Representations of India in the Female Gaze: Four Women Travellers

Maureen Mulligan, University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain


This paper will explore the question of how recent Western women travel writers represent India, while comparing this post-colonial gaze with that of writers during the colonial past. We will consider the work of two female writers from each period and discuss how their view of the country shows their personal sense of alienation, both within the foreign culture they encounter and, as women, with regard to their own culture. The writers are Fanny Parkes: Begums, Thugs and White Mughals: The Journals of Fanny Parkes, 1850 and Emily Eden: Up the Country: Letters from India, 1866; contrasted with Dervla Murphy: On a Shoestring to Coorg, 1976 and Robyn Davidson: Desert Places, 1996.

[Keywords: Women’s travel writing, India, Colonialism, Post-colonialism, alienation, gaze]

Within the general theoretical outlook of Said’s Orientalism, we shall consider to what extent these writers actually challenge many of the preconceptions readers today have of writers of a specific historical and cultural moment. The particular situation of the woman writer, both in the period before female emancipation and in the post-war context of popular feminism, also influences the way Western women approach the East, and India in particular, in terms of their reasons for travel, their desire to become part of another culture, their sense of identity when travelling, and their attitude towards their native society. The idea of the special importance of the “interior journey” has dominated recent women’s travel writing, at the expense of an objective approach to the country visited. Similarly, Holland and Huggan have commented on the importance of travel writing due to its “defamiliarizing capacities” (1998 viii) and this ability to consider a foreign culture from an alienated perspective is one of the great merits of the genre.

Carl Thompson argues that women’s travel writing in the colonial period had a different focus from that of men’s:

[T]here is a greater tendency for women travellers to concern themselves with domestic details, and with the minutiae of everyday living arrangements […] This narrative focus is often closely bound up with a keen interest in the conditions of life for women in the cultures that they visit, an interest which can embrace topics ranging from the fashions adopted by foreign women through to the social roles they must perform and their legal and political status (Thompson 186).

Thompson goes on to affirm that “Many women travel writers in the imperial era take up a more conspicuously humanitarian position than their male counterparts, evincing in their travelogues a greater concern with the plight of native peoples, and especially with the plight of native women” (ibid: 193), though he points out that this did not necessarily imply any opposition to empire, as this concern often went no further than criticism of native practices that went against Western values, such as suttee or polygamy, rather than questioning the nature of the colonial project and its negative effects on local people.

Tim Youngs and Glenn Hooper also touch on the “defamiliarizing” capacity of travel writing when they refer to the concept of “othering” in quoting Trinh T. Minh-ha who has argued “Identity is largely constituted through the process of othering” (in Robertson 15), and go on to clarify, “It is a process that can evolve within societies, but which is especially evident transculturally, at the point of contact, when our sense of Self is most under threat, frequently in need of reassurance, and likeliest to resort to binary modes of discourse as a form of defence” (Youngs & Hooper 5). We can see examples of this process of Othering in the context of foreign women in India in all the texts referred to below.

Any discussion in the 21st century that deals with foreign, especially British, historical views of India inevitably begins with reference to the Orientalist discourse of Edward Said, whose writings transformed the debate about how Westerners view the East. Said was very aware of the importance of India in the British colonial project:

(B)y the late 19th century India had become the greatest, most durable, and most profitable of all British, perhaps even European, colonial possessions. From the time the first British expedition arrived there in 1608 until the last British viceroy departed in 1947, India had a massive influence on British life, in commerce and trade, industry and politics, ideology and war, culture and the life of the imagination (Said, 1993: 160).

Elleke Boehmer is another valuable voice on historical perspectives of views of India: she writes

(U)p till the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, perspectives on other lands continued to be directed through prisms of inherited tropes: Utopia, or the lawless wilderness; the Noble Savage or the unregenerate Primitive; the Garden of Eden or the Holy City; and Britannica as regnant over all. The interlinked symbolic codes of imperial writing created a textual environment which, while interactive, was also self-repeating, and often self-enclosed. The enclosedness mirrored the insularity of the arguments legitimating Empire (Boehmer 45).

The present paper looks at two moments in the history of Western accounts of India. Firstly in 1839, Emily Eden, the sister of the Governor-General, Lord Auckland, and Fanny Parkes, the wife of a minor official, offer two contrasting versions of their experiences travelling under the auspices of the East India Company. Secondly, in the second half of the 20th century, Dervla Murphy, with her small daughter, and Robyn Davidson, with camels and nomads, travelled in India independently, looking for the authentic experience of travel off the beaten path…Access Full Text of the Article

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