- Lady Hester Stanhope: Queen of the Desert by Virginia Childs, and: Across New Worlds: Nineteenth-Century Women Travellers and Their Writings by Shirley Foster, and: Transatlantic Manners: Social Patterns in Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Travel Literature by Christopher Mulvey (review)
- Victorian Review
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 17, Number 2, Winter 1991
- pp. 83-86
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Reviews83 Virginia Childs. Lady Hester Stanhope: Queen of the Desert. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1990. xiv + 226. £16.95 (cloth). Shirley Foster. Across New Worlds: Nineteenth-Century Women Travellers and Their Writings. Hemel Hempstead, Herts: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990. ix + 201. Christopher Mulvey. Transatlantic Manners: Social Patterns in NineteenthCentury Anglo-American Travel Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. $39.50 US (cloth). However trendy it may appear to some, the term "other" has become a defining focus for theories of colonial/political discourse. It is somewhat surprising, then, to discover minimal reference to this concept in the books under review, especially at what is now a developed stage of critical writing about travel and empire. To be fair, Virginia Childs's biography of Lady Hester Stanhope (a European subject constituted by the "others" of the British lower classes and Middle Eastern natives, if there ever was one) makes no pretence to be anything more than a romantic narrative of her heroine's adventures in love and travel. But Shirley Foster and Christopher Mulvey adopt more complex approaches to their subjects. Each deals witii difference, aiming, in the case of Foster, at difference between male and female travel writing, and, in the case of Mulvey, at difference between English and American travel literature. Across New Worlds and Transatlantic Manners might have benefitted, perhaps, from some attention to theories of how European subjectivity was partially constructed through the constitution of an alien "other." Drawing heavily upon Charles Meryon's memoirs of Hester Stanhope (her physician, he accompanied her everywhere in the Near and Middle East for many years) and also upon earlier biographies of her subject, Virginia Childs offers much fascinating detail about a woman whose life was a signal example of ruling-class privilege. Daughter of a viscount, a niece of a prime minister (William Pitt), and great-great grand-daughter of "Diamond" Pitt who accumulated a massive fortune in India, Hester Stanhope left England in 1810, settled in Lebanon in 1817, and died there in 1839. In her almost thirty years of peripatetic residence abroad, she conducted a long affair with a callow cad, Michael Bruce, and was named "Queen of the Desert" by crowds in Damascus who could only attribute her "great courage or great foolnardiness" in entering the city unveiled (108) to some kind of royal and arrogant immunity to local custom. What fascinates in Childs's biography is information about how Hester Stanhope lived, and what supported that living; by far the most interesting details 84Victorian Review are to do with her clothes. Travelling through rough, mountainous countryside on the island of Rhodes, she dresses in silk shirt, cotton waistcoat, breeches, boots, and turban; setting out for Jerusalem, she dons satin vest, red clothjacket and trousers, white-hooded cloak, and cashmere shawl worn as a turban; for a meeting with an Arab chief, she costumes herself as the son of a Bedu leader in sheepskin pelisse. Here, Childs might have explored the rich political meanings inherent inthe upper-class Victorian love of Arab costume: for example, to what degree is Hester Stanhope's social identity disguised or elaborated by such dressing-up? Instead, Stanhope is evoked as a superb and fearless rider, so dynamically attractive that London is "at her feet" (9) despite her social inexperience, and "as used to life with leaders in Downing Street as . . . with Pashas in Syria" (120); striding through these pages as a Byronic figure, her English will is more than a match for misogynistic Arab customs. At her unhappy end, she dies walled up in her Djoun villa, done in by tuberculosis (probably) and local moneylenders unmoved by her glamorous reputation. Despite (and because of) Childs's breathless admiration for her subject ("Lady Hester felt an immediate and powerful affinity for the desert people which was entirely reciprocated ... An emotional surge of something akin to love and gratitude reinforced the feelings of respect and admiration she felt for these untamed Bedouin people" (119), we receive a full picture of the meaning of travel for privileged Englishwomen (and men) at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Shirley Foster's study of women travellers such as Frances Trollope, Fanny Kemble, and Anna Jameson and how...