Off the Beaten Track? Divergent Discourses in Victorian Women’s Travelogues

Thesis (M.A.), 2005

102 Pages, Grade: 1,1




A Short Trip Through Theory

Victorian Ladies at Home and Abroad
Imperium in Imperio -Women’s Role in Victorian Society
Roads to Freedom - Victorian Women On The Move

On Tour With Lucie Duff Gordon and Amelia B. Edwards
Shahrazad's Kingdom - The Real Egypt of Lady Duff Gordon
Temples for Breakfast - The Ancient Egypt of Miss A. B. Edwards




“The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only a page,” is a common travel proverb dating back to Saint Augustine (354-430).1 It was stated during a time when travels were still mostly undertaken for political, religious, educational or commercial reasons and hardly for leisure as in modern periods. Yet, today and then, travelling means largely to be able to travel, to have the means and the right to travel, to be privileged in some way. Furthermore, Saint Augustine’s saying points also to another crucial aspect, namely the idea of the textuality of “the world” which can be deciphered and read and which is disclosed to the “reader” to different degrees, depending on his/her means to travel around. Like this, the traveller is equipped with a position of authority which is firstly granted to him/her by his/her economic, political or religious status and secondly extended by his/her superior knowledge gathered “abroad.” But even in order to read, one must possess the right “tools,” one must be knowledgeable beforehand to be able to interpret the world in legible terms if one aims to communicate one’s experiences and points of view to others. These aspects hint at the three theoretical parameter of the following paper about Victorian women’s travelogues: the relationship between power and knowledge, the authority of the eyewitness and the discursive situatedness of the traveller/reader.

With the expansion of the British empire during the nineteenth century travels into the still unknown colonial areas were vital to consolidate British power by magnifying its knowledge about the countries’ human and economic resources, traditions, cultures, topographies, and potentials. Apart from British officials many scholars and private travellers undertook journeys into the foreign regions and afterwards compiled their experiences in travelogues, the market of which rapidly expanded as the century advanced and general interest in foreign countries grew. But it was not only new or factual knowledge that was thus conferred to the readers at home. Journeys abroad were rooted in and experienced through complex discursive frameworks that shaped the traveller’s perspective towards the other country and its people and made him “read” the “book” of the world in certain ways.2 Representation of other cultures depended therefore largely on already established Western hegemonic

“knowledges” like anthropological theories, which were frequently cited and repeated in travel texts. The communication of new data according to previously determined classifications as well as the citation of already recognised knowledge lent the imperial traveller thus a position of authority and control within the knowledge-processing apparatuses of the British Empire but also towards colonial cultures which suddenly found themselves estimated against a hierarchical structure of Western values and beliefs.

But the expansion of the empire demanded even more than the ultimate visibility of the colonial subjects and their countries. The British needed to create their own singular identity and to maintain a strict border policy in order to secure their power and superiority over the colonised people.

As Stuart Hall points out, representation always works along specific cultural and linguistic codes, which define key aspects of identification and otherness.3 As the practice of othering is essential to the development of the individual and a culture or nation it cannot be regarded as per se “negative,” rather it is important to illuminate the power relations involved in this process.4 It was especially in the space of the non- European “Other” that British identity could take shape and be elaborated in the nineteenth century.5 In order to demarcate the “West and the Rest”6 and maintain a stable hierarchic structure a number of binary divisions were employed within imperial discourses (e.g. British or European/alien, rational/irrational, clean/dirty, complex/simple etc.) that constituted for Europeans a valid classificatory system which glossed over the size of the actual spectrum of similarities and differences between the cultures.7 Travelogues functioned as important factors in the construction and confirmation of a common British identity by a continual reference to certain codes that identified “us” and “them” additionally granting authority to the traveller as member of a colonising nation. For British middle class women of the nineteenth century who travelled in colonial areas this position of power must have offered an attractive alternative to their otherwise restricted possibilities and power positions at home where they were usually constructed as “Other” to male subjectivity. The British empire generally presented a field of action where middle class women could dispose of energies usually enclosed within Victorian confines while simultaneously expanding their horizons: they went abroad on behalf of social or religious associations or societies, as governesses or nurses, as naturalists, students, writers, or historians thus gradually redefining the “masculine” imperial space and extending “women’s sphere.”8

The fact of Victorian women swarming out to the imperial outskirts contradicts more or less the thesis of their total patriarchal oppression. The separate spheres ideology which grew stronger from about the middle of the eighteenth century onwards did severely restrict women’s public activities and pronounce their domestic duties but its rhetoric supplied also the basis for at least middle class women to develop their own positions of social power, for example as moral gate-keepers.9 As such they could even regain some part of the public platform and write and speak on women and men’s duties (towards women) in their common interest of the state’s welfare.10 Like this political and social action was of course also limited and could only be launched on the basis of women’s allegedly superior morality.11 Generally middle class women, who put their feet on masculine connotated grounds, had to be mostly content with working in or being shoved to peripheral areas. Their imperial activities, too, could be classified as more or less background work as they had no direct political or military influence. Nonetheless their contributions to the growing imperial library and the contemporary imperial discourses were very important and should not be underestimated. British control of colonial areas depended on information not least gathered and communicated by travelling or settler women, who on their part could thus demonstrate patriotism and modify and enlarge women’s public influence.12 Moreover the amount of published travelogues by women which formed a considerable part of nineteenth century travel writing suggests that publishing houses and readers were keen on women’s allegedly different perspectives and experiences of foreign quarters of the world.13 Their texts were, of course, produced within different gender discourses and had, therefore, different access to imperial discourses of the time.

