"Roving Englishwomen": Greece in Women's Travel Writing

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This essay examines British women's travel writing on Greece as the configuration of gender, imperialism, and Hellenism. Despite disproving accounts of male travellers, women writers complied with imperialist operations constituting modern Greece as the orient. To encounter and claim the past, they represented the present as alien and degenerate.

I am so angry with myself that I will pass by all the other islands with this general reflection, that 'tis impossible to imagine anything more agreeable than this journey would have been between two or three thousand years since, when, after drinking a dish of tea with Sapho, I might have gone, the same evening, to visit the temple of Homer in Chios, and passed this voyage in taking plans of magnificent temples, delineating the miracles of statuaries, and conversing with the most polite and most gay of mankind. Alas! Art is extinct here, the wonders of nature alone remain.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, The Turkish Embassy Letters

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The first woman traveller to Greece never set foot there; seen from the sea, the shore of Greece fills Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's letter of 31 July 1718 with desire, nostalgia, and loss. Montagu sailed through Ottomanheld Greece on her way to England from Constantinople, where her husband had briefly served as an ambassador. However, she did not visit the mainland, despite her desire to read ancient Greek literature in its "authentic" locations, anticipating the archaeological attitude in the study of ancient literature. After her insightful observations of Turkey and its women, whether subverting or epitomizing orientalist discourse, Montagu was afraid to disturb the ideal, the imaginary landscape of classical antiquity by experiencing contemporary reality. Montagu regretted not landing "on the famed Peloponessus" (147), complaining, "Instead of demi-gods and heroes I was credibly informed 'tis now overrun by robbers, and that I should run a great risk of falling into their hands by undertaking such a jour ney through a desert country" (148). Her ambivalence about the (deferred) Greek journey reflects the ambiguous position of Greece itself; situated at the threshold between East and West, Greece not only questions the travellers' binary opposition between Europe and the Orient, but it is also divided against itself, between its idealized timeless image and its current decline. Montagu's journey into the past by effacing the present represents the paradox of women's travel writing on Greece: in order to encounter and claim the past (the reputed origin of Western civilization), the present is seen as alien, primitive, and degenerate.

In the eighteenth century, Greece was still considered a dangerous and remote place to visit, especially for women, who "did not fit the traveler's image as heroic explorer, scientist, or authoritative cultural interpreter" (Bohls 17). Besides Montagu, only Lady Craven visited Greece in 1786, accompanied by Count Choiseul Gouffier, the French ambassador to the Porte and a collector of Greek antiquities. Elizabeth Craven, a playwright and woman of letters, began her voyage (which included Crimea, Istanbul, and Greece) after her legal separation from her husband, the sixth Earl of Craven; the letters forming her travel book (published in 1789) were addressed to a fictitious male friend (Melman 48-49). Craven was indeed an unusual traveller since most eighteenth-century British visitors to Greece were antiquarians and scholars, busy sketching monuments and acquiring antiquities, roles that excluded women. Similarly, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, the "Levant Lunatics," the romantic and adventurous young men longing for ruins and exotic experiences, could not be encumbered by female companions.

It is the Victorian and Edwardian women who first travelled alone to Greece (although some accompanied their husbands abroad), writing accounts of their travels, works published and read at the time of publication but never reprinted. …