FOR ANYONE under the illusion that it's natural to want to go and take a dip at the seaside, Alain Corbin, professor of modern history at the Sorbonne, argues that this is a profoundly artificial activity. Until the mid-18th century, according to him, Europeans experienced only fear and dread at the thought of the sea. It was a violent and unpredictable place that threw ships against the rocks, swallowed sailors and gave off nauseous and pungent smells. Artists presented it as an evil force, the supreme metaphor for sin and darkness. The sea was the enemy of civilisation: it had swept everything away in the Flood, and retained the power to maim and destroy human life.
Around 1750, things began to change. Neo-hippocratic medicine, which had reigned supreme in the 17th century, gave way to new ideas about the importance of fresh air, exercise and exposure to changes of temperature. It was for duty rather than pleasure that the first holiday-makers went to the seaside. Cold bathing was said to spark appetite, cut the libido, keep young girls serene during puberty, make rickety children straight, give hope to barren women and prevent men of little virility from becoming too effeminate.
A further boost for the sea was given by the monolithic phenomenon known as 'the rise of Romanticism'. Burke and Kant's aesthetic theories of the sublime gave intellectual and moral value to the waves. Artists outdid one another to be nice to the sea. Caspar David Friedrich, Byron, Turner, Shelley and Keats all presented it as a magical place where man might rediscover the spiritual side of his being.
Alongside this aesthetic interest came the development of the seaside resort. From a modern perspective, it is hard to understand why people flocked to the dismal climate of Brighton or Scarborough, but it was the glacial sea that had provided the initial medical rationale, and the presence of members of the aristocracy did the rest. Resorts became centres of social life. Each had its coterie of royal visitors, and men and women spent seasons gliding up and down the piers looking for suitable matches.
The cultural history of a giant, abstract theme such as the sea is bound to remain an episodic, fragmented account. Corbin is adept at tracking down obscure travellers' notebooks, but he shows little interest in filling us in on even the briefest economic reasons for the new seaside enthusiasm - namely, the rise of the middle classes in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, greater mobility between ranks, improvement in real wages and the spread of railways. He makes hardly any attempt to distinguish the differences in attitudes across Europe: we rarely have mention of southern Europe, or indeed the United States.
Similar changes were happening in attitudes to the land. The new-found enthusiasm for both sea and land was part of a general shift sparked by increasing mechanisation and the spread of urban life. People could wax lyrical about the landscape now that it no longer harboured wolves and witches, much as they could feel enthusiasm for the sea now that it had been charted and its secrets catalogued, and could be experienced from the safety of a covered pier or bathing hut.
Corbin too often gives us the impression that he started with a premise and then went to look for evidence to support it - despite the emergence of awkward facts, for instance that the Romans loved the seaside long before 1750, built many resorts and villas and celebrated the sea in their art; or, indeed, that the people of southern Europe have always enjoyed swimming. His book is a classic illustration of what happens when historians try to harness a set of developments into a fascinating thesis, only to find the evidence too complex to be neatly fitted in.
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