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’Only a Woman’: women travel writers and imperialism Blunt, Alison M.


My study of women travel writers and imperialism is informed by four inseparable concerns, namely the distinctive characteristics of travel writing by women; how these reflected and reproduced spatial differentiation, notably between spheres of patriarchal and imperial power and authority; how the subject positions of women travel writers were constructed in terms of difference, primarily along lines of gender, race and class, and how such constructions varied over space and time; and how women’s journeys represented only one moment in their travels and subsequent writings. These concerns are themselves informed by debates about women as a focus of historical research, western women and imperialism, and the place of women in a historiography of geography. Overall, I aim to illustrate the significance of poststructuralist feminist and literary theory in both historical geography and histories of geography. Before focussing on how women travel writers negotiated 'home' and away, private and public spheres, I outline the material and metaphorical significance of travel and travel writing, the distinctive nature of imperial literary representation, and how both travel writing and imperial representation more broadly were differentiated by constructions of gender. Rather than replicate imperial discourses of difference, I attempt to expose their ambivalence and the instability of 'home' and 'truth' as both material and metaphorical reference points. Throughout my study, I focus on the travels and writings of Mary Kingsley, who travelled in West Africa in the 1890s, wrote two books about her travels, and became a well-known figure on her return because of her support of trade and her criticisms of the British Crown Colony system. Rather than celebrate an individual, however, I discern subject-positionality in discursive terms. Three moments comprise travel and structure my account. I perceive departure to relate to constructions of gendered subjectivity both prior to and during a journey. Preparations for departure, motives, expectations, conduct books and general logistics were clearly differentiated by gender. Unstable and ambivalent constructions of gender difference informed and emerged from Mary Kingsley's travels and writings. I discuss her journey in terms of how discourses of difference varied over imperial space. Mary Kingsley was primarily constructed in terms of gender subordination while at home, but able to share in racial superiority while travelling in the context of imperialism. Finally, on her return, Mary Kingsley was once again primarily identified in terms of gender difference. However, her gendered subjectivity and mediation of public and private spheres were more ambivalent than fixed, as were the differences perceived to exist between 'home' and away. I also outline institutional responses to women travellers, with reference to debates concerning the admission of women Fellows to the Royal Geographical Society and 'new women' of the 1890s. Imperial women's travels and their writings were clearly distinctive in material ways. These ranged from preparations prior to departure, the nature of the journey, and the reception of both women and their writings on their return. A journey itself thus represents only one moment of travelling, inseparable from departure and return. Because of the gendered significance of material travel, the metaphorical immanence of travel should also be seen as clearly gendered. Implications include the inseparability of discourses of power, 'truth' and knowledge, and, more tangibly, the need to deconstruct theory, 'home' and difference.

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