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.

Blog: WSG Mentoring Scheme by Dr Annalisa Nicholson  

I applied to the WSG Mentoring Scheme in the autumn of 2020 at a time when isolation was the order of the day in the UK. For me, this sense of disconnect with the wider world was compounded by the faceless cycle of postdoctoral applications, a process that felt bewildering and discouraging. Still in the third year of my PhD, I was only eligible to apply for Oxbridge Junior Research Fellowships (JRFs) where every application required a slightly different set of research statements. The rejections steadily rolled in with zero feedback.

For those unfamiliar with this particular postdoctoral scheme, the Oxbridge JRF competitions run annually. Every Oxbridge college runs its own scheme, so positions vary widely from one-year to five-year posts with different salaries and benefits. Some colleges have ‘open’ competitions where applicants can apply from any subject background in the arts and sciences while others are subject-specific (e.g. English JRF) or even have a defined theme (e.g. a JRF focused on postcolonial studies). In terms of eligibility, you usually need to be within three years of handing in your thesis. What is especially attractive is that you can apply in the third or fourth year of your PhD, i.e. *before* you have handed in your thesis, which can really help close any funding gaps. For instance, if you’re planning to hand in your thesis by the end of an academic year in August or September, you can apply for a JRF that will start in September or October of the following academic year, allowing you to move immediately from PhD to postdoctoral position. This differs from the eligibility requirements of Leverhulme and British Academy where you need to have either submitted by 23 February (Leverhulme) or had your viva by 1 April (BA). In both cases, you’re left with a funding gap of several months between PhD and potential postdoc. However, what is especially unattractive of the Oxbridge JRF scheme is that each college runs its competition distinctly from other colleges. This means that every application is different – different closing dates, different length research statements, different number of referees. They are also hugely competitive. One rejection email I recall stated that the college had received over 900 applications for one post. Amid such an oblique landscape, it was difficult to know how to pitch my research.  

When I saw the WSG Mentoring Scheme advertised, I was immediately keen to apply with a view to focusing entirely on my postdoctoral applications. My supervisor, Professor Emma Gilby, was always wonderfully supportive of these applications, but only so much of our supervision time could be devoted to projects beyond the thesis. As well as wanting to carve out time for applications, I was especially eager to talk to an academic with expertise on early modern women in multiple national contexts to help me situate my own work. Even though I was officially attached to the French department, my research interests lie in the history and writings of early modern women in Europe, hovering at the intersection of several disciplinary boundaries including French, English, and History. My PhD was on French exiles in Restoration London and my future research was leaning towards the global reach of Huguenot women. I was unsure how to frame the value of my interdisciplinary approach.

Not long after the deadline for the scheme passed, I was thrilled to find out that I had been successful and would be paired with Professor Brenda Hosington. It was an excellent fit as Brenda’s long and rich research career has drawn attention to the writings and influence of dozens of early modern women in both France and Britain. We set up a virtual meeting for January 2021. In preparation for it, Brenda asked me to send her a detailed summary of my thesis and its chapters.

The meeting was enormously encouraging and reassuring. Firstly, I benefitted from a new pair of eyes on my work, which is always helpful. Brenda gave me wonderful feedback on my doctoral project from how to frame it in broad terms to little snippets of insight like Voltaire’s comment in his Lettres philosophiques on women’s influence in England. Secondly, we had an enjoyable and productive conversation about how to pitch a postdoctoral project. Although a big part of any first postdoctoral position involves developing your thesis into a monograph, you still have to pitch a second major project in your applications. If you’re applying in the third or fourth year of your PhD, it can be difficult to come up with a second project. I’d written statements for several similar projects – usually on banished women in Francophone contexts – but I was underconfident in my ideas. During my conversation with Brenda, she probed each chapter of my thesis to see if there was spare material to inspire the second project. We ended up speaking a lot about Huguenot women because part of my thesis discussed Huguenots in London and Brenda had recently worked on the Huguenot-born translator Suzanne DuVerger who lived and worked in London. I mentioned that I had considered writing up a postdoc idea on Huguenot women but hadn’t been sure how to formulate my intervention in the field. She recommended some reading and we decided to organise our next meeting for a few months’ time to give me space to think.

Weeks later, I saw an advertisement for a JRF in Modern Languages, with a preference for projects on ‘translation’, at The Queen’s College, Oxford. Buzzing with ideas about Huguenot women and translation from Brenda’s reading recommendations, I applied with my usual description of my thesis and a brand new research statement on ‘Huguenot Women: Lively Translation and Communication, 1500-1700’. Happily, I got the interview and the job.

The whole experience of the mentoring scheme was incredibly useful. Even if I hadn’t got the job, I gained fresh perspectives on my work and a sense of confidence in my ideas. Like many ECRs, I missed out on heaps of opportunities to network during the pandemic at a crucial time in my career. The WSG Mentoring Scheme is an excellent way to make a new contact – with the possible bonus that your mentor will extend their own network to you – and to hear about future opportunities for conference papers, publications, and teaching posts from someone well-acquainted with the field. I am very grateful for the experience.

Dr Annalisa Nicholson

The Queen’s College, Oxford

Top Posts

Welcome to The Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 website. Our blog includes information about upcoming events, call for papers, reviews and reflections. This pinned post will highlight top blog posts so it is easy to find information, such as event sign up. However, if you would like to find other previous posts from the blog, please use the search function or click on one of the categories found on the right-hand side of this page.

Recent blog posts

WSG Mentoring Scheme: The Mentor’s Experience by Gillian Williamson

WSG Mentoring Scheme: The Mentee’s Experience by Eva Lippold

Book reviews

Domestic Space in Britain, 1750–1840: Materiality, Sociability and Emotion. Freya Gowrley. Review by Penelope Cave

Mary Shelley and Europe: Essays in Honour of Jean de Palacio. Edited by Antonella Braida. Review by Jacqueline Mulhallen

Material Literacy in Eighteenth-Century Britain: A Nation of Makers, Edited by Serena Dyer and Chloe Wigston Smith. London and New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020. Pp. 309, 74 bw + colour illus. £ 91.80 (hardback), ISBN: 9781501349614. Review by Madeleine Pelling

Seminar Review

Review: WSG Seminar, 26th March 2022 at The Foundling Museum by Miriam Al Jamil