Women and the Politics of Travel, 1870-1914.
Monica Anderson's recent study analyzes travel narratives by Isabella Bird, Florence Dixie, and Kate Marsden with the intention of creating a project embracing multiple theoretical approaches "such as feminism, autobiography, postcolonialism, and so on, thereby avoiding the limitations inherent in writing to any one theoretical position" (16-17). Anderson offers an opportunity to see how these writers deliberately construct a version of themselves for audience consumption (17), using "moments of negotiation that offer the possibility for a more inclusive kind of feminine performance" (15). Out of the introduction and five chapters in this study, a reader may find that Anderson more thoroughly delivers on her promise by the final two chapters, where clear problems of performativity emerge in certain travel narratives. Getting to that point means the reader must at times negotiate an uneven critical landscape of scattered analytical approaches to the travel narratives, as well as a confusing organizational structure in which half the chapters deal with generic concerns and, depending on the reader's experience with women's travel writing, may offer too much distraction from the actual narratives, or provide only a familiar review of travel narrative conventions.
Looking at the first two of the three sections discussing Anderson's theoretical framework, we find that the introduction and chapter I provide a good background for readers beginning their study of women's travel narratives. Anderson's introduction suggests the promise of issues raised to complicate the conventional readings of these narratives, but also the possibility of fretful engagement with multiple theoretical viewpoints. The introduction discusses the Victorian context for the reception of women travelers, the conditions for the creation of their narratives and subsequent reception. She reviews the social difficulties encountered by would-be travelers, and then the institutional obstacles to public recognition of women's achievements in travel, as played out in the Royal Geographical Society's debate over nominating female members. Anderson's concluding paragraph to the introduction at once raises and dashes expectations for such narratives: "Far from being a hermetic text, it would appear that the text of the journey, no less than the text of the self, is open in every sense to innovation and change, with no sense of an obligation to provide an ending, or a fixed result" (31). Readers should leave behind preconceived notions about how to interpret travel narratives and be open to what the text and Anderson's critical lens present, but then Anderson obscures her intentions with regard to interpretation: "The emancipatory value of the journey for nineteenth-century women travelers was then, and remains, problematic" (31). The reader is left with a sense of uncertainty as to Anderson's direction at this point.
Similarities between the introduction and chapter 1 suggest that one chapter could have encompassed both. Chapter 1 builds upon the introduction with a set of discussions about travel narrative conventions, illustrated by readings of selected women's narratives that challenge the patriarchal foundations for these accepted conventions. This chapter introduces women who are not part of the main chapters, and in the same vein of variety, Anderson's discussion of travel conventions reaches wide. But this reach does not narrow the introductory material enough for us to employ the precise lens with which to read the three following writers' narratives.
Isabella Bird appears in chapter 2, "Line of Sight: Narration and the Spectator in Isabella Bird's The Golden Chersonese," as a woman who inscribes a conventional female self through the epistolary mode and narrates a picturesque perspective on the Southeast Asian environment. This narrative, published in 1883, features some of the last foreign letters written to her sister Henrietta. The original audience for the letters implicitly tames Bird's discourse about wandering in the jungle of exotic sights and people. Anderson endeavors to show how Bird uses a "strategic blindness" (81) to construct appropriate views of her destinations so that she can manufacture a vision of "herself as a conforming, properly socialized late nineteenth-century woman" (80). What this suggests is a significant editing of the public image to eliminate the more "masculine" habits of travel. Missing from this analysis is the additional layer of repression, the fact that travel was the prescription for Bird's mysterious malady, which manifested only when she was at home. Possibilities for deepening the analysis of Bird's narrative, in terms of her constructed identity, emerge in the discussion of her visit to Hugh Low, the Resident of Perak. Anderson misses the chance to look more critically at Bird's admiration of this representative of empire, as assisting in building her strategic position as a political conservative. Consequently, in this regard, we do not move far past Dorothy Middleton's Victorian Lady Travellers (1965) and Pat Barr's A Curious Life for a Lady: The Story of Isabella Bird (1970) in their treatment of Bird's politics.
Anderson's discussion of Bird's narrative performativity is followed by the chapter on Lady Florence Dixie, whose travel narrative, In the Land of Misfortune (1882), was created in tandem with the more political narrative entitled A Defence of Zululand and Its King from the Blue Books (1882). Both narratives derive from her newspaper dispatches to the Morning Post. As the first female foreign war correspondent, Dixie has an audience eager for news of British activities in the Transvaal as well as of a gentlewoman's conduct in a very volatile, male environment. Dixie's performance of proper British femaleness on the road is vexed, a "coexistence between two antagonistic roles" (119). On the one hand, Dixie is a politically liberal observer with sympathies for the deposed Zulu king Cetshwayo. On the other hand, while embedded with the British troops, Dixie produces newspaper dispatches that are "increasingly impassioned and jingoistic," according to Anderson (125). The two roles collide when Dixie participates in the Inhslazatye Meeting, where a special British military delegation was charged with meeting native Zulu leaders to discuss British policy for the Transvaal after the Boer War. Dixie's depictions of the defeated Boers helps Anderson complicate Dixie's binaristic self-presentation, so that we are better able to see how she can sympathize with the defeated, noble Africans rather than with the equally defeated, but far more corrupt, Dutch Boers. This chapter is complex and interweaves multiple texts, which is bound to create confusion because Dixie's news dispatches produced not one, but two narratives simultaneously. Unlike Bird's narrative, with its seemingly unitary subjectivity, Dixie offers the performances of her different selves in separate publications. Such texture is to be valued, though it is easy to lose track of Anderson's focus on The Land of Misfortune because the prose strains under the effort to juggle multiple narrative performances.
Controversy and reader reception seem to be Anderson's strengths in the selection and interpretation of texts because her interpretation of Kate Marsden's travel narrative, On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers (1892), in chapter 4 presents a compelling problem of how a woman's exertions to perform British womanhood outside of the British imperium will backfire very publicly. What makes this a fascinating chapter comes from Anderson's discussion of reader reception of supplementary materials to Marsden's first edition, which were seen as ostensible proofs of Marsden's chronic prevarications and exaggerations. Double meanings lie behind facsimiles of letters bearing royal insignia from dignitaries ranging from Russian nobles to Queen Victoria's private secretary. Instead of affirming Marsden's altruistic motives in seeking a mysterious Russian herb to cure leprosy, these reproduced testimonials incite personal attacks against the author. "What was the trigger for this violent personal attack?" asks Anderson. The response to this question is found in the veiled remarks made by Marsden's compatriots in Russia about "immorality with women" and rumors about Marsden's "own written confession" that prompts this act of medical missionary work as a form of "atonement" for the unnamed "sin" (166). While such a reading enables a preliminary interpretation of the narrative's terse prose, the focus on supplemental materials detracts from closer readings, where the narrative's language might yield more substance for the argument about Marsden's closeted lesbian authorship, and where Judith Butler's discussions of performativity and language would also help. For instance, Anderson does not enter into a deeper examination of how Marsden presents her travel companion and translator, Anna Field, which would offer some support for the narrative's troubled reception. Perhaps it would have been worth asking how a reader should understand Marsden's use of the pronoun "we" and how this seemingly ambiguous situation may have helped precipitate the widespread criticism of Marsden's quixotic quest for the herbal leprosy cure.
After discussing this dramatic, problematic performance of proper femininity through narrative construction, the final chapter, entitled '"In the choice of their dress': Self-Representation and the Nineteenth-Century Woman Traveler," wraps up the three chapters on specific narratives with a more general discussion. Chapter 5 seems to be a sudden reversion back to the introductory chapters, rather than a concluding synthesis of the three travel narratives discussed, and may seem to be an abrupt shift after the riveting discussion about Marsden. However, this discussion of the successful use of "cross-cultural cross-dressing" (218) presents a different kind of synthesis. Anderson writes of her interest in whether "clothing was used not only as a shield but also a weapon--that is, a visible declaration of authority" (199). Androgynization and its social possibilities emerge from the analysis as unifying elements for these women, no matter their area of travel. But Anderson recognizes the difficulty in eliding these experiences and the historical contexts of the regions traveled, as she remarks that the use of clothing can be "a problem of national self-expression in which clothing functions as a sign of specific colonial relations and cultural practices through modes of address authorized elsewhere" (221), and at the same time, the implications of normative female vestimentary display can be evaded by the female body's physical departure from the centers of social conformity. In all, this chapter's organization around a central question lends a stronger sense of theoretical coherence to the examples from Bird and Dixie, as well as the travelers May French-Sheldon (East Africa) and Gertrude Bell (Syria).
A question of focus comes up when one considers the many travelers examined in this study, even beyond the three major women figures. Anderson states that she wishes her study to be a "broadly-based cultural study" (16), and she achieves this aim by discussing women traveling in very diverse places, such as showing Mrs. Alex Tweedie's visit to Finland as illustrating the performance of Britishness through domesticity. If one were to enumerate the regional characteristics of the three major narratives, the lists would show that each region's political situation in the British imperial universe, at first glance, does not offer a substantial foundation as to why the three women were selected for this study; likewise we do not find the travelers' backgrounds and personal circumstances sufficiently coherent to warrant the choice of these three women. Here the "roads" are vastly different from each other, and it would be unfair to the authors and their narrative contexts to elide their experiences into a unitary whole, when understanding a region's specific political and geographical situation has become one of the challenges of contemporary travel narrative criticism. At the same time, this study points out the ongoing need for ways to theorize about women's experience on the road, beyond the male-female, colonizer-colonized binaries that have already given way in postcolonial studies to discussions of hybridization.
May Caroline Chan
The College of Saint Rose
Albany, New York
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|Author:||Chan, May Caroline|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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