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October 25, 2007

A Nasty Case of the Vapours

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An article I came across on BBC news today, related to a Radio 4 broadcast this morning that set out to explore "the lives, deaths and immune systems of heroines of English literature through the eyes of modern medicine" (listen again here). The article was slightly less promising that it sounded, aiming to investigate what was "actually" wrong with the seemingly endless stream of sickly women in "classic" (referring here to Romantic and Victorian) fiction. Three doctors of medicine and literature were asked to "diagnose" women such as Marianne in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, one doctor prescribing a case of typhus, and another reckoning that the symptoms indicate a streptococcal sore throat and later septicaemia. However, I think Dr Neil Vickers is probably on the right track: he states that "Marianne's illness is simply a plot device," claiming that "Austen needs a life threatening illness in order to return the previously overexcitable Marianne to the 'sense' of the book's title." The rest of the article includes similar diagnoses of Cathy in Wuthering Heights and Bleak House's Lady Dedlock. What would perhaps be more interesting is to think further about why Victorian heroines are so often ill; why is it an appropriate and believeable plot device and how does it function amongst women? Of course much work has explored this: Helena Michie's and Anna Krugovoy Silver's work immediately springs to mind. The related recurring motif of the sickroom in Victorian literature is another interesting area yet to be explored (as far as I know), raising questions about constructions of "femininity" and the spaces in which it is played out.

October 24, 2007

More on women travellers

Follow-up to The Illustrated Virago Book of Women Travellers from Charlotte's Research blog

Following on from my previous post, a word from George Eliot on the subject:

We women can't go in search of adventure - to find out the North-West Passage or the source of the Nile, or to hunt tigers in the East. We must stay where we grow, or where the gardeners like to transplant us. We are brought up like the flowers, to look as pretty as we can, and be dull without complaining. That is my notion about the plants: they are often bored, and that is the reason why some of them have got poisonous.

From Daniel Deronda, Book II, Chapter 13, p135 (Penguin).

October 22, 2007

A Book of Travellers' Tales

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This was a useful discovery in Leamington's Oxfam Books this weekend (in fact, I had a good weekend for second-hand buys as I also picked up Angela Carter's Love and Heroes and Villains, a copy of Charlotte Brontes' Tales from Angria which includes many of the Brontes' poems and memoirs, and I'm waiting for delivery of an 1842 map that I came across on ebay). This collection brings together a vast number of extracts from over 300 travel writers from nearly every period of written history, from the Ancient Greeks Xenophon and Pytheas, to writers from the 1980s (the collection was published in 1985) such as Patrick Marnham and Colin Thubron. Predictably, the anthology includes only a handful of women travel writers (see my previous entry for more on this). However, it does at least incorporate a selection of multicultural voices, allowing for a diverse range of perspectives on different countries, such as a Russian naval officer's description of a Maori chief, a Macedonian general's observation of the customs of the "Ichthyopagi" on the Makran coast of Baluchistan, and a Chinese sailor's impressions of eighteenth-century London. The arrangement of the book according to the continent being written about aids this sense of shifting perspectives and also makes it a useful resource. There's also a nice section at the beginning called "Advice on Travelling" with interesting ideas on what to take and how to behave: Prince Hermann Puckler-Muskau, for example, advises "in Naples, treat the people brutally; in Rome, be natural; in Austria, don't talk politics; in France, give yourself no airs; in Germany, a great many; and in England, don't spit." (16). I'm certainly looking forward to reading this book more thoroughly as it seems as though it will hold many new discoveries.

The Illustrated Virago Book of Women Travellers

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This is a wonderful anthology of writing by women travellers, originally published in 1994 as The Virago Book of Women Travellers and re-published in this larger, illustrated paperback edition earlier this year. The collection draws together 46 extracts spanning nearly 300 hundred years, from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's 1717 letter in Embassy to Constantinople to Leila Philip's 1989 The Road Through Miyama. The extracts are arranged chronologically, allowing the anthology to "chart feminism through women and their journeys" as Mary Morris writes(11), whilst emphasising the book's concern with providing the beginnings of a tradition of women writers. Travel literature is a field that has historically been somewhat dominated by male writers, largely due to the simple fact that less women have been able to travel: "for centuries it was frowned upon for women to travel without escort, chaperon, or husband. To journey was to put oneself at risk, not only physically but morally as well" (8). Yet this collection seeks to make clear that many women have travelled and written seriously about their journeys, and provides a space in which these narratives may be heard. The women in this collection are the exceptions, and their writing is often exceptional, frequently portraying events in which perceived gender constraints are overcome by women determined that their sex should not prevent exploration. Sometimes their defiance is explicit, such as in Lady Mary Anne Barker's narrative in which she is the only woman on a bush-trekking expedition in New Zealand, in amongst a group of men who share, as she writes, the "unexpressed but prevailing dread" that "I should knock up and become a bore, necessitating an early return home; but I knew better!" (57); at other times, gender limitations are surpassed more discreetly, as in the case of Isabelle Eberhardt who, maintaining that "the human body is nothing, the human soul is all" (55), travelled through North Africa in disguise as a man.

Whilst gender issues resonate throughout the extracts, the anthology is striking in its variety. The extracts are taken from a number of different narrative forms, including letters, travel books, journals, diaries, extended prose narratives, articles, anecdotes, memoirs, and essays. The accounts encompass a wide range of destinations, including Turkey, Peru, the American Prairies, West Africa, Morocco, New Zealand, Madagascar, Persia, Russia amongst many others, each location offering a new adventure or encounter, whether it's rambling across the Dolomites, horse riding in Iceland, or harvesting rice in Miyama. The style of each writer is as varied as the content, but each displays a vivid attention to detail whether describing unfamiliar landscapes or the customs of foreign societies.

The collection draws together writers who are well-known for their travel writing, such as Flora Tristan and Isak Dinesen, those who we may be more familiar with as writers of fiction, like Edith Wharton, women who we may know for their non-fiction writing, like Mary Wollstonecraft, along with many others who are relatively unknown, especially to readers who know little about travel writing. The collection does have its limitations, the editors recognising in the introduction that the selection lacks racial diversity in its focus on women writers from England and America. However, the anthology provides an excellent and highly enjoyable introduction to women's travel writing for general readers and many indicative starting points for further research for those who want to find out more; I've already been prompted to investigate the work of Frances Trollope from reading some of her writing here. Although each extract is short, the anthology gains from being read over time as the pieces have been well selected and are packed with ideas that engage the reader and leave you needing time for reflection before moving onto the next piece- it's taken me a couple of months to get only half way through as I've been enjoying reading the book so much! The beautiful illustrations encourage this, making it the perfect book to leave lying on your coffee table to dip into on a lazy afternoon.

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