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Judith Johnston, Victorian Women and the Economies of Travel

Farnham, England, Ashgate, 2013, 204 p. ISBN 978-1-4094-4823-5
Céline Sabiron
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Judith Johnston, Victorian Women and the Economies of Travel, Farnham, England, Ashgate, 2013, 204 p. ISBN 978-1-4094-4823-5

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1The theme of the journey—taken both literally when it refers to a physical travel, and metaphorically in the sense of a translation between two cultures and languages—, has already been very much studied. Yet, if Judith Johnston refers to very influential past studies by Susan Bassnett and André Lefevere (Translation, History, and Culture, 1990), James Clifford (Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, 1997), and Michael Cronin (Across the Lines: Travel, Language, Translation, 2000) among others, her approach is original. Through her monograph, which belongs to the field of gender and post-colonial studies, and therefore stands out from Alison Martin and Susan Pickford’s Travel Narratives in Translation, 1750-1850 also published in 2013, she explores the impact of these two modes of journey on culture, understood as a remarkable commodity, and British society as a whole (hence the term ‘economies’ in the title), by analysing the rhetoric of the Empire with respect to the work of Victorian women. To avoid the risk of giving too broad a definition of the theme of journey, and yet keep it as flexible as possible, she proposes to look at the permeable borders between travel and translation through publishing.

2Johnston’s research question is announced from the outset: by focusing on travel and translation and their impact on culture, or transculturation to use Mary Louise Pratt’s terminology (Imperial Eyes, 1992)—i.e. the meeting of cultures within a ‘zone contact’, with dominant and marginal cultures—, she aims at developing a broader understanding of the way gender and modernity functioned in the early decades of the Victorian age. She wishes to deepen the contribution women made to scholarly and educational advances, the knowledge of empire, from a historical and most specifically post-colonial perspective.

3Her book is divided into two parts of unequal lengths: while the first is more theoretical and conceptual—with some doublings with the introduction—, the second consists of the case studies of six women travellers, translators, and journalists. Johnston looks at the relationships of these various British women living in colonial Britain with continental Europe (mainly Germany, France, Italy, and Sweden) in the nineteenth century, a period of metamorphosis with the crucial development of modern transportation thus enabling more physical, and thereby more intellectual, journeys, especially for women who could, for the first time, travel independently and safely. By removing frontiers, the railway also increased the need for translations with a sense of English superiority.

4In her first part, Johnston emphasizes the interconnection and even at times the interdependence of the key terms travel and translation, but she also separates them to enable some detailed investigation as to how these two terms operate in her case studies. This part is first dedicated to the genre of travel writing, a dominant form between 1830 and 1870. The rapid escalation of real journeys, as opposed to imagined ones, gave rise to interest in and demand for reading material in translation, and eventually to two forms of publications, as a book or in the periodical press, with a differentiation between travel, for first-class travellers avoiding the ‘beaten track’, and tourism, with the growth of the guidebook industry.

5The first part then deals with translations as ‘encounters’ to take up Michael Cronin’s expression, despite the linguistic, but also political, economic and cultural hegemony of the English language, the most translated worldwide. Johnston is not interested in translations as faithful equivalences, but as rewritings of a source text to use André Lefevere’s concept in Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Fame (1992) which she heavily engages with. Relying on Lawrence Venuti’s analyses (in The Translator’s Invisibility, 1995), she focuses on literary exchanges as appropriations. Even if violence was sometimes associated with translation practices, translation was also a form which allowed women to promote political causes and engage in stimulating writing relationships. Yet, nineteenth-century women only had access to the modern world, since the classical past, requiring the knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin, was mostly reserved for men due to the educational system at the time.

6The main body of the book then engages with a few individual women (Sarah Austin, Mary Margaret Busk, Anna Jameson, Charlotte Guest, Jane Sinnett, and Mary Howitt) who are now mostly forgotten, but who had a strong impact on the development of British intellectual life and cross-cultural understanding in their own days. They usually started their writing career by translating and, apart from Jane Sinnett, they all made it into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. These women wrote about their own travels or translated the journeys of others as a way into publishing. It provided them with an opportunity to discover a public voice, and express certain political positions in democratic terms.

