Worlds of Knowledge in Women’s Travel Writing. Edited by James Uden. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, Ilex Series 25. 2022. Pp 177. £15.95 (paperback), ISBN 9780674260566.

Reviewed by Valentina Aparicio

This fascinating collection explores how women travelers from a wide range of backgrounds used different forms of knowledge to make sense of their travel experiences. The volume explores narratives from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, fictional and otherwise, set in locations that range from Japan to the Malvinas (Falkland Islands). In what James Uden calls a pluralizing effort, Worlds of Knowledge tackles sources written in English, French, Urdu, and Turkish, paying attention to the different voices present (or absent) in each cultural encounter. The essays in this volume can seem disconnected at first glance. However, they are brought together by their attention to textual layers and differing internal voices, as well as genre and gender conventions. Worlds of Knowledge puts in practice the notion, explored by scholars like Laura Nenzi and Churnjeet Mahn before, that travel narratives should be read as ‘palimpsestuous,’ as sources where there is both an upper text that is most visible and other underlying ones to be explored. The volume proposes that, in the texts studied, ‘worlds of knowledge’ can refer not only to the incorporation of discourses beyond the literary, but also to the texts as discursive and cultural meeting points.

The chapter by Roberta Micallef on Lady Elizabeth Craven’s A Journey Through the Crimea to Constantinople (1789) exemplifies well the analysis of these textual layers of knowledge. On the one hand, Micallef shows that Craven uses her text to create an image of herself as a factually reliable travel writer. She reproduces already-known information about the region and Orientalist stereotypes while correcting minor factual details, creating an image of precision. Her work also has a palimpsestuous relationship with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters (1763). Lady Craven uses her knowledge of Montagu to undermine the latter, presenting an opposing and negative view of Ottoman society, while agreeing with Montagu on the freedom of Ottoman women. On the other hand, Craven’s text shows how she fails to genuinely engage with the women she met in her travels. For instance, Craven presents the harem as a space free of envy between women, but describes those in them as hairy, dull, ugly, and fat, in order to disrupt European male fantasies about this space. Interestingly, Micallef adds a new textual layer to her analysis by reading Craven vis-à-vis Ottoman women’s writing. Referencing Halide Edib Adıvar, Mihri Hatun, and Zeyneb and Melek Hanım, Micallef shows that Craven completely misunderstood the social dynamics of the harem. She also reveals that, just like Craven envied Ottoman women’s freedom, the same was true for the latter, who often interpreted Western women’s mobility as a sign of access to male privilege. Micallef closes her analysis by suggesting that a better exchange of information would have benefitted both parties, if only Craven had engaged Ottoman women in conversation on equal terms.

Despite Micallef’s conclusion, Sunil Sharma’s chapter reveals that sometimes communication could be better achieved without conversation. Sharma’s work focuses on non-verbal communication in British women’s nineteenth-century travels in Iran and India. It suggests that, in fact, a basic knowledge of the local language could sometimes create other barriers. Sharma briefly explores how women communicated without language in the narratives of several authors. He suggests that one common problem, where some level of language was shared, was that conversations remained extremely superficial. Regarding Lady Mary Sheil (1825–1869), for example, Sharma explains that knowing a bit of Persian did not have a strong impact on her relationships. Rather, she became closer to the people she met through non-verbal communication, taking meals with them for instance. Similarly, Sharma shows how Gertrude Bell (1868–1926) bonded with the daughter of her host by walking in the garden hand in hand. This chapter brilliantly exemplifies how small body-language gestures could produce more genuine communication and often had more power to challenge hierarchies in these encounters.

Another unifying thread in this collection is the study of genre conventions as a form of acquiring and expressing knowledge. Uden’s chapter focuses on the fictional travels of Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818). He suggests Catherine fits the cultural role of the Gothic traveler: a traveler motivated by curiosity, interested in historical speculation, and fascinated by the theme of oppression. Uden traces the influence of Ann Radcliffe’s A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (1795) on Catherine’s account, a text that exemplified how a Gothic traveler engaged with and acquired knowledge. Uden shows that the Gothic traveler perspective was often used to highlight real dangers in the face of cliched tropes. The same notion of the Gothic traveler appears in MB Raycraft’s chapter on George Sand’s Winter in Majorca (1842). According to Raycraft, Sand visited Majorca informed by Romantic views of Spain as an anti-modern paradise. However, while staying there with her convalescent lover Chopin and her children, she found the island very challenging. Sand felt rejected by locals because she did not speak the dialect, and was disliked for living outside traditional gender roles and not attending church. She also found it difficult to get domestic help in the island and felt locals to be greedy. Raycraft contrasts this fear of unwelcoming villagers with the material everyday challenges Sand encountered as she became overwhelmed with household chores. For Raycraft, much like Catherine in Austen’s novel, Sand presented her experience as one of Gothic imprisonment, combining the ‘robinsonade’ and the Gothic travel narrative to make sense of her negative experience. In light of Micallef’s contribution to the volume, one interesting aspect that emerges from Raycraft’s essay, but was not explored, is how Sand’s narrative reflects an underlying entitlement. Sand’s demand that locals must be welcoming, and that locals mustwork as domestic help, suggests a conflicted relationship with those she encountered. Ultimately, the analysis reveals an expectation of hierarchy from Sand. Here, I believe, exploring Majorcan accounts of interactions with travelers could have added an illuminating layer to Raycraft’s analysis.

Encounters less marked by hierarchy can be found at the end of the collection, which closes with a fascinating translation to English of some letters by Nishat un-Nisa (also known as Begum Hasrat Mohani) to her daughter. Nishat un-Nisa is today remembered by her role in Indian independence, but these letters focus on her life as a devout Sunni Muslim. In this translation by Daniel Majchrowicz, Nishat un-Nisa recounts her travel with members of her family to Mecca and Medina. The letters reveal an observant religious traveler who does not establish strong hierarchies between herself and those she meets. Some remarkable passages include the author’s trips to the cinema in Baghdad, her observation of the modern clothes of Iraqi women, and the vaccination and quarantine requirements of each country. Describing to her daughter both everyday difficulties, like crowded trains, and more existential religious experiences, the letters shed light on women’s correspondence in Urdu and add a religious textual layer to the collection.

From Nishat un-Nisa’s troubles with bureaucracy to George Sand’s caring duties, this volume shows that travelers used different forms of knowledge to make sense of uncomfortable experiences. In the afterword to the volume, quoting Karen Blixen, Rebekah Mitsein calls this form of making sense of events ‘unity,’ that is, the act of creating something meaningful out of the encounter of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Worlds of Knowledge can be read as a volume that, by bringing together several topics unfamiliar to some readers, is itself an exercise on ‘unity.’ While each chapter might find a specialized reader, by looking at how these diverse writers used knowledge to create unity in their travels the volume remains open and cohesive enough to attract even those who have a passing curiosity for the peculiarities that can be found in these narratives.

Valentina Aparicio is a Lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London. Her research focuses on women’s travel writing about Latin America and the Caribbean.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: