Ross Cameron is a first year AHRC sponsored PhD researcher based at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Glasgow, and the Humanities and Social Sciences Graduate School, University of Strathclyde. His primary area of research is Anglo-American women’s travel to the Balkans between the turn of the twentieth century and World War Two. Broader interests also include nineteenth and twentieth century travel literature, the culture of travel and tourism and visual culture. Previously he has studied History at both the University of Glasgow and the University of Dundee.
‘For I am always classed with the buckherd’: Constructing Gendered Identities in Edith Durham’s Travel Writing, 1903-1909
Since the 1990s there has been a consistent academic interest in the study of Victorian and Edwardian women’s travel writing that had been buried under the ‘Western cultural truism that Penelope waits while Odysseus voyages’ (Lawrence, 1994, p. xi). Much of this scholarship has been informed by feminist theory and examines the ways in which mobility abroad offered women ways of ‘becoming someone who did not exist at home’ (Bassnett, 2002, p. 234). Studies informed by postcolonial and postmodern feminism demonstrate that Western women held a more ambiguous relationship to colonialism than their male counterparts as they were ‘colonised by gender but colonisers by race’ (Ghose, 1998, p. 5). As Sara Mills (1991) argues, the complex position of Western women vis-à-vis colonialism prevents them from adopting colonial discourses as easily as their male counterparts. As a result, their travel writing is comprised of discourses of conflict with contradictory articulations of race, class and gender producing fragmented and unstable narrative personas.
Postcolonial and postmodern feminism have unsurprisingly directed their attention towards travel writing about countries that experienced Western colonial administration. However, as this paper will argue, the same fragmented narrative personas can be found in the travel books written by Edith Durham about the Balkans during the Edwardian period, namely Through the Lands of the Serb (1904), The Burden of the Balkans (1905) and High Albania (1909).
Durham was born in 1863 into an upper middle-class family in Mayfair and first travelled to the Balkans in 1900 as an escape from a life of domesticity. As she later wrote, during her years of domesticity ‘the future stretched before me as endless years of grey monotony, and escape seemed hopeless’ (1920, p. 9). In her travel writing it appears that Durham was attracted to the Balkans as the peninsula’s remoteness, dangerous reputation and subtle exoticism was antithetical to the home and hearth of domesticity. Her journeys in the region, then, can be read as an attempt to reject the values of bourgeois female interiority.
This is most evident in the androcentric narratorial position she adopts. One way she does so is by insistently reaffirming her position as an authentic and individualistic traveller as opposed to the superficial tourist. By the early twentieth century the appellation of ‘tourist’ had become distinctly feminised. It was associated with the domesticated travel offered by ocean liners and trains, which were understood as ‘catering to the disabling characteristics of dependent femininity’ (Smith, 2001, p. 25). Durham establishes an authoritative and individualistic narrative persona within the opening pages of Through the Lands of the Serb. As she puts it, Dalmatia has ‘its charms, but tourists swarm here and the picturesque corners are being rapidly pulled down to provide suitable accommodation’ (1904, p. 3), suggesting that dehumanised masses of tourists are dulling the colourful otherness that makes for an authentic travelling experience. Evidently worried that allowing her text to linger in touristic Dalmatia might undermine her claims to authority she adds, ‘Let us pass on, then, nor pause until we have … landed on the quay at Cattaro’ (1904, p. 3) so as to quickly progress the narrative onto Montenegro which was further beyond the beaten track. Indeed, it is only in more remote locations that she is able to foreground her individualism and authority and where her status as a Western woman meant that she was ‘classed with the buck-herd’ (1909, p. 64).
Durham’s construction of a narratorial persona that positions her antithetically to tourists can be interpreted as an attempt to integrate herself within conventionally masculine traditions of exploration. Her travel narratives are regularly driven by her attempts to claim what Dea Birkett calls a ‘first’ (1991, p. 125), such as being the first Western European to travel to a remote location. This theme is especially prominent in High Albania in which she describes her determination to reach remote Muslim villages. These villages are described as ‘the Lhassa [sic] of Europe’ (1909, p. 131), suggesting that she understood her journey to the remote reaches of Albania as paralleling the Younghusband expedition that opened Tibet to the British just a few years before. After reaching the villages she is pleased to find that she is ‘said to be the first foreign female … and the first foreigner of any sort’ (1909, p. 138) that had visited. By stressing her achievements, Durham clearly attempts to elevate her narratorial position into the ranks of authoritative and masculine explorers who throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries filled in the remaining blank spaces on Britain’s map of the world.