According to Michel Foucault, on whose definition(s) of discourse I will rely for my study, discourses are subject to certain practices of exclusion which determine who can say what at a particular time and location.14 Discourse in general is understood as a group of utterances that is produced, organised and regulated through specific rules which again depend on their respective setting in time and space.15 As discourses produce knowledge, the discursive rules determine subject-matter, terminology, subject positions available to the speaker/writer and theories of influence.16 Knowledge must thus be seen as strategic and historically variable. It is not an objective reflection of “reality” but produced within and through certain power relations.17 The right to speak publicly (in academic, political or cultural contexts), was not naturally granted to Victorian women, as many discursive rules were determined by certain gender “truths” of the time. Feminine discourses of the nineteenth century ascribed to women specific characteristics like passivity, feebleness, emotionalism etc., classifying them like this as “Other” to men, in consequence of which women travellers could not easily adopt imperial discourses usually employed in male travelogues, like scholarly surveys, adventurous modes of narrating, or certain topics such as cannibalism which would stand as diametrically opposed to their supposed femininity. Their travels within colonial areas demanded, however, often enough “masculine” behaviour like physical strength, stamina and audacity, or a “masculine” position of authority over colonial subjects. Like this imperial women travellers were ambivalently interpellated by the Empire;18 they had to adhere to British ideologies of femininity as well as to the demands of colonial representation and activity, neither discourse of which could, however, fully accommodate them.19 Their texts, in consequence of this, display an interesting way of negotiating between both discourses, which are often used for mutual reinforcement but which also at other times remain contradictory, thus abating each other.

For quite some time Victorian women’s travelogues were not or only scarcely considered within contemporary criticism. With Edward Said’s study of Orientalist perspectives towards Eastern countries, colonial travel writing in general gained attention and was investigated, also by other critics, as to its imperial discourses and its importance within the colonial enterprise.20 Victorian women travelling alone or in pairs in colonial areas were in this context largely regarded as exceptions, as eccentric and non-conforming spinsters. Even feminists perpetuated this image to some extent by pronouncing their rebellious and adventurous escape from Victorian confinement, claiming them like this for their own history of feminism. Early colonial criticism as well as feminist representations of travelling heroines thus marginalised women’s involvement in colonialism and, in the case of conventional critical studies, even their general involvement in historical processes.21 Later critics like Sara Mills or Margaret Strobel and Nupur Chaudhuri pointed out the importance of Victorian women travellers not only as contributors to the collection of colonial data but also as ideological agents for the cause of imperialism, repeating, perpetuating and broadening colonial discourses. Traditional Western feminist views of women travellers proposed that they were critical of imperialism on the basis of their own oppression which seemingly commenced their identification with the subjugated people. Mills and other critics, however, highlighted their textual adoption of an imperial position that confirmed rather than contradicted established hierarchies and furnished them with power and authority. Their status as personal observers, which surpassed theoretical learning,22 further enhanced their authority and even made it possible for them to draw on and contribute to academic discourses otherwise not easily accessible for Victorian women. The present study aims first to present different feminist approaches to women’s travelogues of the nineteenth century and second to elaborate the argument of Victorian women’s complicity in colonialism.

A reflection of contemporary criticism and representation of Victorian women in the context of this study is important for two reasons. First of all I want to give an impression of the work already carried out in this sector, its achievements and the necessity of its continuance. Secondly it concerns precisely the matter under examination: how is representation effected through different discourses? Both approaches to women’s travelogues are inspired by diverging aims and therefore analyse the respective texts according to different strategies. The first approach tries to rehabilitate past women’s work and achievements in order to enhance the status of women in history thereby neglecting the texts’ imperial components, which, after all, leaves women only attached to history instead of showing their involvement. This “positive” representation of past women is taken up and criticised by the second feminist approach, thus not only enlarging the scope of critical assessment of women’s texts and lives (by looking at feminine as well as imperial discourses) but also introducing a self-reflective ingredient to criticism, to point at the critic’s own discursive situatedness. Critical studies are thus no longer declared as objective and universally true but as partial and preliminary leaving space for efficient interrogation and modification. This describes a move away from traditional Western power relations, which had been also maintained by white Western feminists, and an opening to a more equal exchange between women from diverse national, racial or class backgrounds. My thesis of Victorian women travellers’ complicity in British colonialism takes up the arguments of the second feminist approach. Rather than seeing female travel writers as individuals who convey through an autobiographical mode of narration their personal experiences and thoughts, I want to look at particular feminine and imperial discourses current at the time of their writing through which their texts were produced and structured. These were constraints in regard to production as well as reception representing the discursive rules they had to submit to if they aimed at public recognition. To put it with Foucault:

Es ist immer möglich, daß man im Raum eines wilden Außen die Wahrheit sagt; aber im Wahren ist man nur, wenn man den Regeln einer diskursiven „Polizei“ gehorcht, die man in jedem seiner Diskurse reaktivieren muß.23

Although it remains questionable how one should actually speak outside of discourse, if any meaningful language is always already discursive, this, of course, summarises the conditions of authoritative speaking. It is because of their own situatedness within imperial and feminine discourses of the nineteenth century as well as their obligation to produce their travelogues along specific “rules” that Victorian women travellers cannot be located outside of colonialism, that they did not and could not leave the beaten track of imperialist approaches to colonial countries. Nonetheless, one incision needs to be made. Evidently a great number of British women went abroad in the nineteenth century for different reasons. But writing about their experiences in addition to the fact of many women travelling alone or in twos to remote or otherwise still unknown areas challenged the patriarchal idealisation of the domestic (maternal) woman and her alleged feebleness. Even though women travellers often created their narrative and travelling personas along feminine standards, the fact of their imperial and authorial activities remains juxtaposed to and critical of patriarchal ideas of femininity. The approach to women’s travelogues in terms of discourse analysis provides the possibility to critically interrogate their texts on the basis of social, political and cultural conditions rather than their biographies. It also offers the means of comparison and differentiation between texts by female writers and texts by male writers as well as comparisons and differentiations within each group, in order to identify certain (gender-related) discursive formations.

