TRANSATLANTIC WOMEN TRAVELERS 1688 -- 1843 by Misty Kruger, ed., Reviewed by Valentina Aparicio
 


TRANSATLANTIC WOMEN TRAVELERS 1688 -- 1843
Ed. Misty Kruger
(Bucknell, 2021) 234 pp.
Reviewed by Valentina Aparicio on 2022-10-31.

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This thought-provoking collection of essays analyzes a range of portrayals of transatlantic women travelers in the long eighteenth century. Contributors treat several understudied texts, re-assess the importance of popular and anonymous writing, and examine both fictional and historical travel accounts. For the range of texts studied as well as the theoretical debates that emerge from this volume, it is also a great addition to the growing scholarship on circum-Atlantic women travelers, women who participated in the transnational cultural communities generated by (colonial) exchanges through and around the Atlantic Ocean.

The collection is divided in two parts, "(Pseudo)Historical Women's Travels" and "Fictional Women's Travels." As these titles suggest, contributors highlight what it means to study travel writing as a genre. To answer this question, they innovatively compare "real" travel accounts with fictional ones. According to Misty Krueger, the editor, they seek to show "who represents women's travel, what they represent, and what we can learn from accounts about real women's lived experiences and imagined portrayals" (2). Investigating how travelers were imagined by those who did not travel opens the door to a new and exciting stage of work in travel writing studies.

The productive possibilities of this approach are exemplified by Ula Lukzo Klein's fascinating chapter on the portrayals of the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who occupy the interstices of fact and fiction in travel writing. Examining Charles Johnson's account of these two women in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), Klein shows how the circulation of their stories not only reflected on race and gender in the Atlantic world but also combined traditional eighteenth-century tropes associated with "plebeian" women, such as cross-dressing and criminality. Piracy and cross dressing, Klein argues, gave financial and sexual independence to these women, who likely came from the European lower classes. But in emphasizing the "whiteness" of Mary Read's breasts, the fictionalized stories about these women pirates also suggest that gender and sexuality were more flexible than racial categories. As Klein convincingly shows, the stories of these real women were predicated on their race, as they represented the freedoms available to lower class white women in the Atlantic.

In fully fictional accounts of women travelers, racial politics become even more pronounced. Alexis McQuigge's chapter on The Female American (1767) and Octavia Cox's essay on The Woman of Color (1808) both focus on biracial characters. While previous scholarship on The Female American has stressed the patriarchal and English culture of the protagonist's father, McQuigge highlights her indigenous American ancestry on the side of her mother. Earlier scholars have seen this novel as a colonialist text supporting British values, particularly because the protagonist, Unca Eliza, travels to North America to convert her mother's community to Christianity. But McQuigge argues that by imaginatively representing a travelling woman of color, the novel reveals a female fantasy of liberation -- even though this fantasy is defeated at the end of the novel, when Unca Eliza marries her English cousin and gives up the power she inherited through her mother's lineage.

Cox's reading of The Woman of Color reveals a similar view of fictional biracial female travelers. The biracial protagonist, Olivia Fairfield, travels from Jamaica to England in the hopes of finding a welcoming society but is disillusioned with what she finds. In what Cox calls a "reverse-Robinsonade," a seemingly uncultured "native" criticizes a supposedly "civilized" Britain. For Cox, the novel aims at questioning the self-satisfaction of the British for having passed the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807. Highlighting the behavior of British women and their treatment of transatlantic subjects, the novel shows that the domestic politics of women can be just as impactful as the high politics of men. Olivia, Cox demonstrates, comes to represent British values in the novel by re-educating the English about Englishness. Like The Female American as McQuigge reads it, this novel uses the figure of the biracial woman traveler as a way of revealing the possibilities for the expansion and reformation of British womanhood. As Unca Eliza taps her matriarchal lineage to convert her indigenous community to Christianity, so Olivia Fairfield taps the Bible, Milton, and Shakespeare to impose British values on the English themselves. But here again, much like the stories about Bonny and Read, the novels mainly accentuate the whiteness of the protagonists, or the white parts of their upbringing.

