Women Travel Writers

Sarah Herback

After my own presentation, I wanted to dig a little deeper and see how women travel writers were representing nature in the 18th century. I wondered if the women's descriptions differed far from the men that I studied in my presentation. I want to focus on Dorothy Wordsworth (William's sister), Ann Radcliffe and Helen Maria Williams. I'm curious to know if they were guilty of over-representing women in landscape and nature scenes. At the very end, I'll put in my two cents about the gendering of Nature.

First of all, Dorothy Wordsworth traveled with her brother a lot in the early 1800's; during this time she kept a journal and wrote, in rich details, about the landscape. Although she wrote predominately with a picturesque tone, she made an effort to pay attention to the sharp, jarring contrasts in nature, like crags, rough edges, and precipices. William Snyder's essay "Mother Nature's Other Natures: Landscape in Women's Writing, 1770-1830" suggests that it was Dorothy's intention to use the paradoxes in nature to focus on Nature's contrast. Snyder's source for his theory comes from his close readings of Dorothy's journals; he explains that her language and vocabulary are picturesque, but that she "presents Nature in need of care" (146). Snyder infers that for Dorothy, "maternal care flows out from the human heart, not to it from above or beyond" (146). Snyder comments that Dorothy made a point of highlighting the irregularities in nature and draws her inspiration on the irony of ordered chaos. Snyder concludes that Dorothy likens Nature to a dress-maker, the "female as pattern-maker" (148). He suggests that she places emphasis on what "the hands, not the breasts, do" (148). Snyder also points out that Dorothy usually referred to Nature with "the impersonal pronoun 'it,' and not with 'she' or 'her'" (147); Snyder believes that Dorothy deliberately "overlooks possibilities for maternal symbolism or personification" (147). Dorothy does not view maternality with fertility and bounty, but with "protection and intimacy" (148). However, she does use the feminine pronoun in some of her works, but Snyder explains that "she," the metaphoric woman, is a "craftsperson, not a mother" (147).

Unfortunately Snyder's argument does not convince me; how can Nature be a "pattern-maker" while being in need of care? I think the image of "pattern-maker" indicates originality and creativity, Nature as innovative and refreshing, not Nature in need of help, as Snyder indicates early in his argument. It can also be difficult to distinguish what Snyder means when he suggests Dorothy associates maternality with protection and intimacy; does he mean that Nature is in need of protection, or is Nature the provider of protection? Either way, the argument becomes contradictory, because Snyder suggests that Dorothy presented Nature in need of care. If Nature is in need of care, how can Nature be connoted with providing protection? If Nature is in need of protection, than Nature is indeed symbolic of what Snyder suggests is the antithesis of his argument, namely that Nature cannot be associated with maternality. Although Snyder suggests that Dorothy tries to escape the metaphoric maternal Nature, I don't think she successfully gets rid of Nature as Mother. However, I must admit I have not read enough of Dorothy's works to gather my own opinions, but as far as Snyder's essay is concerned, I don't think his examples adequately represent the whole of her works. I think it can easy to over-represent authors sometimes, especially when one is trying to make general comments about that author's intentions to a cause, such as Snyder trying to prove that Dorothy tries to escape the gender-biasing of Nature.

Ann Radcliffe wrote her travel journals a few years before Dorothy. The few short passages that I will be focusing on are from A Journey Made in Summer of 1794, which was published one year later. Her travel writings are significantly bold and exciting. Similarly while reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, her writings about nature evoke sublimity, create a warmth in the spirits of the characters, especially Emily. Radcliffe, on many occasions refers to the sublime and God when describing Nature, creating an intense and overwhelming admiration for the magnificence of God and Nature simultaneously: "[A]nd still more the mountain's stupendous recesses, where silence and grandeur of solitude impressed a sacred awe upon her heart, and lifted her thoughts to the GOD OF HEAVEN AND EARTH" (10). Radcliffe also uses Nature, the mountains in particular, to express healthiness. On several occasions Radcliffe describes the "healthy mountains" (32,39), contrasting St Aubert's declining health. She describes several contrasting images in both her work of fiction and in her travel writings. In Udolpho Radcliffe contrasts light and darkness: "The cheerful green of the beech and mountain-ash was sometimes seen, like a gleam of light, amidst the dark verdure of the forest" (42). A couple of pages later, while Emily and the travelers are heading to Rousillon, silence is violently interrupted: "The deep silence of these solitudes was broken only at intervals by the scream of the vultures…or the cry of the eagle sailing high in the air" (44). Similarly in A Journey, Radcliffe describes a most horrifying image of an opening between two mountains; the effect is reversed when she describes what is on the "still a miniature of the sweetest pastoral beauty on the banks of the river Derwent" ("The Jaws of Borrowdale" 465) on the other side of the pathway. But the most substantial effect of Radcliffe's travel writing is her unmistakable emphasis on the grandeur, and yet terrifying images:

Dark rocks yawn at its entrance, terrific as the wildness of a maniac, and disclose a narrow pass running up between mountains of granite that are shook into almost every possible form of horror. All above resembles the accumulations of an earthquake -- splintered, shivered, piled, amassed. (465)