The following study starts, as already indicated, with an outline of contemporary theoretical approaches in regard to imperial women’s travelogues. The second chapter aims to give an insight into the cultural situatedness of middle class Victorian women. It focuses especially on particular feminine discourses which structured their modes of identity and scopes of public action. The second part of this chapter looks at the history of travelling in general and of Victorian women in particular in order to illuminate their possibilities of travelling abroad and to depreciate the notion of its supposed novelty or exceptionality. Both parts try to illustrate the cultural and social “points of departure” Victorian women occupied when leaving their home country.

The final and main chapter concentrates on two particular Victorian women writers and two of their travelogues. There are quite a number of different criteria according to which the choice of exemplary texts can be achieved. One can choose texts from different eras to show discursive continuities or discontinuities. It is also possible to analyse texts of the same period but where the travellers went to different destinations, in order to show the diversity of imperial discourses. Many combinations as to time, location, gender, class or other background factors are possible and can consequently shed different lights on the subject matter. My initial intention was to find two women writers from similar backgrounds, who travelled to the same area during the same or at least practically the same period of time, because I hoped to identify congruent feminine and imperial discourses. My choice, therefore, fell on Lucie Duff Gordon’s Letters from Egypt and Amelia Edwards A Thousand Miles up the Nile. Both

writers had a liberal upper class background and travelled to semi-colonial Egypt during the second half of the nineteenth century.24 Although I did find similarities in their texts as to imperialist perspectives towards Egypt their employed discourses and narrative structures are much more diverse and indicate the actual heterogeneity of Orientalist and feminine discourses and imperial positionings as I will show during subsequent analyses. Both travelogues have not been analysed yet in the form here undertaken. Duff Gordon and Edwards are frequently mentioned within feminist and colonial criticism but apart from one or two more detailed interrogations their travelogues were not, as far as known, studied in their entirety. The present study sees itself therefore as continuation and extension of the work so far accomplished within the critical history of Victorian women’s travel narratives.

A Short Trip Through Theory

Up until the late 1970s Victorian travel literature by women usually slipped attention in critical literature. The first impulse to unearth forgotten travelogues by women and to introduce them to literary criticism was given in the context of feminist aspirations to point a finger at the importance of women’s works in past literary and scholarly discourses. These accounts were predominantly biographical and gave positive descriptions of the achievements of Victorian women in the face of patriarchal oppression. Around the 1980s feminist theory experienced an epistemological change when women of colour started to accuse feminist critics of racism. The so-called second wave feminism was a movement that originated with white middle-class women25 who had actually claimed universal validity for their gender theories and representation of women. The critique from diverse quarters such as coloured, lesbian or working class women exposed second wave feminism as perpetuation of patriarchal and racial categories and forced feminists to reconsider their own theoretical standing. The perspective on women’s history, or rather histories, changed profoundly and includes now a painful self-consciousness which does not allow for generalisations but highlights the situatedness and discursive construction of each individual, past and present. The literary assessment of Victorian women’s travel texts, in particular those texts that issued from travels to colonial areas, shifted from heroic accounts to a critical reflection of women’s involvement in imperialism. Although the study of travelogues by Victorian women is a comparatively recent study the following sketch of literary criticism in that area can by no means claim completeness. It serves primarily to outline the two main strands of criticism and its problems within the field of women’s travel literature and within feminist theory.

The set off for historical and literary awareness of Victorian women travelogues was made by Dorothy Middleton who describes in Victorian Lady Travellers the lives of seven Victorian women who went abroad and wrote about it.26 Middleton worked predominantly biographically but her account functioned as basis, guideline and spring board for subsequent critics who joined this new field of study.27 Feminists like Catherine Barnes Stevenson and Dea Birkett directed a similar focus on Victorian women’s travelogues.

In Victorian Women Travel Writers in Africa Catherine Barnes Stevenson concentrates on the psychological effects travel had on women.28 Her study focuses on female writers who went to Africa, a remote and “undiscovered” space, and who experienced a new kind of freedom during their travels as opposed to the common Victorian moral, social and political confinement.29 The new authority and liberty of such women travellers or explorers was often grounded in white (masculine)30 imperial power but rather than examining their participation in imperial discourse, Stevenson stresses the subversiveness of women’s travel literature.31 As women in Victorian patriarchal society were often themselves marked as the “Other,” they were, Stevenson claims, rather sympathetic towards colonised subjects and frequently used their travelogues to voice objections to British management in Africa.32 From this, according to Stevenson, conflicting narrative voices issued which oscillated between “an assertive, opinionated masculine persona and an apologetic, ladylike female voice.”33 Stevenson’s neglect of imperial issues or rather her linking of the women writer’s alleged feminism to an alleged anti-colonialism has been very much disapproved of by later critics.34 Like Stevenson Dea Birkett in Spinsters Abroad also illuminates the biographical settings of various women writers and the psychological change brought about by their travels.35 Her descriptions of the respective women’s lives, their feelings of imprisonment and final liberation through travelling abroad are of a very personal kind. She elaborately illustrates their feelings, often calls them by their first names thus blurring distance and creating intimacy. The women’s need to free themselves, to turn their backs on a discriminating society, to be strong individualists are positively interpreted and emphasised by Birkett, who, like Stevenson, thereby links their emancipating aims to contemporary feminism and its desire to reconstruct a history which also includes (“heroic”) women. Nevertheless she also shows that the new freedom of Victorian lady travellers was celebrated at the cost of the imperial subjects.36 This critical element towards Victorian women’s participation in imperial rule and domination of other peoples has become a central issue in subsequent researches. Studies from the second and more recent strand started moving away from the biographical impetus and worked more text-oriented. Sara Mills’ Discourses of Difference set a landmark within critical assessment of Victorian women’s travel literature by also analysing its involvement in imperial discourse. Her focus lies on textual elements which signify the different discourses like femininity and imperialism at work in women’s travelogues. According to Mills, a coherent reading for the sake of an easily accessible past, as it is done by Birkett or Stevenson, can only be achieved by omitting contradictory statements.37 To acknowledge the complexity and the actual indecipherability of travel writings by women shows respect towards their difference and offers rather an interpretation than a factual/biographical truth.38 It implies also to be conscious of our own anxieties. Mills here refers to Gillian Beer who examines the critics’ own involvement in the representation of women.39

