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Women Travel Writers and the Language of Aesthetics, 1716-1818 (review)

From: Eighteenth-Century Studies
Volume 30, Number 4, Summer 1997
pp. 454-455 | 10.1353/ecs.1997.0030

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Reviewed by
Elizabeth A. Bohls. Women Travel Writers and the Language of Aesthetics, 1716–1818. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. 309.

In the new history of modern aesthetics Elizabeth Bohls retraces in her book, women travelers writing about their experiences in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries inevitably crossed more than geographical boundaries. Although they were more often than not ignored or reduced to tropes or figures in the landscape in the developing field of aesthetic discourse and artistic production about the picturesque, the sublime, and the beautiful, they found themselves nevertheless using that discourse, as the preferred one for travel writers. They did so with ambivalence and, presumably as a result, subverted its norms as they “work[ed] through their exclusion from the political, social, and cultural privileges of the gentleman” (18). Together their “travel accounts constitute a collective rethinking of the foundations of modern aesthetics” (206), especially “three of its most important founding assumptions” (7): its pretense to universal applicability (and its concomitant denial of particularity), its insistence on disinterested observation, and its assertion of the autonomy of the aesthetic realm. Each of these tenets, but especially the denial of the particular, had an exclusive effect: Reynolds’ “Discourses exemplify especially well the way in which British culture of this period pervasively aligned women, the laboring classes, and non-Europeans with body as opposed to mind, matter rather than form, and the particular rather than the universal, and the way in which these dualities govern the construction and disqualification of aesthetic subjects” (80).

Bohls takes admirable care not to oversimplify each woman traveler’s rewriting of the discourse of aesthetics, but she does dare to “over-read” (21) the journals, letters, travelogues, position papers, and novels produced by these travelers with their “typical strategies of obliqueness” (20). Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s strategy in her Turkish Embassy letters is a playful, tongue-in-cheek application of the disinterested language of aesthetics to objects generally stereotyped by Englishmen as erotic or exotic (or both)—for example, Turkish harem women in their baths, or Montagu herself in Turkish costume—in order to encourage tolerance for otherness. Two other women writers in the book subversively harness aesthetic discourse in the service of economic or political systems (Janet Schaw a British West Indies sugar plantation and Helen Maria Williams the French Revolution), substituting engaged for disinterested observation. They and the other four women travelers featured in this book; Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Shelley work in a rich variety of ways to create a discourse of aesthetics that can be human—or woman—centered and that can include the particular and the practical material and labor of everyday life.

Wollstonecraft’s first response to Edmund Burke’s Enlightenment discourse of aesthetics is to attack it for its reductive disregard for women and the laboring poor. She later revisits aesthetic discourse in her Letters Written . . . in Sweden in order to reshape it: to make room for the feminine subject, the homely, and the poor, and the questions they raise about economics and environment; to “break the frame of picturesque convention” (158) in order to reassert the relationship between aesthetics and life; and to “resituate the [frequently disembodied, upper-class, male, and European] aesthetic subject” (159) by constructing a very particular, embodied, feminine persona. Like Wollstonecraft, Wordsworth in her journals and Recollections of a Tour . . . in Scotland works to “disrupt and reconceptualize the aesthetic perception of land” in order to include “the practical realities of dwelling in a place” (170). Residing in the Lake District but not native to it, suspended between the values and habits of the new rich and the resident or vagrant poor, involved with her brother in the production of literature yet firmly grounded in a daily round of woman’s work, Wordsworth presents a landscape from these multiple perspectives that is “profoundly anti-picturesque” (197). As Wollstonecraft and Wordsworth subvert and enrich the discourse of the picturesque, Radcliffe anatomizes the discourse of the sublime from a confined woman’s point of view, Shelley the discourse of the beautiful from a grotesque’s perspective. [End Page 454]

This book has many strengths that...