Reconstruction of Women's Identity Through the Experience of Travel
Özlem Ezer


Western women's experience and the contacts they had with middle-eastern women should be considered in the limits of their vision which may from time to time sound to us (women of the 1990s) quite simplistic or partial.  Despite the fact that I encountered an exception, namely Manineau, I found that many women travellers developed a separate feminine experience; resulting in self-criticism rather than smugness and sometimes even the identification with the Other that cut across the barriers of religion, culture and ethnicity as also indicated by Melman's Introduction to Women's Orients. Travel was an emancipating experience. The traveller is uprooted and most of the time thrown among radically unfamiliar surroundings. She is constantly challenged by the alien and tends to judge the new by the old familiar values, both personal and cultural. It is during this process that reconstruction of identity starts to take its shape. Western women's writings on 'other' women gives a sense of solidarity of gender. I would like to present excerpts from my translation of Hülya Koç's, a contemporary Turkish traveller's, memoirs later on. Travel literature by women and, indeed, the very experience of travel itself subverts gender ideology, therefore travel writing is a challenge from the very beginning. In this context, I would like to deal with several quotations from journals and other documents to show how the idea of a woman traveller was particularly troublesome during the Victorian period. The reason for this was that the qualities that identified a woman as an adventurer seemed to endanger the ostensibly 'natural' qualities that made her a woman. However, some other prejudices which Melman reminds the reader can be put forward as a counter-argument in this paper: "The famous typology of gender stresses women's  impressionability; the unlimited capacity for 'empathy' and identification with the other, their sensitivity to detail rather than the whole."  That implies in a way women tend to become better travel writers.

It is commonly agreed that travel books are autobiographical.   They are reconstructions by a narrative 'I' and therefore can be categorised as Bildung stories. For instance, Martineau substitutes a truly secular journey for the pilgrimage and uses travel as a metaphor for her Bildung as well as for history.  In this paper, Martineau is takcn as an example of the reconstruction of woman's identity since her own 'development' from an orthodox Christian to a Necessarian Unitarian and finally to a non-believer takes place during her life-long journeys.

Adventure enabled women travellers to act out and recreate their own 'survival of the finest' stories. Because they undertook traditionally male activities without male protection, their 'survival' in remote regions of the world illustrated the ability to keep pace with their male counterparts. Interestingly enough, I found out that the starting point or reason for many of the women travellers was either the loss of parents or loved ones or some kind of illness or depression that needed to be treated in different climates; however, part of the identity of an adventuress was clearly her ability to withstand physical hardship. This contradiction is worth noting especially after some of the attributes that were given to women travellers by the press, to name a few, 'fair Amazon', 'sea-serpent'. Since they were considered as being guilty of the infringement of the domestic ideal and so were "by implication ideologically positioned into the role of sexually aggressive misfit". Without going further, it may be said, however, that the language of restlessness, longing and desire is common among the accounts of women travellers and its effect is to link travel with the acting out of an irrepressible physical drive, and, in fact, according to Frawley, by implication sexual drive. She refers to Florence Dixie, who was made The Morning Post's war correspondent and assigned to cover the Boer War in South Africa. The editor of The London Figaro smugly wrote  "We think that our feminine patricians should not lightly follow the example of the fair Amazon who will soon be in the Transvaal"  Similarly, W.H.Davenport Adams notes that Isabella Bird "carried in her bosom a man's heart", and Mary Kingsley was described in The Gentlewoman as exhibiting "manly strength" abroad. Kingsley herself also wrote after returning to England in 1895 that she discovered, to her alarm, she was the sea-serpent of the season, which is quite a threatening figure.

Melman in her book repeats that the single, "unprotected" female explorer is by no means the typical nineteenth century woman traveller. Although, for instance, sea-crossings by steam-ship had become an established feature of Mediterranean travel after 1830, women passengers were not accepted until 1868.

However, the achievement of Isabella Bishop in embarking on worldwide travels should be noted - bearing in mind that she was quite important as I will mention later on - since she was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1890. It must be added that women almost waged a battle to be admitted to the RGS in the 1890s.

These were, indeed, notable achievements and suggest the pivotal role that women travellers played in changing public attitudes and prejudices which are also mentioned in Hülya Koç's article.

One quotation is quite popular since it is referred to in three different sources: "A lady, an explorer? A traveller in skins?... The notion is just a trifle too seraphic; let them stay and mind the babies, or hem our ragged shirts; but they mustn't, can't and shan't be geographic." According to Hülya Koç's, article that extract is taken from a letter sent to the Royal Geographical Society (10 Jun. 1893) signed with the pseudo-name Punch. Hülya Köç comments by saying, travelling which had been under the complete control of man's domination could only be attempted by "immoral" women or women who were excluded from society due to various reasons.

