Victorian Women Travelling

The first issue in the 16th volume for the journal Partial Answers featured a cluster of four essays called "Modernity and Mobility: Victorian Women Travelling." The authors, which included guest editors Murray Baumgarten from the University of California, Santa Cruz and Barbara Franchi from the University of Kent, took a look at "issues pertaining to the relationship between female modernity, travel, and the subversion of imperial roles," accoridng to ther introduction to the essays. Baumgarten and Franchi joined us for a Q&A to discuss the forum.

How did this forum develop between the panel discussion in June 2015 and publication?

This project really started as a shared conversation between Murray Baumgarten and myself in summer 2014. We discussed how the Victorian period, with its technological advancement and increased professional opportunities for middle-class women, changed the ways that women relate to space and movement. We were interested in exploring the links between the processes of female independence through work, mobility in the city and across the British Empire, and women’s visibility on the literary scene (both as authors and as heroines). As this conversation continued, it resulted in our inviting a number of colleagues to present on the panel on Women’s Mobility that we led at the Victorian Modernities conference in June 2015. We then decided to bring our attention more to the relevance of travel for female emancipation at the intersection between Victorian and neo-Victorian writing, and this was the focus that we pursued in putting together the forum.

How important was the portrayal of female travel in Victorian fiction both in influencing the culture of the time and in providing a base of research for more modern works?

The concept of modernity is synonymous with the global changes that the Victorian period brought: after the Industrial Revolution, societies in Europe and North America changed hugely, since many more people lived in cities, and lived off their work in factories. With rising numbers of children in school and a more prescribed division of time between labor-time and leisure-time, reading became a primary and affordable form of evasion for everyone. At the same time, a wider readership also meant that larger parts of the population had access to the intellectual improvement and self-improvement that reading promotes.

Travelling became more widespread as well, for aristocratic and bourgeois leisure travelers and the cosmopolitan elites, but also for working-class tourists and for the settlers in search of fortune overseas. As technology allowed for faster journeys on land and sea and the experience of travel gained more cultural traction, ‘the traveler’ became a trope in Victorian fiction. The woman traveler became a sub-category in her own right, as she was the quintessential symbol of all that was novel and modern. In this respect, Kathryn W. Powell’s article is telling: the woman traveler is related (in Riddell’s case, as the wife) to the Victorian inventor. Moreover, the story of Riddell’s protagonist is similar to that of the writer herself. The example of Charlotte Riddell shows the ways that female travelers, inventors, creative artists and writers all effectively and importantly break the boundaries of gender and pave new ways for subsequent models of femininity.

This legacy of female travel equating novelty is particularly interesting within the context of contemporary fiction and culture, where the neo-Victorian is experiencing huge critical and commercial success. It is no exaggeration to say that in every neo-Victorian adaptation, film, or TV series, there is always a flâneuse wondering through London, and/or a solitary woman cruising across the seas, and claiming that identity as a subject on-the-move as part of her emancipation. Within the nostalgia for the past that increasingly characterizes this particular moment of post-modernity, the nineteenth-century trope of the female traveler provides a partial but reassuring precedent for the current experience of travel, nomadism and positional instability in this age of digital connection and existential precariousness.

How rich is this subject matter with the world shrinking and new frontiers opening up, particularly for the wealthy?

The Victorian era was very much the opening act of global networks of trade, goods, and capital as we define them today. The period of capitalism and imperialism at their peak, the Victorian era was a time of economic growth for a rising bourgeois class, but also a time of social inequalities, discontent and unrest for the working classes. At the same time, mobility and technology led also to the modern, collective forms of activism (e.g. the unionization of laborers, the Chartist marches for the franchise, the Abolitionist and the feminist movements) that are returning to be the key drivers for social change today. There are indeed many parallels with today’s situation, not least the issue of class.

It should be stated that, in all the cases studied in our forum, women travelers are privileged individuals; they are white, young and able-bodied, and in most cases relatively wealthy. In the one case of a poor woman, Anna in The Luminaries (which I analyze in my chapter), she is indeed the victim of her economic hardship and is forced into prostitution, the only professional option for a woman without means or networks in the frontier town. Conversely, her antagonist Lydia, an older, more experienced and wealthier woman, is able to follow her ambitions and work as a tarot reader and fortune teller. Similarly, the Victorian and neo-Victorian women travelers in A Guide for the Perplexed (the object of Murray Baumgarten’s essay), and Lucy in Sixty Lights (discussed by Dany Van Dam), are privileged and educated enough to work as archaeologists, inventors and photographers. The correlation between women’s social advantages and their access to travel is a crucial factor in the definition of modernity explored in the forum.

Why did it make sense to publish in Partial Answers?

Partial Answers is the journal of literature and the history of ideas:  what is the movement of female emancipation through the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries if not the journey of an idea? Our work really moves beyond the scope of Victorian Studies alone, so approaching a journal with interdisciplinary interests and a broad, international, cross-period scholarly community as its readers came quite naturally to us.

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