MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 394-396
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Sidonie Smith. Moving Lives: Twentieth-Century Women's Travel Writing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. xvii + 240 pp.
In her study of twentieth-century women travel writers, Sidonie Smith examines how certain women by the late-nineteenth century were granted an expanding mobility as an effect of modernity (xi). While travel has figured as an element in the "domain of constitutive masculinity," Smith assesses how modernist developments altered a gendered politics of mobility, giving some white women opportunities to travel (x). Contributing to conversations in feminism and critical race studies, Smith attends to the privileges shaping a particular group of women travelers, arguing that "their relationship to the technologies of modernity" served precisely as "the signifier of their privileged whiteness" (xv). Smith organizes her study around the means of travel these writers employed, with chapters devoted to women traveling on foot, in the air, by rail, and on the road.
Throughout Moving Lives, Smith addresses the forms of desire that propelled these women to travel. A common yearning involves what Smith calls a "belated unbecoming," the modern subject's desire to achieve a "premodern locatedness" that enables her to throw off a debased and alienated identity (33). Such efforts ultimately prove futile, as these desires are only imaginable from a position of privilege. That the yearning to be rid of an encumbering modernism is precisely an effect of the modern is an irony largely overlooked by these travelers. Moving Lives examines such self-delusions, showing how writers often failed to leave at home the very social practices they sought to escape.
For Isabelle Eberhardt, who visited the Maghreb in 1904, western colonial expansion was a condition enabling her mobility. While Eberhardt identifies with the nomads who become the antithesis of a stifling modernism, she does so through a discourse of "romantic solitude," a belief in the autonomous, unencumbered individual who is ultimately a far cry from the nomads she romanticizes (36). Cross-dressing as a North African male in order to achieve greater mobility, [End Page 394] Eberhardt disavows the Arab females she encounters, aligning them with animals by configuring the women as a "herdlike" and "undifferentiated mass" (37). Eberhardt's violation of codes Algerian women themselves could not violate is enabled by European privilege, a fact that goes unregistered in her narrative. Meanwhile, Alexandra David-Neel, who visited Tibet in the 1920s, also traveled in cognito, cross-dressing as a woman outside her own class and race. Distinguishing herself from other travelers, David-Neel embarked on her journey for purportedly academic purposes, having devoted years to studying the languages and religion of Tibet. Such travels, however, are ultimately not innocent ventures; her acquisition of knowledge serves larger colonial purposes while cross-dressing grants her power over those duped by the disguise. As Smith argues, dual discourses frequently shape these narratives. While writers often employ self-deprecation, they also adopt a "scenario of exceptionalist individualism," positioning themselves as engaged in more noteworthy forms of travel (18, 59).
Smith includes a discussion of Robyn Davidson, who traveled across Australia by camel in the 1970s. Having made an agreement with the National Geographic Society to chronicle her experiences, Davidson watched her status as an exceptionalist individual diminish. Not only did she battle for autonomy in representing her travels, she also contended with tourists who followed her tracks, having learned about Davidson from the pages of National Geographic. Her angry response is in keeping with the rhetoric employed by exceptionalist individuals, who consider their own journey as appropriate and defendable, while rendering the travel of others illegitimate and crass.
A chapter on aviation as antidote to a beleaguered masculinity examines the aviator as progenitor of a new reinvigorated male. At a time when air travel was perceived as aristocratic yet for economic reasons needed to be remade into an everyday venture, women writers were useful in selling aviation to a general public. Amelia Earhart once proclaimed that air travel was "comparable to the electric refrigeration, vacuum devices and all the other leisure...