Furthermore, both the fictional and pseudohistorical accounts of travel in this collection emphasize gender performance. As Eva Tavor Bannet suggests in the afterword to this volume, the essays show women "intelligently negotiating patriarchal cultures" and "variously employing, exploiting, and circumventing patriarchal expectations and constraints" (198). In her essay on Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688), for instance, Kathleen Morrisey shows how Imoinda uses a feminine performance of feeling to her advantage when fighting for her life as an enslaved woman. Even though, as Morrisey highlights, Behn gives primacy to the feelings of men and does not show much sympathy for Imoinda, this character makes self-determining choices by advantageously performing femininity, even in the most trying of circumstances. Similarly, Jennifer Golightly shows how the titular heroine of Emma Corbett (1789) uses her sensibility to alter the behavior of men. Golightly argues that in this novel, manifestations of sensibility, which often translated to physical insensibility or even death, can recall men from their political pursuits into caring about domestic affairs. The latter are valued more highly in the novel. While portraying the American Revolution as a cruel war that tears brothers apart, the novel suggests that women's sensibilities could reconcile them. Finally, in her fascinating analysis of the real travels of Flora Tristán in Peru and Frances Calderón de la Barca in Mexico, Grace A. Gomashie reveals women's constant need to negotiate expectations in order to defy patriarchy. To more effectively criticize the oppression of women by religion and marriage in Peru, for instance, Tristán hid her divorce and posed as a single woman. Gomashie argues that to establish solidarity with the women they met in their travels and thus facilitate the reception of their criticism of patriarchy, both Tristán and Calderón de la Barca carefully omitted or fictionalized information when necessary. As presented in these studies, therefore, narratives of women travelling in the Atlantic inextricably link history, fiction, and fictions of gender performance.

In the afterword, Eve Tavor Bannet explains the benefits of studying, as this volume does, combinations of diaries, letters, novels, botanical publications, and historical accounts. According to Bannet, mixta genera accounts were "intrinsic to travel writing during this period" (203) and could reach wider and more diverse audiences, favoring novelty and surprise over formulaic writing. Perhaps the same could be said of the diverse essays in this collection. Apart from the unifying themes presented above, the rationale for the selection of texts is far from clear, and the coherence of the volume suffers as a consequence. It is difficult to imagine a reader who would read the volume back-to-back rather than picking only chapters of interest. The variety might stem from the intention of making the study intersectional. However, as wide-ranging as the collection is, intersectionality is its least convincing feature. Even though it pays closer attention to portrayals of racialized women than other collections might have done in the past, the volume is clearly dominated by white voices.

Almost all the texts analyzed here that have a known author were written by a white person. The only clear exception is found in Johnson's essay on Maria Falconbridge, which briefly introduces a letter by Susana Smith, a Black woman who relocated to Sierra Leone from Nova Scotia. Johnson thus reveals what we can learn by reading white authors beside racialized authors. Examining Falconbridge's Two Voyages to Sierra Leone (1794, Johnson explains that Parliamentary discussion of the Sierra Leone Company resettlement scheme revolved around the climate of Sierra Leone, which was perceived as inhospitable. Falconbridge's report, Johnson argues, reveals an early modern awareness of how climate could be used by the state as a tool of what Rob Nixon has called "slow violence": a violence that "occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space" (Rob Nixon, Slow Violence [2011], 2). Johnson's essay is very timely, for in April of 2022, continuing its long practice of relocating unwanted populations to territories seen as inhospitable, the British government proposed to send to Rwanda people seeking asylum in the UK. For Johnson, resettlement schemes like that of Sierra Leone are likewise pernicious. Though presented as a form of reparative justice, Johnson argues that they were often a way of eradicating the "eye sore" of impoverished Black populations.

