Travelling in Different Skins: Gender Identity in European Women's Oriental Travelogues, 1850-1950

September 27, 2012

How identity is constructed and performed has recently become a key concern in both gender and post-colonial studies. Travelling in Different Skins explores this interesting issue by focusing on the Oriental travelogues of six European female writers in the 19th and 20th centuries who engaged in gender experimentation, producing hybrid constructions of gender identity that moved beyond a singular, unfluctuating notion of "femininity". Drawing on what the social theorist Judith Butler has termed "improvisation within a scene of constraint", Dunlaith Bird explores how these travel texts interacted with traditionally male-oriented discourses of Orientalism and colonialism in both France and Britain.

Her chosen travellers are Olympe Audouard (1832-90), Jane Dieulafoy (1851-1916), Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904), Isabella Bird (1831-1904), Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) and Freya Stark (1893-1993). All these women made the unconventional choice to travel to the Orient and write about their experiences, something that could potentially expose them to allegations of impropriety.

The expectation for women in Britain and France during the eras covered by this study was that they should be primarily domestic creatures, wives and mothers, not solitary adventurers roaming in the "exotic" East encountering danger and "unusual" customs. Consequently, one finds in the published travelogues a fine balance between gender "improvisation" and the constraints of the times, evident in Audouard's plea to her readers, "Now, dear readers, if you absolutely insist on knowing how it is that I, a Frenchwoman, know so much of the mysteries of the seraglio and harems, and that I can speak to you at such length of the morals and customs of the Orientals, I shall explain to you."

It is suggested that we should see the physical mobility of these travellers and the textual mobility that they produce as vagabondage, which Bird defines as "the search for identity through motion...pushing out the physical, geographical, and textual parameters by which 'women' are defined". For all of the women discussed here, travel was a form of liberation, a way to escape the stifling confines of middle-class society. Isabella Bird, for example, the daughter of an English clergyman, travelled and wrote almost continuously from 1872 to 1897, visiting America, Korea and Japan. Yet although she saw her adventures as bringing personal freedom, her identity and reputation were still intrinsically linked to Britain's position as an imperial power. Conscious of how her travelogues would be received in her home country, she had, says the author of this study, an almost "pathological desire" to avoid accusations of "masculine" behaviour and so shaped her narratives accordingly.

This is a dense book, and will not be an easy read for those unused to literary textual analysis. Reference is made throughout to theorists such as Butler, Edward Said, Lois McNay, Ali Behdad and Gill Jagger, to the extent that, at times, the travelogues appear over-analysed. And some of the women in the book, such as the intrepid Bell, are marginalised.

Yet there is also much to enjoy. The chapter on cross-dressing and disguise vividly portrays how wearing trousers or riding astride a horse rather than side-saddle allowed women to transgress gender boundaries, giving them access to spaces not traditionally open to women. Yet even the nomadic Bell would retreat periodically from the desert to the "domestic" comforts of the Hotel Victoria in Damascus. It is a pity that this anti-feminist, who later became honorary secretary of the British Women's Anti-Suffrage League, is not given more attention. She obviously believed in emancipation for herself yet opposed it for her own sex as a whole. Nonetheless, Travelling in Different Skins is a fascinating exploration of how some women in the past constructed their gender in ways that still echo today.

Travelling in Different Skins: Gender Identity in European Women's Oriental Travelogues, 1850-1950

Travelling in Different Skins: Gender Identity in European Women's Oriental Travelogues, 1850-1950

By Dunlaith Bird.Oxford University Press. 288pp, £60.00

ISBN 9780199644162.Published 5 July 2012.

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