According to Beer representation always rests on assumptions, gender assumptions in this case.40 Present feminists are in the precarious situation of representing women without being able to give a stable definition of this category.41 But it is precisely this instability which feminists ought to maintain, because its definitory porosity keeps the category “women” open and flexible. Since “femininity” cannot be located, only recognised, which implicates a learning process, we should admit to gender as specific cultural formation.42 What does that mean in regard to Victorian women and their travel writings? According to Mills, we are to interpret their writing “within its period and its discursive constraints,”43 and possibilities, of course, which are structured through particular race, class, gender and other constitutive elements. It does not do to reduce travelling women of the Victorian age to eccentric “spinsters” or evaluate their lives as “modern,” meaning advanced, because first it perpetuates the notion of women travellers having been somewhat ridiculous and out of the ordinary,44 and second it judges Victorian women in relation to the present.45 If they were “ahead of their time” this would mean they are nearer to us, the alleged evolutionary advanced generation. A much more slippery ground is our presupposition that there exists something like women’s literature.46 The differences we see, might be the differences we want to see, drawing the same gender line, as we accuse the Victorians or present literary historians of doing. The gender focus on literature in general, and travel literature in particular must therefore be more complex and more specific, constantly comparing writers of both sexes with and among each other,47 in order to find or not find similarities or differences.

To take a more complex view and to acknowledge difference also includes the necessity of considering the interaction of class, race, gender and maybe sexuality, four of the major axes of identity, subjection and resistance.48 It is important to see each woman or man (including ourselves) and to read each text in their/its specific situatedness, as far as that is possible. This, however, leaves the critic only with possibilities of interpretation and without any claim to (a universal) truth. Is it possible then, to make any statements or to draw any conclusions about Victorian travel literature by women? The answer would be yes, but only to a certain extent. To Mills the analysis of these texts is an archeological procedure, taking bits and pieces to illustrate at least partially the discursive elements structuring women’s travel literature.49 The result of such an analysis, however, will be “no smooth history.”50 Donna Haraway in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, which was published at about the same time as Mills’ book, entertains a similar view of an objective knowledge which can only be obtained through a critical (situated) positioning.51 Scientific objectivity with its inherent truth claim is revealed by her as illusion since all science is historically situated and therefore not unbiased.52 For her, vision becomes the epistemological tool for feminists to investigate past and present. Vision, of course, does not refer to the “conquering gaze from nowhere” which “signifies the unmarked position of Man and White”53 but is an embodied and particular way of seeing from a situated point of view. In acknowledging their own split and contradictory selves, feminist critics become able to examine positionings, because “there is no way to ‘be’ simultaneously in all, or wholly in any, of the privileged/subjugated positions structured by gender, race, nation, and class.”54 In other words, if we are able to critically reflect our own loosely construed and politically, racially, sexually, economically etc. situated selves we might become able to envision “other” situated positionings and determine to a certain extent our own as well as others’ strategies of resistance to and compliance with dominant patriarchal and imperial discourses.55

The travel writing of Victorian women is, according to Mills, primarily structured by different positions within discourses of imperialism and femininity.56

Their ambiguous position towards femininity has often been considered, but their colonial involvement has not only been overlooked or played down by feminist literary historians but also by colonial theorists like Edward Said, who perceived colonialism as foremost “male province.”57 Women’s travel writing was not only trivialised as being merely the product of eccentric rebels and therefore outside the system of colonialism. It also slipped the traditional concept of interpretation because through their struggle with the oppositional discourses of femininity and colonialism, women were not as openly Orientalist as male writers.58 Because traditional colonial theory cannot sufficiently be applied to women’s travel texts, since they require a wider theoretical framework, Mills bases her theoretical means on Foucauldian and Feminist concepts using discourse, knowledge and power as the three linking terms between both directions.

The opportunities of Victorian women to travel (alone) through the Empire and to publish their texts cannot be accounted for by the idea of an utterly repressive patriarchal power. According to Foucault power is not repressive but consists of a multitude of different forces, which quarrel and fight with each other. They can remain antagonistic to each other or align themselves in order to develop strategies, which may eventually also manifest themselves in state apparatuses, legislation and in social hegemonies.59 Power is not monolithic, that means it cannot be located in an institution or in individuals. It consists rather of effects which emerge where different and unequal forces meet. Although intentions do not originate in subjects power relations are intentional.60 To think of power as singular and substantive is still to define power as repressive and centred to which an outside exists.61

Power in the substantive sense, ‘ lepouvoir, doesn’t exist. […] The idea that there is either located at - or emanating from - a given point something which is a ‘power’ seems to me to be based on a misguided analysis, one which at all events fails to account for a considerable number of phenomena. In reality power means relations, a more-or-less organised, hierarchical, co-ordinated cluster of relations.62

This definition of power relations is exactly what second phase criticism of Victorian travel writing starts with. Victorian society displays so many phenomena which cannot be explained with a stable, homogeneous and repressive patriarchy. It is much more efficient to look at hegemonic discourses of imperialism, capitalism, nationality, science, masculinity, femininity, to name just a few, and at counter-discourses as power relations in order to analyse how they constitute each other and how they emanated and changed and maybe even discontinued. Victorian patriarchy, almost a pleonasm by now, then becomes a term under permanent deconstruction; its solidity dissolves in the face of its inconsistencies. That does not imply that hegemonic discourses were not patriarchal and that middle-class women63 were not suppressed in one way or the other but that within and through patriarchy certain points of resistances developed which kept the patriarchal enterprise in motion. Power relations are therefore also positive and productive forces.