The last but by no means the least important example of this other side of the coin, meaning the view point of "men" towards women travellers is Isabella Bishop, described above as having a man's heart. Her fury was extreme when The Times reported her as having worn "masculine habiliments" during her tour of the Rockies. The description of her travels are rather interesting since according to Middleton, they become "compulsive and arduous" after Bishop lost her husband  Although Middleton says Bishop's journeys were much more interesting than the written works that came out, the simplified outline of her "reconstruction" - if it can be called as such - is worth mentioning.  Her journeys became paradoxical in this process of reconstruction. At first she set out in pursuit of health, then due to the change in her psychological mood, she gradually excluded the human element from her journeys and redefined the process in such a way that it became a contest with Nature.  Unlike Martineau, who ended up as a non-believer, she became more religious since she tried to give some purpose to her endless journeying. Finding more comfort in religion she underwent baptism. Only after that as a gesture of dedication to missionary endeavour, the direction of her journeys were "oriented", in more senses than one, and she decided to become a missionary.

Frawley points out that the unprotected status of the woman traveller was often emphasised by overstating the extent to which her presence was dwarfed by her physical surroundings.  Indeed, the description of Adams mentioned above implies this in his poetic narration so keenly that only a reader who has the habit of reading between the lines may notice it:

Hour after hour our heroine - for a lady who crosses the Rocky Mountains alone may surely claim the title! - rode onward in the darkness and solitude, the prairie sweeping all around her, a firmament of frosty stars glittering overhead.

The idea of women travellers' developing a separate feminine experience will include both a concern for the Oriental Women and a shared pleasure which also gives both sides a sense of solidarity of gender.

Martineau who is categorised by Warburton as having a moralist view point as opposed to an epicurean, wrote that she could not conceive of herself as living in a harem for she could not bear to lead such a passive existence. Women in the harem fail to understand that her unmarried and independent status is voluntary. When she defends women's interests she is expressing her concern with Middle-Eastern women's digestions and calls for the introduction of jump ropes into the harem. Similarly Bishop describes her life in the Balditiari hills when she was delightfully free from "purposeless bothers" except for the social duty of visiting the harems of the local chiefs, whose loneliness and boredom stirred the latent Victorian feminist in Isabella Bishop.  Frawley concludes that Middle-Eastern travel, as women implied in their travel accounts, demanded a "feminised" approach, a yielding to rather than conquering of place. Nevertheless,  Martineau could not yet affiliate herself to a female tradition of travel-writing when she constantly evokes Herodotus in her book, Eastern Life: "Herodotus who here seems a modern brother-traveller stood in this spot remembering the Iliad, as we are now remembering it."
Melman here focuses on the usage of "brother-traveller" by saying that it is both a generic and a literal combination. She considers herself a member of the historians' family, and she is a part of orientalist scholarship and the orientalist tradition which has roots in the classical attitudes to the East.  Whether Martineau was an exception to the "feminised" approach to travel and history or whether she did not "mean" these interpretations quoted above are questions which need further discussion.  Another point that distinguished her from other women travellers is that she is honest enough to admit that she had not realised at the time how important the journey was, unlike Hülya Koç who is fully aware about the importance of the knowledge she gains during her travels.

The fact that Martineau's middle-eastern experience is causally related to her re-education is revealing. The book, Eastern Life is a part of an effort to write a religious autobiography and vindicate her abandonment of Christian practices and Christianity. The definition of travel was an exercise of the mind for her. The autobiography, written seven years after the middle-eastern journeys, reveals that this experience remodelled Martineau's character and reshaped her view of the world thus entirely changing her intellectual and emotional life:

As a travelling historian being "on the spot" was crucial for her:

This statement is rather a common one presented by most of the travellers. Martineau represents her role as traveller to be essentially meditative, her observations lead not to records but deliberation, speculation and further inquiry. She is also distinguished in feeling herself obliged to give accounts from a wholly rationalistic angle.

In Hülya Koç's article, on the other hand, one observes a more emotional and feminised attitude. She presents a brief history of Western women travellers together with a speculative approach to travelling and the notion of the traveller. She complains that during her research she could not come across any women travellers, in the western sense of the word, throughout the history of Turkey. She encountered very few women travellers, whom she could not consider as being "genuine" travellers since in most cases, they tended to be journalists who earn money from their travels. She expresses her strong attachment - almost obsession - to travelling by saying that she could not possibly live if some day she were to lose her health and to stay in one place. The bicycle is a tool for her to explore the fascinating people of the roads. She says that she was a tourist at the beginning but has now become a "traveller" and travelling is the only mode of existence for her.
She criticises Turkish society for having holidays mostly on honeymoons or else once a year for at most ten days.  Koç  calls out to the younger generation, saying there is nothing comparable to personal exploration. One senses in her happiest and the most exciting days in South Africa, the solidarity of gender and empathy with the other woman. This proves that at some special moments in life the barriers of religion, culture and ethnicity can be traversed. As mentioned earlier in this paper, a part of the identity of an adventuress is clearly her ability to withstand physical hardship. She is not an exception to the rule, for she does not miss the chance of referring to her prowess while narrating her memoirs: in the morning breeze of the Amazon we watch the crocodiles that go through the thick flora which surround either sides of the river and the birds that perched on the trees. After a while they reach a hut and receive a warm welcome from the family that consists of eight members. The father's name is Pakirri and he lives with his old mother, wife and five children. Koç's emphasis is on the eldest daughter, Maria, whom all the family is profoundly proud of, since she is the midwife of the newborn baby. This yet eleven-year-old girl with her long pitch-black braids, half-naked body standing before them can perfectly be envisaged. She then describes the anaconda snake hunt she joins  She is the only woman and without a hat among three men in the open field.  They go for an expedition in the depths of the forest and she comes back to Pakirri's hut after managing to hold an anaconda of thirty kilos. Before Koç takes her leave Maria is the one she looks for, and one of the sons goes to find her.

