Gender Stereotyping in Early Modern Travel Writing on Holland

By Gabbard, D. Christopher | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview
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Gender Stereotyping in Early Modern Travel Writing on Holland


Gabbard, D. Christopher, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


This article challenges the use of British seventeenth-century travel writing on Holland as historical evidence, especially with regard to passages concerning Dutch women's independence. Two British travelers' accounts illustrate the complexities of employing travel literature to fill out the historical record: Fynes Moryson's Itinerary and Owen Felltham's Brief Character. Stuart royalist ideology and patriarchalist gender assumptions inform both texts. In addition, Moryson's Itinerary consists of intertextual pastiche; Felltham's Brief Character invokes the conventions of the Theophrastan character. Failing to understand travel accounts' status as discursive medium leads to acquiescing naively to their strategies of mimetic literary representation.

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In her New York Times review of the Johannes Vermeer retrospective that opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in early March of 2001, art historian Deborah Solomon characterizes the female figures appearing in this Dutch painter's work as women "caught up in their own thoughts; they're self-sufficient and complete unto themselves. They can fairly be described as the first modern women in art... That breakthrough could have happened only in 17th-century Holland. (21) While analyses of Vermeer's female figures usually leave off at ascribing to them a zeal for cleanliness and order, Solomon instead finds in them the advent of "protofeminist," independent-minded, bourgeois women. (22) It is interesting to note that while Solomon discovers Vermeer representing this subject for the first time in art, social historians find a similar subject emerging in early modern travel writing. Jonathan Israel and Simon Schama, two recent historians of golden-age Holland, generally have lent travel texts some weight in determ ining that Dutch women during this period achieved a level of independence unthinkable elsewhere in Europe. For example, Israel remarks that "No aspect of Dutch freedom in the golden age struck contemporaries, especially foreigners, more than that enjoyed by women--of all classes and types... Everyone agreed that, in Dutch society, wives were less subservient to their husbands than elsewhere. (23) And Schama goes even further than Israel by asserting that "the Netherlands has one of the oldest and richest traditions of feminism in Europe. (24)

In his introduction to The Embarrassment of Riches, Schama warns against treating visual art "as a kind of historical evidence." (5) And yet, he does not indicate a similar reservation with regard to employing travel writing as a kind of literal record of social experience. A fundamental question thus arises about the use of travel writing to supplement the discourse of history, namely, if travelogues were to be placed somewhere on a spectrum in which "historical evidence" marks one end of that spectrum and imaginative literature the other, where on this range should we locate such writing? Anne Laurence is one historian who situates travel writing closer to imaginative works than to historical records and so challenges Schama's reliance on it to substantiate his claim that Dutch women were an unusually independent lot: "Comparisons made by travellers between Dutch women and women in other parts of Europe were coloured by [their authors'] particular experiences, by long-standing beliefs about national charact eristics, and by the conventions of writing about other peoples." (6) Failing to understand travel writing's status as a discursive medium can lead to acquiescing naively to its strategies of mimetic literary representation. (7)

Some of the complexities involved in attempting to employ travel accounts to fill out the historical record can be illustrated by turning to two early modern travelers whose accounts Schama utilizes: Fynes Moryson and Owen Felltham. Following up on Laurence's critique, I will use Moryson's and Felltham's comments concerning Dutch women to demonstrate why the worth of their observations--at least from a historical perspective--must be discounted.

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