What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression.64

This notion of power allows us to interrogate the possibilities white middle-class women had during the Victorian period and, as will be shown in the next chapter, it is precisely knowledge and discourse production, which constitute their back door of patriarchy. Another crucial point within this conception of power is the dissociation of subject and intention. Subjects are always already constituted by power. Individuals are the “prime effects of power” and its “vehicle.”65 In other words, the multiple forces, discourses, desires etc. which determine a particular period of time and its power relations also determine the subject itself; it can only emerge through them, position itself within these and develop along their lines. Intention, therefore, does not originate in individuals but emanates from certain power relations, as already said. In regard to patriarchy this means that it is institutionalised, it exists in “social practices of our society and cannot be explained by the intentions, good or bad, of individual men or women.”66 This does not take away the pressure that some people are sexist and others not (so much). But it may ease the gendering of these positions. Not all men are necessarily sexist, nor are all women not sexist, i.e. not all men intend to discriminate all women, for example.67 Victorian hegemonic discourses were undoubtedly sexist but this does not mean that other positions were not available for either sex.

A further study which appeared shortly after Mills’ Discourses of Difference, was Nupur Chaudhuri’s and Margaret Strobel’s Western Women and Imperialism:

Complicity and Resistance.68 Similar to Mills’ study, the essays in Western Women and Imperialism aim at illuminating Western women’s participation in and opposition to colonialism thus questioning the alleged masculinity of colonial power upheld so far by colonial theory and the white feminist’s “desire to find resistance when, often, we actually face complicity.”69 The book does not provide a theoretical framework or theoretical frameworks like Discourses of Difference, but offers a broad variety of historical field-studies which look at how race and class ideologies worked within imperialism and travel literature by women.70

In Writing Women and Space Alison Blunt and Gillian Rose introduce space as further categorical device within the compliance/resistance focus of feminist colonial theory. Space in feminist theory has become central to define power and resistance within patriarchy. Spaces are constituted and defined through binary gender roles and relations.71 But rather than applying the usual patriarchal public/private divide which fixes (white middle-class) women in the domestic and men in the public sphere they understand spaces as a “social process of symbolic encoding and decoding” with the conjecture that “since the outcome of the decoding process can never be guaranteed, contestation and renegotiation of the meaning of spaces is also always possible.”72 This fluidity of space is crucial for the question of how bourgeois women could possibly break the spatial rules of Victorian England to which point I will come back in my next chapter. Spatial imagery, as it is used in travelogues, conveys imperialist notions of both, women and men. But here too, a careful analysis of the interaction of race, class and gender has to be undertaken. Colonial landscapes in male writing are often feminised; they are paralleled to indigenous women implicating or even explicating the possession of both.73 This view was not entirely available to British women, since their bodies too, were colonised. But, according to Mills, race precedes gender.74 So while patriarchy positioned women at the margins of society, imperialism accommodated them near centre, at least as far as racial superiority was concerned (which was often accompanied by class superiority) and lent them positions of power and authority. Their subject positions, however, always alternating between those two discourses, remained unstable and decentered. Owing to this fact, women lacked the self-confidence of the “master subject” who could speak from an unconflicting and privileged position and gaze at transparent space.75

Transparent space assumes that the world can be seen as it really is and that there can be unmediated access to the truth of objects it sees; it is a space of mimetic representation.76

The concept of transparent space is employed by Blunt and Rose to illustrate how space, as discursive construction, becomes a site of struggles over power and knowledge.77 This concerns two critical levels. In the context of imperial texts the presentation of knowledge/truth distributes power to the speaker/writer/seer who claims sole access to this truth/space by the power of his master position. This position, though, rests on an ambivalent base. While it declares itself as the superior and right position it needs to construe and fix an “Other” which is savage, degenerate, chaotic etc., threatens the master position and therefore needs to be made visible and disciplined.78 That means while it claims omniscient mastery there has, paradoxically, to remain something that is not yet mastered in order to confirm/define itself (as right) and to legitimate its exercise of power. The master position, however, can only be maintained by denying (instable) subjectivity and claiming objectivity, and by “relegating other viewpoints - different subjectivities - to invisible, subordinate, or competing positions.”79 This is not only a critique towards an imperial past but it extends to contemporary criticism. As was already discussed above, white feminist criticism tended to perpetuate this master position respectively the notion of transparent space through essentialist definitions of women and women’s history. The private/public divide, for example, concerned primarily white and middle-class women but it was discussed as a spatial setting that concerned all women.80 Feminists had to leave or at least re-consider the imperialist trail they had followed when objections from women of colour or women from a working class background were made. They had different stories to tell and other spatial configurations within their environments to come to terms with.81 To emphasise these positions, which present points of resistances and therefore other (situated) knowledges is to destabilise the master position by showing its constructedness and to question its assumptions of transparent space and objectivity. Blunt and Rose’s theory is a sort of remapping of colonialism which refers not only to past connections of power, space and knowledge but also to present imperial history. On their second level of criticism, Blunt and Rose therefore argue against a unified representation of history, in particular women’s history and for a “politics of location” which accepts differences.82 Of course it is important to emphasise Victorian women’s resistance to patriarchal discourses of their time but it is equally important to criticise their complicity with imperialism and by this to look at our own generation’s imperial heritage.

