Women, Travel and Identity: Journeys by Rail and Sea, 1870-1940, by Emma Robinson-Tomsett (Manchester UP, 2013)
“… the power which has become the right of every woman who has the means to achieve it – of becoming her own unescorted and independent person, a lady traveller.”
Lillias Campbell Davidson, Hints to Lady Travellers, 1889
The idea that women were absent from spaces of travel has been usefully redressed by many studies of women’s travel writing in recent years, and it is by now familiar that women were active participants in modern forms of mobility in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To date, accounts have focused largely on the extraordinary feats of women adventurers travelling around the globe, or looked at how new technologies changed domestic travel closer to home. But as Lillias Campbell Davidson’s words make clear, the power to become “a lady traveller” became possible for increasing numbers of women at this time and in this vein, Women, Travel and Identity: Journeys by Rail and Sea, 1870-1940 offers a refreshing contribution to studies of women’s travel: as Robinson-Tomsett’s identifies, the experience of the ‘paying woman journeyer’ (3) has remained largely hidden from view. It is these everyday women, travelling for leisure and pleasure, who are brought to light in this study which seeks to explore how women constructed their identities as travellers in a period in which their statuses and roles, in public and private, were undergoing radical reformulations.
At the core of Robinson-Tomsett’s work is analysis of a group of 40 women who travelled between 1870 and 1940, by rail and ship. Robinson-Tomsett situates this group within a wider survey of women travelling at this time, reorienting the typical data on women’s travel by using data taken from ships’ passenger lists to reveal a much broader scale of women’s mobility than that provided by emigration records alone. The women whose journeys are selected for closer analysis represent a diverse group: many are single, others married; the majority are middle-class, but a handful upper- or working-class; they vary in age from their 20s through to 80s; some wrote travel narratives intended for public consumption, others left diary accounts and letters of their trips; they travelled for a range of purposes – predominantly leisure, but also to emigrate, work, or accompany their husbands; and they journeyed to a variety of destinations across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, New Zealand, and India. The diversity of this group is the strength of this book, for this enables Robinson-Tomsett to achieve a nuanced account of women’s travel which avoids making over-generalised assumptions, instead taking a ground-up approach that uses carefully analysed data and attentive interpretations of women’s writing to draw out indicative suggestions about the way in which women moved through and occupied spaces of travel.
Before women set foot on a train or ship they were surrounded with multiple, and at times conflicting, discourses of travel through fiction, art and, increasingly between 1870 and 1940, advertisements for travel companies. Artists such as James Tissot convey ambivalence about women travellers, while fictional representations of women travellers in texts by E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf explore processes of female identity formation in journey spaces. Advertising presents a view of the female traveller as young, modern and fashionable, a vision that became increasingly glamorised throughout this period, yet this sense of the liberation of travel was accompanied by a strong emphasis on conformity to norms of femininity. The prevalence of discourses of normative femininity is evident in a chapter on etiquette books for female travellers, in which a wider cultural anxiety about women travelling alone is expressed through the assertion of strict codes of behaviour and an overriding concern with adhering to correct ideas of femininity. Yet at the same time, Robinson-Tomsett suggests that etiquette guides were an enabling device for women new to travelling, aiding them to feel more confident in entering into an unknown social sphere.
These mythologies of the female traveller establish a context in which women’s identities as travellers were widely perceived in this period, but key to this study is Robinson-Tomsett’s observation of how women demonstrated individual agency within a masculine sphere: “Women enthusiastically and actively constructed, defined and consumed their journeys and asserted their identities as journeyers throughout this period.” (p. 7). At times this agency emerges through women’s attempts to take ownership of typically masculine facets of travel, for example appropriating the professional, technical language of travel technologies, or situating themselves as gazers observing other travellers. At other points, women are revealed to reject expected feminine behaviours, as in the case of women who show little interest in turning their cabins into homely, domesticated spaces, or those who did not confine themselves to the gendered spaces of ladies-only carriages on railway trains. Women’s social interactions with others are also indicative of different forms of gendered behaviour: it is interesting to see Robinson-Tomsett explore often overlooked interactions between women on board ship, and to consider how women negotiated social expectations through their presence in communal spaces and participation in on-board activities. Women’s interactions with male passengers are also analysed in the context of late-nineteenth century assumptions about the journey as a space of sexual danger or transgression for women, revealing some surprising observations about the extent to which women feared themselves to be at risk or perceived themselves to be in a position of sexual impropriety.
The time span of the study is broad, the years 1870 to 1940 encompassing a vast degree of changes in women’s role and social status, and in cultural understandings of gender identities, and it is therefore interesting that Robinson-Tomsett ultimately finds that “women’s journeyer identities and journey discourse remained remarkably stable between 1870 and 1940” (p. 189). Instead of identifying a gradual shift throughout the period, what emerges instead is a sense of the constant multiplicity and variety of identities and discourses that women appropriated and occupied as they travelled. As Robinson-Tomsett reflects, “the journey was a complicated and ambiguous form of female travel, which some women sometimes found liberating, but which could also be restrictive or at the very least maintain the status quo in women’s roles and definitions of womanliness. It both recognized women’s agency and preserved existing conventions” (164). Women, Travel and Identity provides an insightful exploration of these complications and ambiguities, bringing to light untold stories that present a diverse and compelling picture of women’s travel experiences in this period.