam, 2005); J. Stabler, The Artistry of Exile, (Oxford, 2013); D. Laven, ‘The British Idea of Italy in the Age of Turner’, in D. B. Brown (Ed.), J. M. W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, (Tate Research Publication, London, 2015). ,(Accessed 16/04/2017).

[25] Laven, British Idea of Italy

[26] K. Walchester, Our Own Fair Italy (Bern, 2007), p. 39.

[27] Laven, British Idea of Italy.

[28] Brand, Italianate Fashion, p. x.

[29] Brand, Italianate Fashion, p. 187.

[30] Laven, British Idea of Italy.

[31] Brand, Italianate Fashion, p. 1.

[32] R. Ascham, The English Works of Roger Ascham (London, 1815), p. 248. ‘Roger Ascham’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Accessed: 06/10/17).

[33] D. Laven, ‘Lord Byron, Count Daru, and Anglophone Myths of Venice in the Nineteenth Century’, MDCCC, 1 (2012), pp. 5-32, 12.

[34] Brand, Italianate Fashion, p. 187.

[35] Brand, Italianate Fashion, p. 189.

[36] A. Manning, Stories from the History of Italy (London, 1831), p. 59.

[37] Manning, History, p. 59.

[38] M. Gardiner, Countess of Blessington, The Idler in Italy, Vol. ii (London, 1839), p. 213.

[39] Blessington, Idler, p. 213.

[40] Blessington, Idler, p. 214.

[41] Manning, History, p. 59.

[42] Manning, History, pp. 351-9.

[43] Manning, History, pp. 358-9.

[44] Brand, Italianate Fashion, p. 215.

[45] W. Hazlitt, Notes of a Journey (London, 1826), p. 246.

[46] M. Graham, Three Months Passed in the Mountain’s East of Rome (London, 1820), pp. iv-v.

[47] Graham, Three Months, p. 131.

[48] Graham, Three Months, p. 60.

[49] J. C. L de Sismondi, History of the Italian Republics (London, 1832), p. 3.

[50] Mdm. de Staёl, Corinne; or Italy (London, 1834), p. 16.

[51] R. Casillo, The Empire of Stereotypes: Germain de Staёl and the idea of Italy (New York, 2006), pp. 2-3.

[52] Jeffrey, Review, p. 183.

[53] Jeffery, Review, p. 194.

[54] Brand, Italianate Fashion, p. 14.

[55] M. Shelley, ‘The English in Italy’, Westminster Review, VI (1826), pp. 325-41, 326-7.

[56] Shelley, ‘The English’, p. 327.

[57] A. Szegedy-Maszak, ‘A Perfect Ruin: Nineteenth Century Views of the Colloseum’, Arion, 2, (1992), pp. 115-142, 127.

[58] T. Earle Welby (Ed.), The Complete Works of Walter Savage Landor, Vol. XI (London, 1930), p. 89.

[59] S. C. Hughson (Ed.), The Best Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, (Chicago, IL., 1892), p. 133.

[60] Hughson, Letters, p. 133.

[61] Percival, History, p. 170.

[62] Laven, British Idea of Italy.

[63] ‘Introduction: The Cenci’ in Delphi Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Hastings, 2012).

[64] Hughson, Letters, p. 133.

[65] C. K. Webster, The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh 1815-1822: Britain and the European Alliance (London, 1925), p. 334.

[66] C. H. Phipps, Lord Normanby, The English in Italy in 3 Volumes, Vol. 2 (London, 1825), pp. 39-40.

[67] R. Cavaliero, Italia Romantica: English Romantics and Italian Freedom (London, 2005), p. 5.

[68] Cavaliero, Italia Romantica, pp. 6,8.

[69] Shelley, English, p. 330.

[70] Shelley, English, pp. 330-31.

[71] Laven, British Idea of Italy.

[72] Cavaliero, Italia Romantica, p. ix.

[73] K. Boardman, ‘The Ideology of Domesticity: The Regulation of the Household Economy in Victorian Women’s Magazines’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 33 (2000), pp. 150-164, 162.

[74] L. Davidoff &Hall, C., Family Fortunes (London, 1992), xviii.

[75] A. Rattansi, ‘Postcolonialism and its Discontents’, Economy and Society, 26 (2006), pp. 480-500, 482.

[76] Manning, History, p. 339-40.

[77] Manning, History, p. 353.

[78] Manning, History, pp. 383-9.

[79] Normanby, English, pp. 41-3.

[80] Normanby, English, pp. 76.

[81] ‘Constantine Henry Phipps’, Oxford Database of National Biography, (Accessed: 02/05/17).

[82] Shelley, English, pp. 328-9; R. Balzaretti, ‘British Women Travellers and Italian Marriages, c. 1789-1844’, in V. Babini, C. Beccalossi and L. Riall (Eds), Italian Sexualities Uncovered: The Long Nineteenth Century (1879-1914), (Basingstoke, 2015), p. 264.

[83] Shelley, English, p. 329.

[84] Shelley, English, p. 329.

[85] Shelley, English, p. 329.

[86] De Staёl, Corinne, p. 127.

[87] Jeffrey, Review, p. 192.

[88] Jeffrey, Review, p. 193.

[89] E. Simpson, ‘On Corinne, Or Italy’, BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History, (Accessed: 27/04/17).

[90] Walchester, Our Own Fair Italy, p. 7.

[91] E. Simpson, ‘On Corinne, Or Italy’.

[92] E. Rigby, ‘Lady Travellers’, Quarterly Review, 76 (1844), pp. 98-136, 102.

[93] Rigby, Travellers, p. 103.

[94] M. Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (London, 1989), pp. 9-10.

[95] M.A.B, A Few Words on Women’s Work (London, 1859), p. 7.

[96] A. Stoler & Cooper, F., (Eds.), Tensions of Empire Colonial: Cultures in a Bourgeois World (Berkeley, CA., 1997), pp. 3-4.

[97] Such entanglements of race, class, gender, and national identity, offer support to the ideas of ‘Intersectionality’ proposed by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins. Crenshaw and Collins discussed the intersection of race, gender, class, sexuality and nationality, predominantly connected with the marginalising experiences of black men and women in twentieth-century America. However, such ideas appear to be equally applicable to British identity-making and the marginalisation of foreign and domestic ‘others’ in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe. See: K.W. Crenshaw, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrines, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, The University of Chicago Legal Forum, (Chicago, IL., 1989). P. H. Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (New York & London1990).

[98] D. Ludden, ‘Orientalist Empiricism: Transformations of Colonial Knowledge’, in C. A. Breckenridge & van de Veer, P., (Eds.), Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament, (Philadelphia, PA.,1993), pp. 250-278, 270.

[99] Carastathis, Is Hellenism an Orientalism?, p. 4.


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Author Biography 

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