- X Marks the Spot: Women Writers Map the Empire for British Children, 1790–1895 by Megan A. Norcia
Nearly two decades ago, Edward Said cautioned, in his influential study Culture and Imperialism, that “none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography” (7). Indeed, as Megan A. Norcia powerfully demonstrates in X Marks the Spot, it is no wonder: from their years as primary-level students, British subjects were trained to see themselves as “lords of humankind,” due in part to Britain’s vast territorial holdings, when the “sun never set on the British Empire.” Unearthing a vast and complex body of evidence of the imperial work of geography (most notably in geography primers used in nineteenth-century schools), Norcia explores how women writers laid the foundation of the values of empire through these educational materials. A deeply interdisciplinary study that marshals postcolonial and feminist theories for a critical examination of children’s literature, geography, and nineteenth-century history, X Marks the Spot is a timely study of nineteenth-century women’s writings. As Paula Fass recently noted, “There has never been a better or more urgent time to direct our attention to the history of children than the present moment of global awareness” (12).
Like the best feminist studies of travel writing—Sara Mills’s Discourses of Difference (1991), Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes (1992, 2008), Alison Blunt’s [End Page 161] Travel, Gender, and Imperialism (1994), and Karen Lawrence’s Penelope Travels (1994)—X Marks the Spot is both a study of genre and a critique of ideology. Norcia’s innovation is to examine how women writers shaped perceptions of the world by imparting cultural and social lessons about Britain and its colonies through geography primers. Recovering and closely analyzing a wide-ranging set of geography primers written largely by middle-class British women during the long nineteenth century, Norcia sheds light on how these little-known writers reflected and promulgated a complex set of responses to Britain’s growing empire. As Norcia underscores, women’s subject positions—their gender, religion, and class—shaped their colonial discourse, often in surprising ways. Just as female travel writers described and interpreted new locations through the prism of home, so too the primer writers disseminated lasting lessons to their child readers about race, gender, and imperialism. By concentrating on a broad historical swath, from 1790 to 1895, Norcia demonstrates how, early in the period, children’s curricula “articulate[d] a set of persuasive beliefs about empire, nation, and colonization” (17).
Norcia organizes the book by identifying the domestic tropes that recur in the primers: the family of man, the imperial dinner party, and the map confrontation as contact zone. Her study of Mary Anne Venning’s geography primers in chapter 2, for example, crystallizes how ideas about race, which predate Darwin’s The Origin of Species by many decades, proved “instrumental in shaping the ways that people of other races were regarded, governed, and evangelized” (42). Well before science reinforced these messages about national kinship, geography primers taught British children “to map other national bodies not in terms of global proximity but based on supposed familial resemblances and relationships” (64). The final two chapters of the book, then, complicate this argument by exploring how gender often “disrupts” the colonial discourse of the primers, as women writers frequently “tested possibilities of women’s authority and social roles in political and imperial life” (110).
The theoretical sophistication of Norcia’s study and its wide applicability to transnational nineteenth-century studies—it was published within months of pmla’s special feature on children’s literature in its January 2011 number—heralds childhood’s coming of age as a category of historical and literary analysis. What was once, according to Jacqueline Rose, an “impossible” subject (1) is now asserting itself as a genre containing as much textual indeterminacy and ideological complication as many of our most canonical forms. In a recent issue of the Journal of the History of...