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Gender, Travel, Cape: British Women Writing Colonial South Africa, 1797-1931

Easton, Kai (2009) Gender, Travel, Cape: British Women Writing Colonial South Africa, 1797-1931. In: Dept of English seminar series, 16 April 2009, University of Stellenbosch, Dept of English. (Unpublished)

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Abstract

Alan Lester and Elleke Boehmer have both written on imperial networks, but what happens when our case studies are linked across history, generationally and by gender – regionally rather than globally? To move on from Sara Mills’s substantial and influential study on women’s travel writing, Discourses of Difference (1991), and the two questions highlighted by her publishers on the book jacket: ‘How did women write in the colonial period?’ and ‘Is there a specifically female genre of travel writing?’ I want to argue for a closer look at more regional interconnections, that is, both earlier and later writings which trace the same space. One of the questions behind this project is whether ‘travelling metaphors’ (see Elleke 1995) – the replication of symbols, sites, texts across colonial spaces – must necessarily travel very far from home. This is an overview and extract from my project on gender, travel and colonialism at the Cape of Good Hope. My original focus on one writer (Dorothea Fairbridge) has led to a more expansive study of British women travellers at the Cape. And the genesis of this project actually emerges from my work on J. M. Coetzee and ‘colonial textuality’. While the present study is ostensibly female-centred and overtly regional (Cape), it is also concerned with creating a dialogue between texts of some of the better-known male travel writers we know – for example, Barrow, Burchell, Pringle (all of whom are discussed in Coetzee’s White Writing), the now canonical figures of Lady Anne Barnard and Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, and a network of other female travellers whose writings have either been published locally or remain unpublished and in the archives. Together they simultaneously contribute to a more gendered ‘discourse of the Cape’ as well as show the ways in which – as Noel Mostert refers to it – the Cape was a ‘magnet’: not just a half-way station or stopping point en route to the East Indies, a central site for imperial communications and the politics of colonial expansion, but a site of shifting identities and transcultural activity. If anything the Cape, as we see in history, and as it has been highlighted in more recent critical writing and fiction (such as Ishtiyaq Shukri and Zoë Wicomb), is a diasporic space – and here I refer theoretically not only to Avtar Brah but also to James Clifford, and to the ways in which terms such as ‘travel’ and ‘diaspora’ jostle and intersect. To translate ‘travel’ as I am using it today: none of my case studies refers to the Mary Kingsley type of traveller: they are not independent women travelling alone in search of adventure, scientific or anthropological knowledge, confronting danger, all the while maintaining ‘ladylike’ behaviour in foreign lands. These are elite British women who are variously accompanying husbands, on brief tours or temporary residency, or – as in the case of Lady Duff Gordon – who are married but single, travelling alone in search of a healthy climate; or – as in the case of Dorothea Fairbridge – a South African English spinster – travelling with a male friend when she is actually in ill-health, on a pilgrimage to the graveside of the Empire-builder Cecil John Rhodes. They write letters home, and some of them keep journals documenting not only the space they inhabit at the Cape, but also the places they visit. These excursions or ‘tours’ up-country, on the peninsula, by Cape cart, carriage, ox-wagon, horseback, walking, climbing, by train, car, and even by chair (in the tricky bits in her ascent of Table Mountain, for instance, Lady Herschel was taken by four strong men in ‘luxury’ in a chair made by her husband, the renowned astronomer Sir John Herschel) – nevertheless show us a Colony and country in the making from the eyes of lesser-known British women writers, whose travels outside the home they made for themselves at the Cape – however much an ‘interlude’ in their biographies - offer a fascinating ‘counter-discourse’, supplement, or challenge to – for example – the male writers discussed by Mary Louise Pratt and J. M. Coetzee in their respective seminal studies. (Michelle Adler and Carli Coetzee have equally addressed this gap in their respective doctoral theses on travel and landscape in South Africa).

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Items (Paper)
Keywords: Dorothea Fairbridge, Lucie Duff Gordon, Lady Anne Barnard, Cape of Good Hope, British women travellers, South Africa, colonial discourse, travel writing, imperial networks
SOAS Departments & Centres: Faculty of Languages and Cultures > Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies
Faculty of Languages and Cultures > Centre for Gender Studies
Faculty of Languages and Cultures > Department of the Languages and Cultures of Africa
Regional Centres > Centre of African Studies
Depositing User: Kai Easton
Date Deposited: 26 Aug 2010 10:36
URI: http://eprints.soas.ac.uk/id/eprint/9813

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