The implications of this heritage for both former colonial people and former colonialists are discussed by Simon Gikandi. In Maps of Englishness Gikandi explores retrospectively how Englishness was constituted by its “Other,” i.e. its colonies and vice versa how colonial identities were re-constituted in response to the intrusion of Englishness.83 English identity was not based on a homogeneous set of cultural values, it was rather “superimposed over an array of internal differences in response to contact with the Other, and in response to the conflict with the Other.”84 Colonial space and colonial texts85 like travel literature, thus provided the stage/space for English self- realisation and identity-shaping.86 But other than male travellers’ texts during the heyday of British imperialism (1840 - 1880),87 female travellers’ texts mirror, through their own ambivalent setting, the cultural conflict within the discourse of empire.88 Male writers’ texts reflected difficulties at “home” too, but in a different sense. They used the colonial space, consciously or unconsciously, to ponder upon the conditions of England as well as the administration of imperial rule just to affirm them eventually.89 For women, the imperial enterprise was much more problematic. As Gikandi puts it:

[…] women writers came to read colonialism as both threat and possibility: it was a threat because it was a patriarchal affair in which women were excluded in the name of a stifling domestic ideology; it was an opportunity because it destabilized the very categories in which this ideology was formulated.90

So women travellers recognised the freedom they might gain through imperialism, but they could only relax their status of marginalised “Other” within patriarchy by othering colonised people and identifying with imperial ideology. This identification, however, could not succeed entirely because the distinction between self and other could not be as clear cut for women as it was for men since their own position remained highly contradictory.91 The exposition (through gender) of the constructedness or fiction of British homogeneity functioned on two levels: first simply and more obviously by women going to colonial areas thus crossing into forbidden male space92 and secondly by women remaining ambivalent and contradictory in their texts. If the space of the other provided the stage for constituting and confirming the superiority of Britishness, including its patriarchal foundation, then travelling women could not be as successful as their male colleagues.

Gikandi, too, points to the difficulties in reading women’s texts without account of their discursive conflicts. Moreover, he appreciates these inconsistencies as invitation to “read colonialism’s culture in its contradictions and complicities, as a chiasmus in which the polarities that define domination and subordination shift with localities, genders, cultures, and even periods.”93 This Foucauldian perspective takes account of the diversity of power relations. Imperialist discourse is not stagnant, neither in time nor in space, and it cannot be defined within a straight oppressor/victim dyad. Gender is one category through which this becomes visible.

colonial spaces and people and which therefore led to similar conclusions, namely to acknowledge imperial government. Male writing changed in that respect towards the end of the century where writers like Joseph Conrad testified in their texts the failure of colonialism and the hollowness of English norms and values with which identification became highly questionable. Gikandi, 47, 115. See also Barbara Korte, English Travel Writing: From Pilgrimages to Postcolonial Explorations (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000) 102-5.

There are, according to Gikandi, two possible ways of interpreting Victorian women’s travelogues. One is to accept the fact that the imperialist ideology offered the “discursive field” that enabled women to find other and more independent modes of subjectivity.94 The second reading strategy assumes that the position of Victorian women can be paralleled to those colonial subjects who were constituted by English culture and who identified with it but also opposed it. By being simultaneously inside and outside of the colonial parameters they created a cultural hybridity.95 I think, though, that this second reading strategy poses a number of problems which makes an analogy between women and colonial people impossible.

Gikandi’s study is very much informed by Homi Bhabha’s theory of colonialism, which aims at dissolving the fixed binary setting of coloniser and colonised so far upheld within colonial theory. According to Bhabha and contrary to Edward Said96 colonial power was not solely exercised by one nation onto another but was also repeated and sustained through the colonised nation itself. Bhabha calls this process mimicry which was, in his terms, the most effective strategy of colonial power and which produced colonial subjects who were “almost the same, but not quite.”97 Colonial subjects were “normalised” and “appropriated” to British norms through disciplinary and regulating strategies. At the same time they were also defined as ontologically different which was crucial for the supremacy of the master position but simultaneously challenged its “normalising” authority. The combination of imitation and otherness produced a colonial double or surrogate Britishness that remained quite disconcerting for the colonial power98 because colonial imitation “is not a repetition of the same but the opening of difference and otherness within the subject, making a return to the self- same impossible.”99 Like this, British norms, ideas and values were alienated from its origins and returned in a distorted form shaking the certitude of British identity or rather exposing its fragile constructedness.100 Although women were also structured and marked as the “Other” within the patriarchal economy, patriarchal and colonial strategies of subjection cannot be interchanged.101 First of all British women share a number of identity constituting elements with British men, for example, race, nation, culture, history etc. They have a common background which, as I think, brings them rather in opposition to colonial people than in alignment; and they are not part of an alternative culture which might intermingle with British culture and like this transform into hybridity. Mimicry, as is constitutive for colonial people could therefore not work for British women. Nevertheless, elements of mimicry might also surface during women’s search for new modes of subjectivity which will be discussed more thoroughly in the next chapter. Another reason for objecting to an equalisation of the subordination of British women and colonial people is firstly, that it omits their differing ideological contents,102 and secondly that it tends to dismiss gender differences between colonised subjects.103 Experiences of colonisation generally refer to men of colour,104 ignoring women’s double oppression through colonial and gender-specific forms of domination.105

The above accounts of theoretical approaches to Victorian travelogues are meant to give an idea of the current state of feminist colonial theory and at the same time to explicate the components I need for my own theoretical hand luggage. I will methodologically follow the second strand of criticism and use its concepts of power, space, subject and situatedness to investigate the historical, social and cultural contexts of Victorian women travel writers and to illuminate the discursive variety constructing their texts.

