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ARTICLES SKIRTING THE ISSUES: ADDRESSING AND DRESSING IN VICTORIAN WOMEN'S TRAVEL NARRATIVES MARNISTANLEY Malaspina College In chapter five of Travels in West Africa Mary Kingsley stops to ponder on the nature of posterity: Of course if you really want a truly safe investment in Fame, and really care about Posterity, and Posterity's Science, you will jump over into the black batter-like, stinking slime, cheered by the thought of the terrific sensation you will produce 20,000 years hence, and the care you will be taken of then by your fellowcreatures , in a museum. But if you are a mere ordinary person of a retiring nature, like me, you stop in your lagoon until the tide rises again; most of your attention is directed to dealing with an "at home" to crocodiles and mangrove flies, and with the fearful stench of the slime round you. What little time you have over you will employ in wondering why you came to West Africa, and why, after having reached this point of absurdity, you need have gone and painted the lily and adorned the rose, by being such a colossal ass as to come fooling about in mangrove swamps. (89) Kingsley mocks the desire for fame implicit in the published travel account by reminding the reader of the difficulty of the task, but her ironically tinged words put us on the trail of a number of fascinating and contradictory liaisons in her account and in the writing of her contemporaries — between propriety and adventure; between modesty Victorian Review 23.2 (Winter 1997) 148Victorian Review and fame; between what one should do and what one does do; between being a woman and being a traveller. Who is the woman traveller and how is she fashioned? Travel literature by women of the Victorian era is surprisingly commonplace. By the 1880s hundreds of women were turning their notes and jottings on peoples and places into manuscripts and finding homes for them on the lists of publishers such as John Murray, Blackwoods, Richard Bentley and Sampson Low.1 Because only a score or so remain in print today they seem, if anything, more exotic and intrepid to us than they probably did in their own day. In her analysis of women's travel writing, Sara Mills invites us to read their texts for "the traces of discursive struggles over the 'proper' place of women" (107). At a time when women could neither vote, nor find a career that provided financial independence, when married women could not control their money or property, and when etiquette books proliferated by the dozens, all laying out prescriptive rules of deportment to increasingly absurd lengths, how did so many women find the will, the wherewithal, and the way to undertake complex journeys? If, as Mills suggests, women had to negotiate the discourses of the feminine in their works since they were likely to find themselves criticized for "both the writing and for the travels they represented" (41), how and where do those negotiations appear in the texts? If gender requires constant reinscription to create the illusion of stability amidst the fluctuations of the cultural and historical moment and other variables, in what ways do their texts bear the markers of the feminine? Since gender is read in personal encounters first from dress, physical traits, and other elements of appearance, what constitutes the textual repertoire of expression or gesture or appearance that these women felt compelled to adopt? Given what we know about the expectations placed on a middle-class Victorian woman (the class from which most travellers came) and given that the iconography of travel and explanation is overwhelmingly masculine,2 it is easy to see how these women struggled with these conflicting concepts — woman and traveller — in their own consciousness and sometimes created not a successful hybrid but a selfdefeating oxymoron. These women seem to travel under watchful eyes, often as concerned with how they will be seen as with what they are able to see; they police the proprieties with as much energy as they flaunt convention. I am predominantly interested in two sites where this struggle with a feminine self-fashioning seems particularly explicit. The first...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 147-167
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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