Charlotte Mathieson

University of Warwick


 Judith Johnston: Victorian Women and the Economies of Travel, Translation and Culture, 1830-1870, Ashgate 2013

Judith Johnston’s study is one of two recent publications by Ashgate reassessing nineteenth-century women’s travel writing, the second of which – Churnjeet Mahn’s British Women’s Travel to Greece, 1840-1914 – will be reviewed in a subsequent post here. These books contribute to a burgeoning field of research on women’s participation in and writing about travel culture in the nineteenth century, and both studies show that there remains much to be said about women’s activity as travellers and writers in the period. What emerges most strongly in both of these books is a sense of how women’s writing on new travel opportunities not only provided interesting reflections on their experiences but, more importantly, represented significant contributions to contemporary debates, from developing new fields of knowledge and expertise to shaping intracultural exchanges on a range of sociocultural issues.

Judith Johnston’s Victorian Women and the Economies of Travel, Translation and Culture 1830-1870 offers a unique approach to the field by focusing on the interconnections between travel and translation as a means of giving new insights into the cultural exchanges of women’s writing. Johnston starts with the premise that travel and translation can be considered as interrelated processes: both represent a type of “journey” involving a removal from one place to another that produces new perspectives on one’s surroundings, requires intra-cultural negotiations as two cultures come into contact with one another, and necessitates the rendering of the unfamiliar into a known language. All of the women studied here were active as both travellers and translators: moving away from more canonical women translators such as George Eliot and Harriet Martineau, case studies of Sarah Austin, Mary Margaret Busk, Anna Jameson, Charlotte Guest, Jane Sinnett, and Mary Howitt provide the main material of the book. This is valuable in allowing the writing of lesser-known women to come into view, and their works are illuminating in demonstrating Johnston’s argument for a more fluid understanding of the practices of travel and translation.

The years 1830-1870 on which the book focuses is a key period for examining the effect of changing travel practices upon gender relations. The coming of the railway afforded women new possibilities for travelling, with cheaper prices and safer conditions enabling more single women to travel independently. At the same time, steam-powered technology was facilitating the expansion of a new print culture that opened up more opportunities for educated women as writers, journalists, and translators, and thereby able to become active participants in a range of social and cultural debates – a participation which was particularly marked in the context of intra-cultural debates that depended upon access to and experience of other cultures. Women’s perspectives lent a unique angle on these exchanges, and it becomes clear throughout the study that the gendered nuances of women’s activity as travellers and translators brought new approaches to debates around cultural authority, imperial agenda, and national dominance that were resonant throughout writing of the period.

That’s not to say, though, that women’s writing is represented here as conveying a uniform perspective, and a range of approaches to cultural translation emerge in each of the case studies.

In a chapter on Sarah Austin the symbiotic relationship between travel and translation comes into view in discussion of her translation of German travellers’ accounts of journeys into Britain, most notably Prince Hermann Von Puckler-Muskau’s Tour in England, Ireland, and France, in the years 1828 and 1829. Austin’s work involves an interesting multiplicity of cultural encounter: her translation is of a work that is itself an act of cultural interpretation, and involves the politics of translating a work about England into the English language. This highlights how the process of translation is far from neutral, and Austin’s rewriting through her translation enabled her to use the text to intervene in national political debates: writing in the 1830s, the significant period of reform in British politics, Austin’s rewriting heightened the German traveller’s reflections on British class and political systems in ways that contributed to radical thinkers’ perspectives on contemporary Britain. In contrast, a chapter on Mary Margaret Busk’s cultural negotiations between France and Germany’s relations with England brings out the imbalances of cultural exchange: Busk demonstrated a heavy bias in terms of national identity and politics, and Johnston argues that she “qualified the ideas from the Continent that her work imported into England, more for the purpose of affirming England’s superior standing in the world, and explaining European literatures against their English counterparts, rather than seeking to appropriate an unqualified European culture for English consumption” (p. 78).

It is in the context of continental Europe that Britain encountered the most pressing issues around cultural authority and translation in this period: the relationship between Britain and Europe was historically problematic, and the increasing connectedness of the two spaces through more accessible travel practices and the circulation of print was by turns welcomed and feared, bringing out Britain’s willingness to be part of a continental intellectualism but also strengthening impulses towards cultural superiority and isolation. Johnston works to counter the assumption of British insularity and argues for an increasing acceptance of cultural internationalism through writing, publishing and reading which assimilated Europe into British intellectual thought. The possibilities of cultural negotiation are interestingly revealed in her assessment of Jane Sinnett’s journalism, which encompassed reviews of travel narratives in German and translations of German travelogues. Here, England and Germany come into a complex relationship as Sinnett was not just a traveller but lived in Germany for eight years, during which time she translated German works into English. She used this between-cultures position to her advantage, recognising narratives of potential value and identifying how they may be reoriented for British market: her prescience is demonstrated most aptly by her translation of Ida Pfeiffer’s A Lady’s Voyage Around the World which turned the relatively unknown Pfieffer into a figure firmly established in the imagination of the British reading public.

Johnston also shows that women were able to offer a unique perspective on issues of intracultural negotiation through their ability to access and comment more readily on the domestic and everyday; this enabled them to envisage interconnections between public and private spheres and to put England into comparison with other nations, seeing “the reality of their own lives against the foreign domestic backdrop” (p. 54). The concept of home and the everyday are central to the discussion of Mary Howitt’s translation of Fredrika Bremer, a Swedish author travelling to England. Here the “everyday” becomes a politicized concept linked to domestic ideology and the politics of the home. Bremer’s travel writing on her journeys to England centred on domestic life and family subjects, and Howitt’s translations emerged at a crucial moment when discourses of female emancipation and debates about women’s status were prominent in Britain, and Howitt’s writing was able to lend alternative cultural perspectives to these debates.

Two case studies move out of the British-European relationship and serve to produce a different perspective on the dynamics of British travel writing. Anna Jameson’s journey in Canada in the winter of 1836-7 affords a space for reflecting on the British-European relationship within an international context, and Johnston explores how Germany forms the resonant location of “home” for Jameson throughout her journey. A study of Charlotte Guest also reorients the focus to consider Britain’s internal cultural politics, looking at how Guest’s travel to Wales and translations of Welsh tales represent and participate in an imperialist process of acquisition. Guest moved to Wales after her marriage and experienced this as an emigration to an altogether foreign location, and her accounts of her time there render the space as a colonial contact zone. In light of this, her translations of ancient Welsh myths into modern Welsh and English are read as representative of an invasive form of cultural appropriation, subsuming the Welsh tradition as an “acquisition” to the English nation.

Victorian Women and the Economies of Travel, Translation and Culture is valuable reading, offering detailed insights into the works of women writers with whom many will be less familiar, while the broader contexts of Johnston’s argument extend beyond these case studies to have much wider implications for thinking about the ways in which women’s writing was working to shape out new cultural debates in the period. Women emerge here as active contributors to an increasingly intra-continental culture and as powerful commentators on contemporary issues within Britain, becoming, as Johnston terms it, the “engineers of culture and cultural exchange” (p. 8).


Charlotte Mathieson is a Research Fellow at the University of Warwick, where she researches Victorian literature and culture. She blogs at and is on Twitter @cemathieson