- British Women’s Travel to Greece
Churnjeet Mahn’s British Women’s Travel to Greece, 1840–1914: Travels in the Palimpsest offers an insightful contribution to as well as departure from the expanding field of classical reception studies. Most scholars investigating the fortunes of Greek literature, language, and culture in modernity have dealt with the ancient world largely as a spectral presence in the lives and works of armchair time travelers whose investment in antique material was restricted to the realms of scholarship and fantasy. While maintaining an emphasis on the fluidity and ambivalence of modernity’s engagement with antiquity, Mahn takes as her focus nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers who ventured into Greece itself following the country’s War of Independence (1821–1832).
Situating itself at a historical intersection between the rise of Victorian Hellenism as a cultural obsession and the emergence of modern Greece from behind the veil of Oriental imperialism, Mahn’s work both enters the ongoing discussion about England’s struggle to appropriate ancient Greece as the progenitor of the Western intellectual tradition and forges new pathways in the reconceptualization of Orientalism. Victorian travelers, Mahn concludes, found various means of “dehistoricizing and geographically displacing the reality of Modern Greece” in order to account for and/or dismiss Oriental influences resulting from the Ottoman Empire’s centuries-long rule. The book convincingly argues that these discursive maneuvers helped to provide unobstructed access to “the genius of antiquity that properly belonged to the West.” With chapters devoted to the influence of guidebooks that shaped travelers’ [End Page 409] perceptions of Greece and to the roles of classical scholarship and ethnography in further honing this perception, Mahn succeeds in reinforcing arguments for the distortive lenses through which ancient Greece was seen by the Victorians as well as in clearing ground for further discussion of the conflicting discourses of Hellenism and Orientalism in the nineteenth century.
Assuredly, the strongest parts of Mahn’s study are those that highlight the tensions between Greece’s association with the Orient—seen by the Victorians as alternately exotic and degenerate—and its status, at least in ancient form, as a model of ideal cultural and aesthetic achievement. The first chapter (“Greek Panoramas: Murray and Baedeker’s Guidebooks to Greece, 1840–1909”) does an admirable job of framing the shifting relationship between East and West in situating and accounting for Greece. Mahn’s detailed examination of the guidebooks unfolds a process of “recoding” whereby Greece’s allure changed “from an exotic Oriental space in 1840 to a vast open-air museum by 1909.” The Orientalized image of Greece presented in the earlier editions built upon popular fantasies of the Orient as a mysterious, otherworldly space that could provide entertainment and spectacle for a Western audience. “Using Oriental imagery to translate Greece’s distance from Britain as its romantic appeal, the first phase of Greece’s tourist reality was as a site whose independence had little impact on the Eastern imagery associated with it,” Mahn observes of the guidebooks’ power (and the fantasies upon which they fed) to gloss over the reality of historical events. The carefully crafted views of Greece laid out by the guidebooks enabled the tourist to enter picturesque, Orientalized landscapes while also maintaining a prophylactic distance from the host of real and imagined threats associated with the Orient proper: “The images of Greece [the guidebooks] offered extended beyond the narrow scope of antique vistas; rather, they were interested in finding a vital component of life in Greece, one they did not find in the very alive Greeks, but in the spiritual and imaginative engagement with a semi-Oriental space without any of the dangers of being in the ‘Orient.’”
This romanticized image of Greece as an Oriental land shifted a decade later to an emphasis on modern Greece as a point of access to antiquity. Noting the difference between Murray’s 1854 version of the guidebook to Greece and the 1840s edition, Mahn observes: “The suggestion is not that the Oriental sections of the guidebooks ever eclipsed...