“Weaver and unweaver, constructor and deconstructor, woman as traveler and storyteller might be said to break the law of boundaries,” Karen Lawrence writes in her introduction to Penelope Voyages, a significant contribution to the small—but growing—body of theory and criticism on women and travel-writing. Not only male-authored (and male-centered) travel narratives, Lawrence points out, but also most theoretical and critical work on travel has tended to “encode the traveler as a male who crosses boundaries and penetrates spaces” while mapping the female “as a place on the itinerary of the male journey.” Lawrence follows Michel Serres’s lead in using the journey/story of Odysseus as a paradigmatic starting point for thinking about all “narrative crossings and displacements,” but pushes his allegory in another direction when she focuses our attention on female agency in travel and narrative. Intrigued by the “Odyssey au feminin,” she asks, “What happens when Penelope voyages? What discourse, what figures, what maps do we use? Can Penelope, the weaver and teller of the story of male absence, trace her own itinerary instead?”
The itineraries Lawrence identifies in her texts, however, have less to do with precisely “where” her female travelers voyage than with how these women transform traditionally male myths and models of travel and travel-writing for their own purposes. While avoiding sweeping generalizations about the difference gender makes in travel writing, Lawrence finds that in the main, “women writers of travel have tended to mistrust the rhetoric of mastery, conquest, and quest that has funded a good deal of male fictional and nonfictional travel.” Women’s travel-writing is marked instead by an awareness of some rather poststructuralist insights about human identity, suggesting to Lawrence “a model of the self that in many cases prefigures the lessons of psychoanalysis and deconstruction: that agency is never entirely self-willed, never purely a question of conscious desire.”
Informed theoretically by an eclectic mix of feminisms ranging from Gilbert and Gubar to Cixous, as well as by a wide variety of poststructuralist, postcolonial, and psychoanalytic work, Lawrence’s readings [End Page 183] strain always towards recognizing the complex and protean nature of each author’s response to the generic and stylistic options open to her. In chapters which progress (roughly) chronologically from Margaret Cavendish’s “Assaulted and Pursued Chastity” (1656) through Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out (1915) and Orlando (1928) and Brigid Brophy’s postmodern novel In Transit (1969), Lawrence takes pains to show “that despite the generally liberatory impulse behind most voyages out, one cannot float above the cultural vehicles available for transporting the imagination.” Conscientious about providing the extratextual information that forms the social, political, and historical backdrop to each reading, Lawrence does manage, even while ranging over four centuries in about two hundred pages, to keep the reader anchored in the time and place(s) appropriate to each author she treats. All the same, it is the “liberatory impulses” in these texts to which Lawrence responds most strongly, and about which she writes most eloquently. One gets the sense that the book crescendos from its celebration of Cavendish as an early “protofeminist” who “demonstrates the diverse energies of women’s errant imaginations” to the final chapter, “Postmodern ‘Vessels of Conception,”‘ which points to the way Brophy’s “hermaphroditic circulation launches a fantastic, punning linguistic journey” for its de-gendered, de-personified protagonist.
Lawrence moves deftly in this book between performing sensitive linguistic analysis at the sentence level and developing larger thematic and structural concerns. She has provided a series of astute readings of this set of both fictional and nonfictional, canonical and less well known women’s texts. And while she avoids placing her project squarely in the camp of postcolonialist criticism, Lawrence nonetheless shows herself to be finely attuned to the ways in which, as she puts it in her analysis of The Voyage Out, “the history of colonialism is both written and effaced” in the narratives of white British women caught in that peculiar in-between position of...