William Hamilton, 1751–1801, British, Travellers in Turkey, undated. Watercolor, pen and black ink and graphite on
medium, slightly textured, cream wove paper. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1977.14.5444.
As travel begins to open up around the world after nearly eighteen months of a global pandemic, we thought the time was ripe to explore the rich history of women’s travel writing in the WPHP. From Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters (1763), to Hester Thrale Piozzi’s Observations and Reflections made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany (1789), to Ann Radcliffe’s A journey made in the summer of 1794, through Holland the western frontier of Germany, with a return down the Rhine (1795), to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), to Mary Shelley’s History of a Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland (1817), we find important contributions to the genre by major women writers of the period. At the same time, these women are just a few of the many who wrote and published about their travels in the form of letters, journals, guidebooks, topographies and narratives. We have more than 350 titles in our travel, tourism, and topography genre in the WPHP, including journeys from Scotland and Ireland to China, India, Africa, and South America.
Prior to the late eighteenth century, travel writing—and travel itself—was predominantly considered a man’s pursuit. Indeed, in Continental Tourism, Travel Writing, and the Consumption of Culture, 1814–1900, Benjamin Colbert and Lucy Morrison point out that “the Grand Tour and ‘the activity of travel itself was insistently gendered as male,’ a critical prejudice that persisted well into the nineteenth century even as greater numbers of women now represented continental tourism in their own voices” (Colbert and Morrison, quoting Schlick). In recent years, various projects, including our own, have begun to account quantitatively for women’s growing involvement in the genre from the late eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth. Colbert’s bibliographical project, Women’s Travel Writing, accounts for 204 works by women published between 1780 and 1840 in Great Britain and Ireland, which he estimates as constituting only 5% of all travel narratives published in that period. In the WPHP, we have at the time of this Spotlight Series more than 350 titles in the genre, populated from a variety of sources, most notably Colbert's Women's Travel Writing project and a dataset provided by Catherine Nygren. Many of the works that make up this number are by women less known than Montagu, Piozzi, Shelley, Wollstonecraft, and Radcliffe, offering the opportunity to explore the voices of women and their perspectives on travel beyond those included in the literary canon of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Alongside the expected descriptions of landscape, modes and styles of travel, and interactions with other tourists as well as the residents of the places they are visiting, travel writing also offered the opportunity for women to enter other spheres of public discourse, including politics and history. Helen Maria Williams, well-known for her poetry, published her first travel narrative, Letters written in France, in the summer 1790, to a friend in England; Containing, various anecdotes relative to the French revolution, in 1790 — a title that gestures to the political implications of travelling in France. By 1817, the political commentary contained in her travel writing was even more overtly displayed in her titles — Letters on the events which have passed in France since the Restoration in 1815 (1819) — demonstrating how travel writing, as a genre, accommodated reflections on politics, history and culture.
At the same time that women disrupted the gendered norms by travelling the globe (and writing about it) more than ever before, it is inevitable that their privilege, in terms of class, nationality, and race inflects their writing and the views they express, much in the same way that travel today during the pandemic is riven with inequalities. Thus while travel writing afforded British women writers a venue to claim the authority to represent a foreign country’s politics and current events, it did so in the context of British imperialism and militarism: Britain was engaged in aggressive imperial expansion during the period covered by the WPHP, and, between 1792 and 1815, it prosecuted a war fought on a global scale. British culture of the period was also steeped in beliefs of European and white supremacy. As Sutapa Dutta notes, “These British women, in locating to other parts of the world posit the contradictory position as both agents and subjects of imperialism; and it is as much fallacious to homogenise them as to stereotype the Other women as ‘oppressed’” (6). In this month’s spotlight series, we will be exploring some of these complexities by considering how six women positioned themselves in relation to the places they traveled and the people they encountered en route.
Our Around the World with Six Women: A Spotlight Series on Travel Writing begins today, July 30, with Angela Wachowich’s “Hester Thrale Piozzi’s Observations and Reflections made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany (1789).” Wachowich’s Spotlight considers the common expectations for British travel writers’ experiences abroad, and how Piozzi’s Observations and Reflections responds to and challenges the expected portrayals of Europe beyond Britain in travel narratives during the period.
On August 6, Hanieh Ghaderi’s Spotlight considers the eventful life and travels of the author of Original Letters From India (1817), Eliza Fay, whose writing E.M. Forster described as “delightfully malicious.”
On August 13, Isabelle Burrows’s Spotlight explores how Maria Graham’s Journal of a Residence in Chile, during the year 1822 (1824) subtly supports British intervention following the Chilean war of independence.
On August 20, the travel writer Sarah Belzoni, wife of the famous Egyptologist Giovanni Battista Belzoni and co-author of Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia (1820) with her husband, is the focus of Victoria DeHart’s Spotlight.
On August 27, Amanda Law's spotlight explores Emma Roberts’ Views in India, China, and on the Shores of the Red Sea (1835), a lavishly illustrated travel publication.
On September 3, the series wraps up with Julianna Wagar’s consideration of Elizabeth Spence’s Letters from the North Highlands (1817), a work briefly mentioned in Season 1, Episode 7 of our podcast, The WPHP Monthly Mercury, “1816 and 2020: The Years Without Summers.”
Our August episode of The WPHP Monthly Mercury will feature each of the team members who contributed to this Spotlight Series and take a closer look at travel writing during the period, alongside a more general survey of the travel writing included in the database. Watch for it on August 18!
Colbert, Benjamin. "British Women's Travel Writing, 1780-1840: Bibliographical Reflections." Women's Writing, 24.2, p. 15159, https://doi.org/10.1080/09699082.2016.1207913.
Colbert, Benjamin. Women’s Travel Writing, 1780-1840: A Bio-Bibliographical Database, designer Movable Type Ltd. https://www.british-travel-writing.org/. Accessed 30 July 2021.
Colbert, Benjamin and Lucy Morrison. Continental Tourism, Travel Writing, and the Consumption of Culture, 1814-1900. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, https://doi-org/10.1007/978-3-030-36146-4_1.
Dutta, Sutapa. British Women Travellers: Empire and Beyond, 1770-1870 / Edited by Sutapa Dutta. New York, NY: Routledge, 2020, https://doi-org/10.4324/9780429325069.
O'Loughlin, Katrina. Women, Writing, and Travel in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge University Press, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316104934.