Academic journal article Hecate

Bodies of De/composition: Leprosy and Tattooing in Beatrice Grimshaw's Fiction and Travel Writing

Academic journal article Hecate

Bodies of De/composition: Leprosy and Tattooing in Beatrice Grimshaw's Fiction and Travel Writing

Article excerpt

Footprints runnin' cross the silver sand Steps goin' down into tattoo land I met the sons of darkness and the sons of light In the bordertowns of despair

Bob Dylan (Dignity) (1)


When Irish travel writer and novelist Beatrice Grimshaw (1870-1953) (2) leaves Suva in 1905 to travel through the Fijian hinterland in a month when 'the power of the sun is almost alarming' (3) she is wearing a Holland coat. Without this garment Grimshaw states that the 'flesh of one's neck, arms and shoulders would soon begin to crackle and cook' (35). But even with this cumbersome protection a certain amount of epidermal damage is unavoidable:

   [T]hose blinding rays that strike down through the slender bush
   foliage as through glass, and bleach the very colour out of the
   shadeless, quivering sky--these things, to the traveller from the
   dim grey North, are worth all the heat and glare, destruction of
   hands and skin, that must be encountered. (From Fiji to the
   Cannibal Islands, 35)

Capable of leaving ephemeral/indelible, visible/invisible, solicited/ unsolicited marks, travel impacts on the body.

This paper is an exploration of the body in motion in Beatrice Grimshaw's fiction and travel writing. In what follows, I compare Grimshaw's representations of the white European body with that of the indigenous Other (4) in her work. Grimshaw displays a tendency to depict the body of the Other as a penetrable site, a space of decomposition and collapse. I draw upon Daniel Pick's account of nineteenth-century discourses of bodily degeneration in order to examine Grimshaw's portrayal of indigenous flesh in relation to the colonial project in the Pacific. She constructs the Other as a locus of social, environmental and moral atrophy in order to help justify European imperialism in Oceania. However, while this is an important aspect of Grimshaw's representation of the indigenous body, there is another, more fundamental, motivation underpinning this construction, one which is the primary focus of this paper. I argue that Grimshaw constructs the body of the indigenous Other as a site of dermal dereliction in order to confirm the integrity of her own surface. Projecting anxieties about body boundaries onto the Other, Grimshaw shores up a conception of self as a physically bounded, integrated and functioning whole. I have argued at length elsewhere (5) that throughout Grimshaw's oeuvre there is evidence of body image tendencies characterised by feelings of penetrability; a conception of self which body image psychologists Seymour Fisher and Sidney E. Cleveland associate with individuals who view their body boundaries as weak and lacking in substance. (6) According to Fisher and Cleveland, individuals with this less than positive body image tend to conceptualise their skin as a cover that is incapable of holding and retaining its contents. (7) In the following analysis of Grimshaw's travel writing and fiction, possible reasons for these feelings of penetrability and fragmentation are explored. Areas considered include: colonial fear of the unknown, fear of contagion, and the strangeness of the journey--travel as a liminal experience, a spatio-temporal upheaval that influences subjectivity. And of course, concerns about body boundaries indicate the sexual, a desire for and also fear of the Other. Focussing on such topics as miscegenation, cannibalism, homosexuality and the purchase of body parts as souvenirs, I have examined in detail elsewhere Grimshaw's desire to consume and to be consumed, to penetrate and to be penetrated, her longing for and aversion to the Other. (8) In this paper Grimshaw's body image will also be discussed chiefly in relation to that which the journey necessitates: a loss, either temporary or permanent, of the social matrix called home. Grimshaw lost her first home, first postpartum carapace, at an early age. This is something that will be considered later; it is sufficient to say at this point that the loss of Cloona House, the family home at Dunmurry on the outskirts of Belfast, was the beginning of a peripatetic lifestyle that would continue periodically until her death in Bathurst, New South Wales in 1953. …

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