She arrived in a few minutes swinging her half-naked childish body that is not yet taken its female shape. I held her to say good-bye. She put something in my palm gently and squeezed my fist indicating that I should not open it. I sought refuge from my delight and excitement in the screams of birds that penetrated the calm atmosphere of the Amazons ... I kept looking at the tiny red pebble in my palm.

We then learn that it signifies luck!

I would like to draw attention here to what Vernon Lee describes in her collection of essays in 1908: The Sentimental Traveller. She concerns herself with the interaction of place itself. As Frawley points out, the connection between the experience of travel and the making of identity is the subject of many of Lee's essays. Women, she implies, are by virtue of their socially restricted lives destined to become sentimental travellers; and the yearning for the beyond is connected to the poverty of experience in their early years. This is a feature that recurs in numerous travelogues of women. Middleton also emphasises this fact in the last chapter of her book devoted to Mary Kingsley:

Middleton quotes from Kingsley's memoirs in the description of a forest called Upper Calabar where her own identity faded away and she became part of the natural scene as her physical and mental eyes became adjusted to her surroundings:

These contradictory comments of Kingsley may cause confusion, however I would like to note the enormous difference between her and Koç who keeps on referring to the immeasurable delight of personal exploration and encourages every one to enjoy their experiences.

Nearly all of the women who travel abroad discovered that the gender differences which seemed definite and fixed at home were capable of being re-imagined and reworked. Because travel writing by implication decentralised the domestic, it enabled women whether written from a journalistic or moralistic point of view to foreground the problems and the issues of identity that were marginalised in the domestic realism. As Vernon Lee frankly points out, to write about her past journeys enabled her to "revisit" the places that in the past had brought her confidence, strength and health. For Lee, travel writing was flexible enough to accommodate the persona; it could function as an outlet for the emotional and as a medium through which to express and affirm self-confidence.  Whatever the initiating reason is, the psychological implications of travel on each woman can be traced on their writings. Only through travelogues, letters and diaries, the reconstruction (at the same time deconstruction!) of their identities can be fully grasped, since writing for women travellers becomes a means of controlling their exposure to the forces of disruption.
It is interesting to observe the existence of some common characteristics in the attitudes of the women travellers discussed above, regardless of difference of time and space.  As far as Victorian women travellers are concerned, one of their most significant attributes is certainly the way in which their experiences helped them to re-fashion their image of the East as well as of themselves, thus overcoming the limitations embodied in the prejudices and preconceptions of the Victorian period, as represented in the popular press. The way in which travel contributed to the reconstruction of their identity constitutes one of the most fascinating aspects of their experiences and opens new possibilities for further interdisciplinary study in travel writing.


Adams, W.H. Davenport, Celebrated Women Travellers of the Nineteenth Century , (London, W.S. Sonnenschein, 1883)

Durrell, Lawrence, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, (New York, Penguin Books, 1991)

Frawley, Maria H., A Wider Range, New Jersey, Associated University Presses, 1994)

Gendron, Charisse, 'Images of Middle-Eastern Women in Victorian Travel Books', The Victorian Newspaper, Spring 1991, p.18-23

Kingsley, Mary, Travels in West Africa (1897), (rpt.) (Boston, Beacon Press, 1982)

Koç, Hülya, 'Kotti Kiziar Cennete, tyi KizIar Her Yore Cider', Sanat Dilnvamiz, Quarterly, issue:66, 1997, p.159-166

Lee, Vernon, The Sentimental Traveller: Notes on Places (London, John Lane, 1908)

The Spirit of Rome: Leaves from a Diarv (London, John Lane, 1906)

Martineau, Harriet, Eastern Life. Present & Past , (Philadelphia, Lea & Blanchard, 1848)

The Autobiography of Harriet Martineau ,2 vols. (Boston, Houghton, Osgood & Co., 1879)

Melman, BilIie, Women's Orients: English Women and The Middle East. 1718-1918 (Michigan, The University of Michigan Press, 1992)

Middleton, Dorothy, Victorian Lady Travellers , (New York, E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1965)