The contextual compass : a literary-historical study of three British women’s travel writing on Africa, 1797 – 1934

Visser, Liezel (2009-12)

Thesis (MA (English Studies))--University of Stellenbosch, 2009.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: Texts by women travellers describing their journeys date back almost as far as those produced by their male counterparts, yet women’s travel writing has only become an area of academic interest during the past ten to fifteen years. Previously, women’s travel writing was mostly read for its entertainment value rather than its academic merit and – as Sara Mills notes in her Discourses of Difference – appeared almost exclusively in the form of coffee table books or biographies offering romanticized accounts of heroic, eccentric women who undertook epic journeys to Africa (4). The growing interest in women’s travel writing as part of colonial discourse coincides with the emergence of gender studies and related subjects. The emergence of these areas of academic enquiry can be attributed to the systematic dismantling of the patriarchal structures, which previously dominated social and academic domains. The aim of this study is to examine European women’s travel writing as a subversive discourse which, while sharing some characteristics with traditional male-produced travel texts from the colonial era, was informed by the discursive constraints of femininity. These texts thus differ from male-produced texts in the sense that, because of the different discursive constraints informing women’s travel writing, they offer commentary on aspects of Africa and its peoples which men had omitted in their travel accounts. Three specific texts by British women who recorded their travels in Africa form the basis of the discussion in this dissertation: the travel writing of Lady Anne Barnard (South African Cape Colony, 1797 – 1801), Mary Kingsley (West Africa: Gabon and the Congo, 1896 – 1900) and Barbara Greene (Liberia, 1935). Since, as Mills argues, “feminist textual theory has restricted itself to the analysis of literary texts and has been concerned with analysis of the text itself” (12), which limits the extent to which one can provide interesting, discerning, and relevant comment on women’s writing, the readings of these texts are not limited to feminist theory of women’s travel writing. Social expectations until as recently as the early twentieth century located women firmly in the domestic sphere. It was almost unthinkable for women to undertake travels other than the traditional Grand Tour. To attempt to venture into the predominantly male territory of travel writing was to expose oneself to harsh criticism and to risk being labelled as eccentric and unfeminine. Thus women had to find a way of making both their travels and writing seem acceptable by social standards, while still presenting as true as possible a picture of Africa in their writing. These constraints of the discourse of femininity on their texts necessarily make women’s writing seem concerned almost exclusively with matters of feminine interest. Mills attributes this to women travel writers’ “problematic status, caught between the conflicting demands of the discourse of femininity and that of imperialism.” (Mills, Discourses of Difference 22)

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Reisbeskrywings deur vroue dateer byna so ver terug as dié wat deur mans geskryf is. Tog het vroue se reisbeskrywings eers in die afgelope tien tot vyftien jaar akademiese belangstelling begin ontlok. Voorheen is vroue se reisbeskrywings meestal vir vermaak eerder as akademiese meriete gelees, en – soos Sara Mills in haar Discourses of Difference opmerk – het dit byna uitsluitlik verskyn as koffietafelboeke of verromantiseerde biografieë van heldhaftige, sonderlinge vroue wat epiese reise na Afrika onderneem het (4). Die toenemende belangstelling in vroue se reisbeskrywings as deel van koloniale diskoers val saam met die verskyning van gender-studies en verwante vakgebiede. Die ontstaan van hierdie akademiese vakgebiede kan toegeskryf word aan die stelselmatige aftakeling van die paternalistiese strukture wat sosiale en akademiese arenas voorheen oorheers het. Die doel van hierdie studie is om Europese vroue se reisbeskrywings te ondersoek as ‘n ondermynende diskoers wat, hoewel dit sekere eienskappe van tradisionele reisbeskrywings deur manlike skrywers uit die koloniale tydperk toon, gegrond is in die beperkende diskoers van vroulikheid. Hierdie tekste verskil dus van tekste deur manlike skrywers in die opsig dat dit, as gevolg van die verskillende diskoersbeperkinge waarin dit gegrond is, kommentaar lewer op aspekte van Afrika en sy bevolking wat mans in hul reisbeskrywings uitgelaat het. Drie spesifieke tekste deur Britse vroue wat hul reise beskryf het vorm die grondslag van hierdie verhandeling; dit is die reisbeskrywings van Lady Anne Barnard (Suid-Afrikaanse Kaapkolonie, 1797 – 1801), Mary Kingsley (Wes- Afrika: Gaboen en die Kongo, 1896 – 1900) en Barbara Greene (Liberië, 1935). Mills voer aan: “Feminist textual theory has restricted itself to the analysis of literary texts and has been concerned with analysis of the text itself” (12). Dít beperk die mate waartoe interessante, skerpsinnige en toepaslike kommentaar oor vroue se reisbeskrywings gelewer kan word; dus is die interpretasie van hierdie tekste nie beperk tot feministiese teorie met betrekking tot vrouereisbeskrywings nie. Tot so onlangs as die vroeë twintigste eeu het die samelewing se verwagtinge vroue streng tot die huishoudelike sfeer beperk. Afgesien van die tradisionele Grand Tour was dit bykans ondenkbaar vir vroue om te reis. As ‘n vrou inbreuk sou probeer maak op die tradisioneel manlike gebied van die skryfkuns sou sy haarself blootstel aan skerp kritiek en onwenslike etikettering as eksentriek en onvroulik. Dus moes vroue ‘n manier vind om sowel hul reise as hul skryfwerk sosiaal aanvaarbaar te maak en terselfdertyd so ‘n egte beeld as moontlik van Afrika te skets in hul skryfwerk. Die beperkinge wat die diskoers van vroulikheid op hul tekste plaas, lei noodwendig daartoe dat vroue se skryfwerk as byna geheel en al beperk tot sake van vroulike belang voorkom. Mills skryf dít toe aan vroue-reisbeskrywers se “problematic status, caught between the conflicting demands of the discourse of femininity and that of imperialism.” (Mills, Discourses of Difference 22)

Please refer to this item in SUNScholar by using the following persistent URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10019.1/2673
This item appears in the following collections: