Travelling in Different Skins: Gender Identity in European Women's Oriental Travelogues, 1850-1950
Purvis, June, The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE
Travelling in Different Skins: Gender Identity in European Women's Oriental
By Dunlaith Bird.Oxford University Press. 288pp, Pounds 60.00
ISBN 9780199644162.Published 5 July 2012.
How identity is constructed and performed has recently become a key concern in both gender and post-colonial studies. Travelling in Different Skins explores this interesting issue by focusing on the Oriental travelogues of six European female writers in the 19th and 20th centuries who engaged in gender experimentation, producing hybrid constructions of gender identity that moved beyond a singular, unfluctuating notion of "femininity". Drawing on what the social theorist Judith Butler has termed "improvisation within a scene of constraint", Dunlaith Bird explores how these travel texts interacted with traditionally male-oriented discourses of Orientalism and colonialism in both France and Britain.
Her chosen travellers are Olympe Audouard (1832-90), Jane Dieulafoy (1851- 1916), Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904), Isabella Bird (1831-1904), Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) and Freya Stark (1893-1993). All these women made the unconventional choice to travel to the Orient and write about their experiences, something that could potentially expose them to allegations of impropriety.
The expectation for women in Britain and France during the eras covered by this study was that they should be primarily domestic creatures, wives and mothers, not solitary adventurers roaming in the "exotic" East encountering danger and "unusual" customs. Consequently, one finds in the published travelogues a fine balance between gender "improvisation" and the constraints of the times, evident in Audouard's plea to her readers, "Now, dear readers, if you absolutely insist on knowing how it is that I, a Frenchwoman, know so much of the mysteries of the seraglio and harems, and that I can speak to you at such length of the morals and customs of the Orientals, I shall explain to you."
It is suggested that we should see the physical mobility of these travellers and the textual mobility that they produce as vagabondage, which Bird defines as "the search for identity through motion... pushing out the physical, geographical, and textual parameters by which 'women' are defined". …