by

Charlotte Mathieson

University of Warwick

 

Benichilon

Mahn, Churnjeet British Women’s Travel to Greece, 1840–1914 Ashgate, 2012

 

In the second of two recent studies on women’s travel writing in the nineteenth century, Churnjeet Mahn provides a valuable and much-needed exploration of women’s travel to Greece in the period 1840-1914. Despite a wealth of studies on Victorian women’s travel writing in recent years, the context of Greek travel has remained dominated by a focus on male travellers, or considered women only as ‘armchair travellers’. Mahn’s study brings to light the work of a diverse range of women travellers, not only revealing the important contributions to knowledge that these women made through their writings on Greece, but also unfolding a narrative of Greece as a rich site in which women entered into unique engagements with wider social, political and cultural debates about women’s role in the nineteenth century.

Greece occupied a complex position in the Victorian British imagination, and travellers felt themselves entering a site that represented the encounter between antiquity and modernity. In the wake of independence from Ottoman rule Greece was perceived as more closely aligned with Europe, yet its history remained vividly present in the British imagination; geographically positioned on the periphery of Europe and bordering with Turkey and the Orient, Greece continued to represent a meeting-point between East and West. In addition, Greece was valued by the British specifically for its ancient sites, access to which was enabled by the expansion of modern infrastructures of travel that accommodated increasing numbers of tourists, and particularly women, to reach these spaces. For many writers Greece therefore presented a paradox that was often met by a temporalizing impulse – overtly emphasising its antiquity and ignoring modern features, as well as deriding its native population, so as to render it culturally behind the rest of Europe. For British women travellers, as Mahn shows throughout this study, this discursive encounter between antiquity and modernity became even more complex, affording possibilities for women to assert their cultural authority as writers through which they crafted out new forms of reflection on the relationship between Greece and Britain. Women used the ‘temporal disjuncture’ presented by Greece ‘to inscribe an authority in Greek studies that they could not achieve at home’ (p. 5); yet in doing so, their writing ‘was complicit in producing an image of Modern Greece that disenfranchised the modern inhabitants while effectively enfranchising British women’ (p. 9).

The women studied here confront these issues in the context of three different types of travel. Two chapters explore women’s scholarly contributions to Greek studies, starting with Agnes Smith Lewes and Jane Ellen Harrison who were rare among female scholars in having the opportunity to travel (independently of one another) to Greece in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Issues of authority in relation to women’s status come to the fore here: Mahn suggests that ‘Lewis and Harrison used “knowing” Greek and Greece as a critical strategy and metaphor for staging debates on women’s role in society (whether Greek, or British) and the limits of what it means to “know” Greece’ (p. 32). Harrison, a Cambridge scholar of Greek, is shown to encounter the difficulty of finding herself aligned neither with her male scholarly counterparts nor with the other women travellers she meets in Greece, yet negotiates a unique position that utilises this to her advantage: this is illustrated by one trip where her scholarly male counterparts leave her behind with the other women tourists who she finds somewhat tedious, but she ‘turns disadvantage into privilege’ and finds the opportunity for alternative and independent contact with Greek people (p. 53). For Lewis, who had no access to institutional academic support, the position of being outside the academy is also turned to her advantage, in her case to enable in a more ‘vital and cosmopolitan’ encounter (p. 60) which is marked by her attention to the Greek people, enabling new perspectives on the relationship between Britain and Greece to unfold.

A longer lineage of writers is carved out in a chapter on women and ethnography; here Mahn usefully extends the definition of ethnography to allow for the inclusion of women who were not formally categorized as such, but whose writings provide valuable cultural mappings – including Felicia Skene, G. Muir Mackenzie and A. P. Irby, Fanny Blunt, and Lucy M. Garnett. Ethnography is conceptualised here as ‘a way of seeing, a type of gaze for engaging with the environment of the traveller’ (p. 74), and women are shown to have an advantage over their male counterparts, with unique ‘access to the lives, rituals and practices of native women’ (p. 73) that male travellers could not obtain. This opens up an interesting and complex cultural negotiation for women travellers, giving them the authority of assuming a masculine subject position of gazer, rather than gazed upon, and yet this authority is secured by subsuming native Greek women as objects of their gaze. The problematic dynamics of this cultural authority are further evident in the narratives of racial categorisation that emerge as the centre-point of their perspectives on Greek women; analysing the ways in which British women gazed at and categorised Greek women as Orientalised others, Mahn neatly elucidates the way in which British women, through their complicity in dominant cultural discourses, secured their own authority and independence at the expense of the disenfranchised native Greek women.

The relationship between women and the gaze is further complicated in the final context of travel analysed here, women as tourists to Greece. It was the growing infrastructures of tourism that facilitated women’s ability to travel to a wider range of places, including Greece, throughout the nineteenth century, but women were self-conscious of their position as tourists and aware of the contradictory position they occupied as both observers of a landscape but also spectacles themselves. Women tourists also confronted the challenge of writing about sites in new and different ways: the handbooks and guidebooks of Murray and Baedeker that emerged as a central constituent of the tourist industry in the mid-nineteenth century were regarded as authoritative sources for interpreting the meaning of Greek sites. These guidebooks further reinforced the discursive temporalization of Greece, in the earlier part of the period through an Orientalising strategy of association with the Ottoman empire, and in later years through a focus on Greece’s classical associations; both of these, Mahn writes, were ‘strategies for dehistoricising and geographically displacing the reality of Modern Greece’ (p. 28). Tourist handbooks and guidebooks not only produced an authoritative discourse that inhibited departure from received views, but also prompted the anxiety of originality and replication: what else could be said about such well-trodden ground? Discussion of Emily Pfeiffer, Isabel Julien Armstrong, and Catherine Janeway suggests that their diverse accounts are united in that they stage an ironic encounter with Greece’s antiquity, capturing the sites of touristic interest while self-consciously examining ‘what it means to be a British woman, parasol in hand, at the Parthenon’ (p. 106). So too does Mahn demonstrate that they go beneath the surface of familiar landscapes to craft out different interpretations and introduce new meanings into their writings: Pfieffer, for example, is shown to ‘punctuate’ the landscape of Greece with ‘her own arguments and political interests’ including meditation on women’s rights (p. 136).

Throughout the study, women emerge as writers in powerful command of the discourses by which Greece was known and understood in the British imagination, and Greece is revealed as an important site for reflection upon issues of cultural authority abroad as well as political and social debates at home. This is, Mahn concludes, ‘a genealogy of partial glimpses’ (p. 140) into women’s writing about Greece, but these glimpses offer illuminating insights into a rich palimpsest of writing that is, like the Greece these women visited, ‘still waiting to be seen’ (p. 138).

 

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