My own view of Victorian women and their travelogues orientates itself towards the first strategy defined by Gikandi which sees Victorian women’s emancipation as being based on imperialism. Britain’s colonial expansion catalysed many cultural, political, social etc. processes which affected men and women in different ways.


1 Roy Russo, “Travel,” Historic Quotes and Proverbs Archive (2003-2005), 31.08.2005.

2 See also Sara Mills, Discourses of Difference: An Analysis of Women’s Travel Writing and Colonialism (London and New York: Routledge, 1991) 10.

3 Stuart Hall, ed., “Introduction,” Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London: Sage, 1997) 4.

4 Stuart Hall, “The Spectacle of the ‘Other,’” Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. Stuart Hall, 236-7.

5 As Linda Colley shows, however, it were the many wars against France that gave the initial impetus for the construction of a common British political identity in face of the French “Other.” Gradually, and even while the wars and disputes with France continued, the British started to identify rather against the peoples they conquered, where “difference” could be even more manifestly demonstrated in relation to culture, colour, and religion. This shift brought Britain and France in alliance against a colonial "Other" notwithstanding their internal disagreements. According to Colley, British identity shaping should thus be regarded rather as a reaction to an exterior threat than as the product of a homogeneous culture organically grown - a point that would also disregard the diverse cultural elements roofed by “Britishness.” Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992) 5-6.

6 Henrietta Lidchi, “The Poetics and the Politics of Exhibiting Other Cultures,” Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. Stuart Hall, 186.

7 Stuart Hall, “The Spectacle of the ‘Other,’” 236-7.

8 See also Maria H. Frawley, A Wider Range: Travel Writing by Women in Victorian England (London et al.: Associated University Presses, 1994) 22.

9 Colley, 262-3.

10 Colley, 263, 273-80.

11 Colley, 280.

12 See also Thomas Richards, The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire (London, New York: Verso, 1993) 1, 3.

13 Frawley, 28.

14 Michel Foucault, Die Ordnung des Diskurses (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag, 2003) 11.

15 Sara Mills, Discourses of Difference, 8. Foucault himself modified and extended his definition of discourse over the time and eventually also included non-linguistic elements. Heike Raab, Foucault und der Feministische Poststrukturalismus (Dortmund: Ed. Ebersbach, 1998) 26-7.

16 Raab, 27.

17 Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York et al.: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1980), 119. Lidchi, 185.

18 Simon Gikandi, Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996) 47.

19 Mills, Discourses of Difference, 3.

20 Mills, Discourses of Difference, 2.

21 Mills, Discourses of Difference, 3.

22 Gikandi, 90.

23 Foucault, Die Ordnung des Diskurses, 25.

24 Edwards became actually later on a friend of Duff Gordon’s daughter Janet and praised Lucie Duff Gordon’s writings in her own travelogue, like this revealing a self-conscious tradition of women’s travel writing.

25 Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters. The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) 2.

26 Lila Marz Harper, Solitary Travelers, Nineteenth-Century Women’s Travel Narratives and the Scientific Vocation (London, Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 2001) 28.

27 Harper, 28.

28 Catherine Barnes Stevenson, Victorian Women Travel Writers in Africa (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982).

29 Stevenson, 5.

30 I put „masculine“ in brackets because race here was more important than gender. Besides, as women joined imperial authority, this could not be called solely masculine anymore, although it might have been at the outset.

31 Stevenson, 11.

32 Stevenson, 11. As exception to the rule Stevenson lists Harriet Ward who spent five years with her Husband in Southeast Africa (1842 - 1847) and who expressed her radically racial and political ideas in Five Years in Kaffirland. Stevenson, 19-22.

33 Stevenson, 23.

34 See, for example Mills, 30.

35 Dea Birkett, Spinsters Abroad. Victorian Lady Explorers (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989).

36 Birkett, 115-41. An interesting point is that Birkett in the section about women’s imperial conduct refers to them only by their surnames, while otherwise calling them by their first or full names. Like this she is distancing herself from them and this part of their history, putting their “bad” sides (which do not fit a “good” women’s history) into the masculine or genderless quarter.

37 Mills, Discourses of Difference 5.

38 Mills, Discourses of Difference 5.

39 Gillian Beer, “Representing Women: Re-presenting the Past,” The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism, ed. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore (Houndmills et al.: Macmillan, 1989) 63-80.

40 Beer, 63.

41 See also Judith Butler, Das Unbehagen der Geschlechter (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991) 16.

42 Beer, 65.

43 Mills, Discourses of Difference 5.

44 An assumption that characterised many books about Victorian women travellers and which, probably contrary to intent, again excludes women from history. Mills, 6, 32.

45 Beer, 67. This aspect of reading past literature is not easily done away with. The need to find accomplices over time and space, who join the fight for emancipation is very strong. Therefore it is even more necessary to consider the period as a whole and accept its internal differences and its difference to our period. See also Mills, Discourses of Difference, 28.

46 Mills, Discourses of Difference, 28-9.

47 Beer, 65.

48 Alison Blunt and Gillian Rose, ed., Writing Women and Space: Colonial and Postcolonial Geographies, (New York and London: The Guilford Press, 1994) 6.

49 Mills, Discourses of Difference, 6.

50 Mills, Discourses of Difference, 6.

51 Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books, 1991) 193. Haraway deconstructs the term ‘objectivity’ by questioning its traditional meaning of a universal truth which can be obtained from a detached and disinterested position. She argues that such a position is not available to anyone and that therefore true objectivity must be partial, subjective and special (as each individual’s situatedness is special).

52 Haraway, 186.

53 Haraway, 188.

54 Haraway, 193.

55 See also Mills, Discourses of Difference, 16-7. I find Haraway’s theory very useful, because it accounts for the many blind spots, feminist theory has/had to deal with. Not only its earlier blindness towards differences of women regarding race, class and sexuality, for example, but also its critical blindness, which denied that women may be feminist and racist at the same time.