Radcliffe's Nature is beautiful, but rough and jagged. Snyder should have used Radcliffe's travel writings to support his thesis. She stresses the images that do not have inherent associations with women. She is more concerned with the grandeur and the sublimity of Nature. For example, she describes the mountains as "great, wild, irregular" ("Grasmere" 470). When describing the approach to lake Ullswater from along the heights of Emont, she writes,

The approach to this sublime lake along the heights of Emont is exquisitely interesting, for the road (being shrouded by woods) allows the eye only partial glimpses of the gigantic shapes that are assembled in the distance and, awakening high expectation, leaves the imagination thus elevated to paint the 'forms of things unseen'. Thus it was when we caught a first view of the dark broken tops of the fells that rise round Ullswater, of size and shape most huge, bold, and awful, overspread with a blue mysterious tint that seemed almost supernatural, though according in gloom and sublimity with the severe features it involved. ("The Road to Emont" 407-8)

Besides one reference to Nature as mother ("[N]or suffered the charms of Nature's lowly children to abstract them form the observance of her stupendous works" (Udolpho 7).) Radcliffe writes about Nature in terms of size and splendor, magnificence and mystery, while still maintaining beauty and virtue. Nature is significantly associated with wisdom and knowledge, which has already been discussed in class, but I found the excerpts from Radcliffe's travel writings significantly determined and brilliant. I loved the way she draws fear from the grandeur of the images, the psychological horror found in the bosom of Nature! However, having already criticized Snyder, I feel that I have to address the fact that I am making assumptions based on very little evidence of literature. Having said that, I don't mean to suggest that all of Radcliffe's travel writings lead to the conclusion that her inspiration for writing about Nature is in part, motivated by fear and stupor.

Finally there is Williams who wrote around 1798, right in between the travel works published by Radcliffe and Wordsworth. We have looked at her closely in class, so I won't dwell too long on her writings, but I want to show how she too does not refer to Nature as a mother. Her travel writing may be identified with the stereotypical style of women's writing, characterized by sentiments and emotions, but she does not overtly participate in the gendering of nature. Like Radcliffe, Williams is inspired by how beautiful, yet frightening Nature can be. Williams, like Radcliffe, likes to refer to the sublime, characterized by mystery and ineffability:

That stupendous cataract, rushing with wild impetuosity over those broken, unequal rocks, which, lifting up their sharp points admidst its sea of foam, disturb its headlong course, multiply its falls, and make the afflicted waters roar--that cadence of tumultuous sound, which had never till now struck upon my ear--those long feathery surges, giving the element a new aspect--that spray rising into clouds of vapour, and reflecting the prismatic colours, while it disperses itself over the hills--never, never can I can forget the sensations of that moment! (A Tour of Switzerland 61)

Williams does refer to Nature as female, but only it's pronoun; it seems to me that Williams is not trying to ascribe female qualities to Nature, but she found it difficult to avoid the common pronoun practice: "[W]hile the imagination of the spectator is struck with the comparative littleness of fleeting man, busy with his trivial occupations, contrasted with the view of nature in all her vast, eternal, uncontrolable grandeur" (63). Instead of concerning herself with the qualities of a female Nature, she stresses the incongruity of the scene; sometimes man forgets that he or she is part of a much larger circle, and sometimes trying to find meaning at all in the experience is beyond rationality, it can only be described through our senses and emotions.

It seems to me that Williams and Radcliffe are comparatively different from Wordsworth. Wordsworth seems to be more concerned with the picturesque and the beauty of the landscape, whereas both Williams and Radcliffe appear to express the significance of Nature on one's psyche. Where Wordsworth seems to deliberately abandon the feminine pronoun for Nature, Radcliffe and Williams don't seem to be bothered by it because it is not the focus of their works.

As far as what I think when it comes to gendering Nature, I say go for it! I don't feel threatened or suppressed when I see Nature represented as female. I think it is important for women to celebrate their bodies and the metaphor of life, because that's what we are…givers of life. I realize that mother and woman are not synonymous, but you have to be a woman to be a mother. In that sense, it is essential that we see it such. I am not trying to say that it is a woman's duty to have children, but it is our responsibility to recognize the sublimity of the womb.

Works Cited

Radcliffe, Ann. A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794. Romanticism. Eds. David Miall and Duncan Wu. CD-ROM. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

---, The Mysteries of Udolpho. London, England: Penguin, 2001.

Snyder, William C. "Mother Nature's Other Natures: Landscape in Women's Writing, 1770-1830." Women's Studies, 21:2 (1992): 143-162. EBSCOhost. University of Alberta Library. Edmonton, Alberta. 8 Feb. 2005

Williams, Helena Maria. A Tour in Switzerland; or, A view of the present state of the Government and Manners of those Cantons: with comparative sketches of the present state of Paris, 2 vols. London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1798. Home page of David Miall. 20 Feb. 2005. http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/Travel/Coxe-Williams.htm