7Sarah Austin, an early Victorian translator, introduced German intellectual thinking and writing into England through her manipulation of Prince Hermann Von Pückler-Muskau’s Tour in England, Ireland, and France in the years 1828 and 1829 (1832) which she reworked into a marketable commodity despite the author’s obvious dissatisfaction at her lack of faithfulness. A self-declared radical and certainly a Whig herself, Austin forwarded her own pro-reform politics through her translations by promoting a sense of pride in Englishness and invigorating an ever more powerful middle class.

8Contrary to Austin who took her English readers on journeys into their own country as seen with the eyes of strangers, the writer Margaret Busk, known today through her journalism, had a more propagandist agenda and ‘wished to persuade her readers that despite the interest aroused by such travellers’ accounts, England remains the superior nation’ (74). In her writing for Blackwood’s and Foreign Quarterly, she wanted to assert England’s superior standing in the world.

9The successful writer and critic Anna Jameson undertook a very different journey that is both literal and metaphorical, since her travel to Canada triggered off a sentimental journey to a terra incognita altogether elsewhere and unexpected: Germany. Home was not England, where her parents and sisters lived, but another country which she could escape to in her mind, even if she struggled to get acquainted with the writing of the German intelligentsia and to learn the language. Her Canadian travel book Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada was shaped as a letter-journal with long excursions into a German literary landscape, interleaved with actual trips into the Canadian environment. It recounts her two parallel travels in the New and the Old Worlds: one real, and the other imaginary.

10Johnston’s chapter on Lady Charlotte Guest is part of a larger reflection—based on David Spurr’s The Rhetoric of Empire (1993)—on the role of translation in assisting cultural appropriation. The target language of the text to be translated is often locked into a particular downgraded mode described as quaint, savage, child-like. This role of translation as an enterprise helping to shape the colonial discourse and the part played by women in that project is studied through Guest’s invasive translation of Welsh Mabinogion and other tales from The Red Book of Hergest (both written between 1382 and 1410). Her learning of Welsh and her journey into the exotic are construed as a touristic and even imperialistic project for a woman socially marginalised in Wales by her upper-class rank. The female translator is like the female colonist, with translation seen as a way to dominate cultural production.

11With Jane Sinnett, an intelligent, educated journalist, well versed in modern languages and in particular German, and her translations of Ida Pfeiffer’s traveller’s narrative (A Lady’s Voyage Around the World, 1851), Johnston focuses on the tight connection between travel and translation, with the two key German and English cultures coming together. Her keen social observations are untrammelled by the politics of colonization and nationalism, and therefore capable of re-orienting the perspectives of her British readers.

12Johnston ends her own academic journey with an analysis of Swedish Fredrika Bremer’s novels and novellas and their translation by Mary Howitt. In her first travel narrative, The Homes of the New World (1853), which insists on the traveller herself being centre stage, Bremer wrote about the translation both of her female and European self, which led to a new messianic identity as she travelled through England, the States and Cuba (1849–51). Through Howitt’s translation, Bremer did contribute to the discourse of slave emancipation, and she facilitated change for Swedish women.

13Travel and translation were both publishing avenues which gave women a voice in the Victorian era, and Johnston has the merit to show the originality and the strength of this voice. Victorian Women and the Economies of Travel is very clear, easy to handle and research into with a rich fifteen-page bibliography and index. The conceptual part could have been extended with more connections between the two parts, as well as a more extensive rationale explaining the choice of these six women. Yet, this book is an excellent read for anyone interested in translation and women’s writing in general or in one of the female translators studied in more depth.

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Céline Sabiron, « Judith Johnston, Victorian Women and the Economies of Travel »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 80 Automne | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2015, consulté le 16 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Céline Sabiron

University of Oxford

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