Biography 25.3 (2002) 509-513
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Lila Marz Harper's Solitary Travelers: Nineteenth-Century Women's Travel Narratives and the Scientific Vocation focuses on an area of interest that is currently opening up: the study of travel writing, which is not only interdisciplinary, but lends itself to retrospectives on the role played by women travelers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The author's own background, as the daughter of a botanist and a teacher of geology and biology, provided the impetus for her project. It is not surprising, therefore, that the autobiographical impulse also dominates the treatment of her women travelers/naturalists.
The book is structured historically around four women "solitary travelers" from the 1790s to the 1890s: Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau, Isabella Bird Bishop, and Mary Kingsley. Harper begins with a brief glance at Beatrix Potter, who, barred from delivering a paper at the Linnean society of London, turned her considerable talents to children's literature.
Whether or not the reader is interested in the role of women in science, s/he will find this work rewarding for its insights into the lives of the four major women. Harper paints pictures which remain with one after setting down the book: Wollstonecraft paddling her own canoe, and taking charge [End Page 509] from an incompetent sea captain; Martineau holding up her hearing trumpet (or not); Bird Bishop in a divided skirt, riding astride her horse, and again Bird Bishop in Chinese garb; Mary Kingsley collecting fish which will be named for her.
Harper raises some major questions about "travel literature" through her four "heroines." Is the emphasis on "travel," or on "literature"? As Harper notes, throughout the nineteenth century "literature and science were richly interwoven" (7).
The similarities of the four women studied, despite their apparent differences, constitute the most fascinating aspect of the book. Despite Harper's occasional attempts to label them as "poor" when they were financially strapped, all come from middle-class families—two of them, Bird Bishop and Kingsley, with powerful male relatives, respectively Bishop Wilberforce and Charles Kingsley, the author of Water Babies. The women's bouts of poverty place them all squarely in the "poor but genteel" tradition which was so prolific of governesses throughout the century. Wollstonecraft, granddaughter of a prosperous weaver, became a governess when her brother inherited the family fortune. Later she worked for a publisher as a translator and writer, declaring in 1787 that she was "the first of a new genus" (54). Indeed she was, for she was to become role model, archetype, and unfortunately, dire warning for the women who followed her in quest of a vocation.
Martineau, daughter of a Norwich bombazine manufacturer, was also intended for the governess-trade, described by Jane Austen's Jane Fairfax as the "slave-trade." Harper notes that bombazine, "a black cloth traditionally used in funeral mourning and in academic robes," is emblematic of the family's concerns with religion and scholarship (97). They were Unitarians, a rational, egalitarian religion which also influenced Wollstonecraft. Martineau lost her hearing, which put an end to any possibility of governessing, as she would have had to teach music. Only needlework remained, work regarded as a step up by Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell's factory girl (1848), but more than a step down by poor Lily Bart in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth(1905). Harper hints that Martineau's travels may also have offered an escape from a difficult family situation, in charge of an elderly mother and aunt.
Bird Bishop seemed to be the stereotypical clergyman's daughter, "in poor health and a spinster at the age of forty" (137). She married John Bishop in 1882, but was widowed by 1886, past childbearing age. Her illnesses disappeared once she began her travels. Mary Kingsley's father was a non-practicing doctor who was absent most...