English women’s travel writing in the 19th Century
These protagonists are often described as “rebellious,” courageous,” ambitious,” brave,” “queens,” or even “adventurous.” These women are the inspiration of today’s screenwriters, artists, and filmmakers who, for whatever reason, want to tell a different story about women’s history. Their stories inspire some, while others find them almost unbelievable. Weren’t Victorian women very repressed?
The writings of these women travelers, in general, reflect the experiences and perspectives of women from different backgrounds, social classes, and cultures. However, they tend to portray the experiences of wealthy people. It is because these texts are available, and we have been influenced by the impressions these women left in historiographical archives.
Remember that the interpretations we make of the travels and experiences of nineteenth-century women can be influenced both by their culture and by social bias. Therefore, it is important to read travel accounts by nineteenth-century women with some distance. We are reading about the inner life and experiences of “one” woman whose environment, culture, and history have undoubtedly influenced her.
Victorian Travel Writing
In the 19th Century, England was a part of the British Empire. Traveling was not just for fun but for exploration or conquest as well. Colonial travel was only for men who played a more active part in the expansion of the Empire. They had to participate in diplomatic missions or fight.
We tend to forget, however, that British women played an important role in the desire for conquest. They would often travel with their fathers, brothers, or husbands to colonial settlements to recreate English society. They would then create their nuclear families in the colonial territories, complete with their sons, daughters, servants, and social events.
Many of them felt the need to tell their stories in the first person. These writings attracted a lot of interest and were published in magazines and newspapers.
When we talk about travel writing from the 19th Century, we usually distinguish two types of texts: texts with scientific rigor that typically deal with social-political topics and have anthropological undertones. The other is lighter, observational, and anecdotal texts. The texts reflected a different experience, and they dealt with people, lifestyles, and other mundane topics.
Discoverers and observers
It was not uncommon to group the writings of female travelers under this category. William H. D. Adams, the author of Celebrated Women Travellers in the Nineteenth Century (1882), one of the most important anthologies about women travelers from the nineteenth Century, differentiates two broad categories: discoverers and observers.
Adams says that discoverers enter areas previously unknown to civilization and add new lands on maps. Adams believed that women travelers of the time were in the latter category and could not compare with such great names he Adams believed that women travelers of the time were in the latter category. They could not compete with great names such as David Livingstone, Heinrich Barth, John Franklin Charles Sturt.
Adams’ impression demonstrates very well the tendency to dismiss the work of nineteenth-century female travel writers. The gender ideology in the 19th Century relegated women to the private sphere, making it hard for women to understand their relationship with scientific, political, and economic issues. This perpetuated an image of women as being unreliable or childish.
We must also remember that many women had limited access to the “elite” culture. They could not all receive more than a basic education and did not have the resources or time to pursue their interests in science.
In the introductions of women’s travel texts or their private correspondence, it is not uncommon to find phrases that express modesty or apologize for “daring” them to interfere with male topics. They often exaggerated the womanhood of their characters and made sure to remind readers that they were only women. This was, of course, a ploy to avoid censure from their peers.