In contrast, Falconbridge's narrative highlights the importance of seeing the distress of others in order to make oppressed populations legible as communities in need of support. Yet although she quotes letters and petitions of Black settlers, Falconbridge inevitably subordinates them to the sympathetic abilities of the white woman, who exerts editorial power. To counter this power, to show what was left out of Falconbridge's own "literary ecosystem" (58), Johnson quotes a letter which Susana Smith asks John Clarkson for soap, so that she and her family can be "fit to be Sean" (59). Johnson thus shows how surviving in impoverished marginal areas of Empire required subjects to meet a threshold of visibility: to be a body fit to be seen, both by having access to soap and by representing themselves in writing. As compared with Falconbridge's Two Voyages, Smith's letter presents a radically different view of Black political demands in Sierra Leone, exemplifying the perspective of racialized authors.

Why were such authors left out of the "literary ecosystem" of this edited collection? Why were they not given space to write themselves into visibility, in Johnsons words? Some essays in this collection dramatically fail to recognize them. For instance, Pam Perkins aims to reconstruct the lives of Newfoundland women so as to offer a nuanced picture of both elite and working-class women's lives in the region. According to narratives of the period, Perkins argues, Newfoundland was thought likely to turn its British settlers--Newfoundlanders--into something like "savages." To counteract this perception, Perkins shows that the (white) women of Newfoundland fought hard to keep their British identity alive by consuming British material culture and literature, and striving to pass on British customs to their families. Yet Perkins fails to consider their motives, specifically their colonizing agenda, and makes no mention of indigenous people, so that Newfoundland emerges from this essay as a place completely devoid of them. But as I have confirmed by my own research, Newfoundland was indeed inhabited by indigenous people at the time considered by this essay.

This problem of visibility and difference also handicaps the essay by Victoria Barnett-Woods. Analyzing Leonora Sansay's Secret History (1808) and the anonymous Zelica, the Creole (1820), Barnett-Woods sims to trace the emergence of a "creole nationalism" in the Atlantic world. "[C]reolization," she proposes, is an identity based on the "multitudinous evolutions of peoples and languages, never tied to a singular national ideology, but perpetually open, aggregating and synthesizing a diverse range of cultural practices" (167). Creole nationalism, therefore, is presented as a cultural and economic system that promotes multilingualism, equality, and cross-cultural relations. But how does this concept of creole nationalism speak to the long history of Latin American and Caribbean scholarship that criticizes the deeply ideologized notions of métissage, mestizaje, creole and criollo? While these notions have often seemed open to difference, they have consistently been used to suppress difference, tending towards "whitening" and fostering the progressive disappearance of Black and indigenous identities in favor of a homogeneous "mixed" identity (see for instance Nancy Appelbaum et al., Race and Nation in Modern Latin America [2003], and Tanya Katerí Hernández, "Spanish America Whitening the Race," in Racial Subordination in Latin America, [2012]). Ultimately, Barnett-Woods's essay too erases difference. She describes all women travelers in Zelica as "creole" in identity, including "Zelica [who] travels between France and Haiti; Clara [who] journeys to Haiti from the United States with her husband; and Madelaine [who] was brought to the colony as a saltwater slave" (178). Yet in finding all "hemispherically mobile" women equally "creole," Barnett-Woods scants their radical differences, which are significantly determined by race. In proposing that "mobility" can create one positive multi-cultural identity while ignoring the role of white women in colonialism, Barnett-Woods adopts and uncritically reproduces a major blind spot in Zelica. This white fantasy of a creole identity reflects precisely the type of homogenizing métissage/mestizaje ideology criticized by some Latin American and Caribbean scholars and misses another chance to address difference in this collection.

In sum, while this volume complicates the distinction between fact and fiction in travel writing, opening several fascinating avenues of reflection, it does not deliver on its promise of "putting into conversation stories of women of color and non-English speaking women with stories of white British, American, and European women in the entire circum-Atlantic world" (13). Rather, this collection of essays about what are repeatedly said to be images of women travelers in general almost exclusively features white images of them. Whether the white voices describe racialized women or white women, real or imagined, we are not shown how racialized writers imagined women travelers. So while some of the essays are thought-provoking, the collection is inevitably limited to the narrative techniques and representations favored by white authors. One can only imagine how much richer this volume would have been if it included the images of travelers provided by non-white voices.

Valentina Aparicio is a Lecturer in Romanticism in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary University of London.


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