56 Mills, Discourses of Difference, 3.

57 Mills, Discourses of Difference, 57.

58 Mills, Discourses of Difference, 61-2.

59 Michel Foucault, Der Wille zum Wissen: Sexualität und Wahrheit 1 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977) 113. In form of such institutions power may again appear repressive but in fact they are “only” effects of power, which are in themselves instable and consist of opposing discourses. Foucault does not deny that power can take forms of repression but this is not the most effective manifestation of power. He points at the productivity and creativity of power strategies which actually produce subjects, i.e. power does not remain external to subjects but is already constitutive of them.

60 Foucault, Der Wille zum Wissen, 116.

61 Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews, 198.

62 Foucault, Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews, 198.

63 For spatial reasons I have to limit my focus on patriarchy and middle class women (who were

particularly affected by it) since travel writing was especially a middle-class phenomenon. Aristocratic and working class women were differently affected by patriarchal ideas of morality and behaviour etc. Especially working class women had more problems to tackle with capitalism than with patriarchy. Their differences become most apparent in their political movements. Social feminism, for example, was understandably more interested in working hours and working conditions for women than in the suffrage movement of bourgeois women. See Sally Ledger, The New Woman. Fiction and Feminism at the fin de siècle (Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 1997) 36-9.

64 Foucault, Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews, 119.

65 Foucault, Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews, 97-8.

66 Chris Weedon cited in Mills, Discourses of Difference, 18.

67 Mills, Discourses of Difference, 18.

68 Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel, ed., Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992).

69 Chaudhuri & Strobel, 4.

70 Chaudhuri & Strobel, 5.

71 Blunt & Rose, 1. And, of course, they are also defined by the other constituting elements like race, class, or nationality.

72 Blunt & Rose, 2-3.

73 Blunt & Rose, 10.

74 Blunt & Rose, 13.

75 Blunt & Rose, 5. Donna Haraway coined the term master-subject and defined it as white, middle-class, masculine and heterosexual.

76 Blunt & Rose, 5.

77 Blunt & Rose, 5.

78 Blunt & Rose, 12. See also Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews, 153-4.

79 Blunt & Rose, 5.

80 Blunt & Rose, 3.

81 Blunt & Rose, 3-6.

82 Blunt & Rose, 7.

83 Gikandi, x.

84 Colley, 6, Gikandi, xviii.

85 „Colonial texts“ refers to texts produced by English writers, not texts produced by writers from colonised countries. Gikandi has a much wider scope; his analyses include texts written from “the margins” to show how colonised cultures did not simply give way to “Englishness” but incorporated certain English elements of identity (like cricket) and in turn re-defined them. Gikandi, xiv, xviii.

86 Gikandi, 8.

87 Gikandi, xii.

88 Gikandi, 47.

89 A general conclusion Gikandi seems able to draw in spite of the situatedness of imperial narratives. He argues that all narratives were theoretically located and subject to discursive regulations which preceded travel. Travellers went abroad with similar expectations and ideas which shaped their mental grasp of

90 Gikandi, 121.

91 Gikandi, 124.

92 In this context and in many analyses of Victorian women’s travelogues women who went to the colonies in their functions as wives are largely neglected. That does not mean that their texts were not contradictory in some sense but their writing strategies differed from those who travelled alone or with friends. There is no doubt that the analysis of such texts might also be revealing, but my interest lies with those women who went alone or with friends to colonial areas, i.e. who had to employ other discursive means to “justify” their presence there. As I will show in my analyses there are also distinctions between those who travelled alone and those who travelled in company of Europeans.

93 Gikandi, 124.

94 This reading strategy takes up Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s point of view. Gikandi, 123.

95 Gikandi, 124. Gikandi here refers to writers from colonised areas like Mary Seacole, J.J. Thomas or Ham Mukasa who merge in their stories English ideals like progress or literacy with local identities and histories which again seem to question these ideals. Gikandi, xiv.

96 Said as well as Bhabha use Foucault’s theory of power to account for the diversity of power relations. Said, however, concentrates more on showing how Orientalism functioned as multifaceted discourse working on the Orient and producing it while Bhabha sees colonial relations as reciprocal. See also Bart Moore-Gilbert, Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics (London, New York: Verso, 1997) 36- 7.

97 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London, New York: Routledge, 1994) 86.

98 Bhabha, 86.

99 Meyda Yeğenoğlu, Colonial Fantasies. Towards a feminist reading of Orientalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 9.

100 In this context see also Gikandi’s study of the “indigenization of cricket.” (Gikandi, 9-14) However, the ambivalence of mimic men was not necessarily disturbing to the master subject but was often accommodated within the context of colonialism. For this see Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York & London: Routledge, 1995), 65. 101 See also Anne McClintock, 65.

102 Different stereotypes were assigned to both in accordance with which women and colonial people signified specific desires and fantasies within colonial and patriarchal discourses.

103 Ania Loomba, Colonialism / Postcolonialism (London & New York: Routledge, 1998) 163.

104 Gender and racial discrimination are in so far linked, as colonised men’s disempowerment is often categorised as form of castration and therefore feminisation. Loomba, 162.

105 Loomba, 163-4.

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Off the Beaten Track? Divergent Discourses in Victorian Women’s Travelogues
University of Potsdam  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
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Travelogues, Victorian literature, travel literature, 19th century, women, Gender, Victorian women, Colonialism, power, Macht, Amelia Edwards, Lucie Duff Gordon, New Women, discourse, Diskurs
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Antje Peukert (Author), 2005, Off the Beaten Track? Divergent Discourses in Victorian Women’s Travelogues, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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