Solitary Travelers: Nineteenth-Century Women's Travel Narratives and the Scientific Vocation

Solitary Travelers: Nineteenth-Century Women's Travel Narratives and the Scientific Vocation

Solitary Travelers: Nineteenth-Century Women's Travel Narratives and the Scientific Vocation

Solitary Travelers: Nineteenth-Century Women's Travel Narratives and the Scientific Vocation

Synopsis

Taking a biographical casebook approach, this study examines four women writers of natural history who traveled between the 1790s and 1890s. Focusing on the travel writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau, Isabella Bird Bishop, and Mary Kingsley, four women who primarily traveled alone, Solitary Travelers asks what sort of rhetorical strategies were used by women to move popularly accessible travel accounts into the scientific, professional sphere during a time when opportunities for women to engage in natural history field work became more and more restricted.

Excerpt

In May 1896, a thirty-year-old Beatrix Potter, accompanied by her uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe, went to Kew Gardens to meet the director, William T. Thiselton-Dyer, and George Massee, assistant director, former president and founder of the British Mycological Society and the Kew’s chief mycologist. Potter had informally studied mycology with Charles McIntosh, a self-educated and highly respected Scottish naturalist, for about four years and had produced a series of beautifully detailed macroscopic and microscopic studies of fungus. She also had been successful in mastering the difficult process of germinating spores. Additionally, her uncle was a highly regarded chemist and Vice-Chancellor of the University of London. This connection got her entrance into Kew; but when she attempted to submit her work, she was met with disbelief. With her uncle’s support, she prepared a paper to present to the Linnean Society of London. There is every indication from her drawings and journals that she had succeeded in germinating spores where others had failed; additionally, she was drawing very fruitful conclusions about the symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae in lichen. Her paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricinea” was listed in the Proceedings as having been presented on 1 April 1897. It was read by a male member of the society, and she was not allowed to attend the meeting. No encouragement apparently followed. While her interest continued, Potter did not continue to pursue her attempts to gain professional recognition. She eventually found her financial independence in writing and illustrating children’s literature.

Potter was a scientific genius in a time when the term “genius” was only applicable to men. It may be said that science lost a good botanist and the rest of society gained Peter Rabbit, but Potter also very early recognized the need to preserve open land and, influenced by Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Octavia Hill, she used . . .

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