In remote locations Durham foregrounds the qualities of strength and fortitude in the face of adversity typically embodied by masculine protagonists in the colonial travel literature. Durham positions herself as willing to risk her life in order to undertake the journey – ‘I was ready to “see Gusinje or die”’ – and she recounts overcoming near-insurmountable physical obstacles, including plunging cliffs, snow fields, mountains that ‘looked like a wall at the end of the world’, and boulders that ‘crashed down from … above’ (1909, pp. 132-134). Her narrative persona also displays a quick wittedness for she outwits potentially hostile indigenous peoples by concealing her Western belongings and posing as the sister-in-law of her guide. The narratorial position of the disguised Westerner penetrating ‘forbidden’ Islamic cultures is one of immense textual power for it at once demonstrates great knowledge of a foreign culture to the home audience and asserts authority over indigenous peoples for they are represented as being tricked by disguise. Durham’s gender, however, complicates her conventionally masculine narratorial position as her experiment in disguise sees her adopt the position of an indigenous woman. This puts her in the curious situation of being able to access the remote Muslim villages but constantly having to ‘remember that I was in a Moslem land, and hold my tongue’ (1909, p. 137) with her gender, then, undercutting her position of textual authority.
Durham’s travel writing is replete with fissures that reveal the difficulty she has in adopting an exploring narratorial persona, a masculine point of enunciation that clashes with discourses of femininity that sought to make the propriety and interiority associated with the role of the Angel of the House appear ‘natural’ for bourgeois women. At times Durham mitigates against her narratorial position by subordinating her writing to the authoritative and masculine knowledge of ‘the diplomat, the geographer, the archaeologist’ who she cannot ‘pretend to be able to teach’ (1905, p. viii). At other moments she writes that ‘the West arose in me and would not be gainsaid’ (1905, p. 131) and then seeks to reaffirm feminine respectability by stressing conformance to Western conceptions of women’s dress and decorum. These gender performances are also by extension the performative consumption of ‘civilisation’ and are a means by which Durham highlights her distance from and superiority over the Balkan other.
Most interestingly is when Durham deflates her adventuring persona through humour. After arriving at Lake Shköder Durham is rowed across the lake on a canoe with ‘chairs arranged … as a sort of throne at one end’. Parodying scenes where the colonial explorer is carried on a litter or rowed upstream ceremoniously by ‘natives’, Durham uses humour to undercut her straightforwardly masculine narratorial position. Unlike the omniscient imperial male who swiftly penetrates foreign lands, Durham makes ‘wobbly progress’ before being ‘catapulted’ into the lake: ‘a vision of grey skirts, a splash!’. This comical scene ends with her arriving ashore ‘dripping and streaming’ and improvising new clothing to ensure her propriety (1904, pp.72-73). In this instance, Durham uses self-deprecating humour to show both the textual and literal difficulty faced by women trying to adopt the guise of the masculine adventuring hero with her apparently feminine fallibility destabilising the authoritative colonial statements and positions she enunciates.
Durham’s travel writing, then, can be read as both a feminist rejection of the values of female interiority through travel and as a set of texts that regularly reaffirm conservative concepts of respectable femininity. In this way, her writings clearly display the same fractured narratorial personas that are regularly present in Western women’s travel writing on colonial contexts and as such must be treated as sites of discursive indecipherability.
Bassnett, Susan, ‘Travel Writing and Gender’, in (eds. Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs), The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 225-241.
Birkett, Dea, Spinsters Abroad: Victorian Lady Explorers (London: Victor Gollancz, 1991).
Durham, M. Edith, Through the Lands of the Serb (London: Edward Arnold, 1904).
___, The Burden of the Balkans (London: Edward Arnold, 1905).
___, High Albania (London: Edward Arnold, 1909).
___, Twenty Years of the Balkan Tangle (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1920).
Ghose, Indira, Women Travellers in Colonial India: The Power of the Female Gaze (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Lawrence, Karen R., Penelope Voyages: Women and Travel in the Literary Tradition (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1994).
Mills, Sara, Discourses of Difference: An analysis of women’s travel writing and colonialism (London: Routledge, 1991).
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