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Lawrence's Female Travellers

Fiona Fleming

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1In Study of Thomas Hardy, Lawrence rephrases a common trope of the male "venture within the unknown of the female" (STH 104) as an alienating yet fulfilling journey, echoing many representations of travelling by male writers and critics as a phallic thrust forward into the world. As critic Karen R. Lawrence states in Penelope Voyages : Women and Travel in the British Literary Tradition, the traveller is conventionally portrayed "as a male who crosses boundaries and penetrates spaces ; the female is mapped as a place on the itinerary of the male journey" (Lawrence 2). Yet Lawrence's travelling protagonists are mainly women, if we exclude the travel essays from our examination, on account of the merely touristic appeal of the journeys narrated in Twilight in Italy and Sea and Sardinia, and the absence of any psychological or physical alteration in their male narrator-protagonists. These female travellers, Alvina from The Lost Girl, Lou and Mrs Witt from St Mawr, the nameless woman from "The Woman Who Rode Away" and Kate from The Plumed Serpent, each embark on a journey abroad, unaccompanied by any male family member, and thereby endorse a traditionally male role. Few male writers of Lawrence's time chose to use British female travellers as main characters, and when they did, as E. M. Forster in A Passage to India or Somerset Maugham in The Painted Veil, their heroines were not independent and unchaperoned women, isolated from any British community in a foreign land.

2So what was Lawrence's purpose in favouring female travellers over male travellers, and why does he depict a different, gender-based response to foreignness in his characters? I would argue that part of his choice was motivated by a wish to subvert and reverse the traditional roles ascribed to women in early twentieth century British society, while those very conventions made the escaped women ideal receptacles of otherness and alteration. At the same time, he also conforms to the traditional view of woman as an instrument of stability, by questioning the relevance of female travel and emancipation abroad. In fact, he uses the female characters to embody his ideas for a new society based on a new relation between man and woman, but far from becoming agents of change, they are simply used as tools or a basis on which men build their lives and their patriarchal societies.

3At a time when European societies regarded women as delicate, somewhat limited beings, requiring guidance and protection from men, and belonging exclusively to the domestic sphere, in which they could ensure the stability of the household and of society as a whole, women travelling freely and without male supervision, whether in their own country or abroad, were comparatively rare and fairly exposed to scandal, as the title The Lost Girl suggests. Lawrence's heroines, Alvina Houghton, Lou Witt and her mother, the "Woman" and Kate Leslie – all independent, unescorted, young or middle-aged, white British female travellers – therefore occupy an unconventional situation at the beginning of the twentieth century, and offer a privileged angle from which to criticise English (or Western) society.

4All five of them embark on their journeys to flee the domestic and social imprisonment they endure in England or America, which the prison-like architecture of the Woman's home in "The Woman Who Rode Away" aptly denotes : "Under the nakedness of the works, the walled-in, one-storey adobe house, with its garden inside, and its deep inner verandah with tropical climbers on the sides. And when you looked up from this shut-in flowered patio, you saw the huge pink cone of the silver-mud refuse, and the machinery of the extracting plant against heaven above. No more" (WWRA 39). Besides the confining and centripetal structure of the house itself, the surrounding landscape also forbids any sensation of freedom, since even the sky, which stands for a last potential projection of freedom, is obstructed by an immense mud pile and the mine's mechanical infrastructure, and to cap it all, the area is enclosed by high mountains. The feeling that the young woman is held captive within a harem thus strikes the reader long before Lawrence explicitly writes : "Like any sheik, he kept her guarded among those mountains of Chihuahua" (WWRA 40).

5In "St Mawr," the whole English landscape seems to stand as one large prison around Lou and Mrs Witt :

The two American women stood high at the window, overlooking the wet, close, hedged-and-fenced English landscape. Everything enclosed, enclosed, to stifling. The very apples on the trees looked so shut in, it was impossible to imagine any speck of "Knowledge" lurking inside them. Good to eat, good to cook, good even for show. But the wild sap of untameable and inexhaustible knowledge – no ! Bred out of them. Geldings, even the apples." (SM 97)

6The description serves as an allegory of women's condition in English society – caged in, objectified and uneducated. The association of women with the earth or a cultivated garden is a recurrent motif in myths and literature (Lawrence 1), which Lawrence debunks here thanks to the metaphor of the apples, since the cultivation of women to suit male needs, their shaping into consumable and aesthetically pleasing goods, eventually render them unnatural and sterile. The image of the apple and the capital K on "Knowledge" evidently refer to the Fall in Genesis and denounce English society's efforts to keep women locked up in a Garden of Eden where they will remain chaste and ignorant. What this passage clearly implies is that the confinement and control of women leads to destructive alienation, whether it be physical or cultural barrenness, death by suffocation, or even insanity - which threatens "the Woman" before she rides away : "Gradually her nerves began to go wrong : she must get out. She must get out" (WWRA 40).

7Despite his attack on the conditions of women in middle-class milieus, Lawrence does not stage his heroines bolting off to a remote location without a pang of regret, except perhaps for "the Woman" who sets off "without a qualm" (WWRA 43) and never looks back. He seems acutely aware of the power of late Victorian upbringing over young women with regards to filial affection, when he very sensitively depicts Alvina's inner struggle with her decision to leave Manchester House and her family :

"I can't stay here all my life,” she declared, stretching her eyes in a way that irritated the other inmates of Manchester House extremely. “I know I can't. I can't bear it. I simply can't bear it, and there's an end of it. I can't I tell you. I can't bear it. I'm buried alive – simply buried alive. And it's more than I can stand. It is, really.”[…] Alvina floated off to her room, and sat by the window looking down on the street. The bright, arch look was still on her face. But her heart was sore. She wanted to cry, and fling herself on the breast of her darling. (LG 28-29)

8Her desire for escape is persistently checked by her devotion to her governess mainly, her "darling," and the torturing paradox of these emotions is conveyed by the numerous repetitions that make up her feverish declaration of emancipation. Kate Leslie and Ursula Brangwen likewise waver between an attachment to their families and a thirst for exploration and knowledge of the world outside the domestic sphere. Contrary to what Kate Millett asserts, when Lawrence ridicules Ursula's ambitions "to read great, beautiful books, and be rich with them ; […] to see beautiful things, and have the joy of them for ever ; […] to know big, free people" (R 343) I believe that the "half derogatory" (Millett 261) tone she says he uses, is not aimed at Ursula but at a society which hinders women's acquisition of knowledge and turns it into "the big want" and "a blind fight."

9The incipit of The Rainbow confirms this by depicting the Brangwen men’s and women's aspirations as the exact opposite of what social conventions dictate : while the men focus their activities and thoughts on the farm, the women's eyes and dreams are directed away from the domestic towards the outside world of men :

Looking out, as she must, from the front of her house towards the activity of man in the world at large, whilst her husband looked out to the back at sky and harvest and beast and land, she strained her eyes to see what man had done in fighting outwards to knowledge, she strained to hear how he uttered himself in his conquest, her deepest desire hung on the battle that she heard, far off, being waged on the edge of the unknown. She also wanted to know, and to be of the fighting host. (R 4-5)

10Lawrence's abundant use of terms referring to occupations such as war, conquest and scientific exploration, generally acknowledged as exclusively masculine occupations, further underline the discrepancy between the Brangwen women's longing for discovery, knowledge and power, and a society that confines them to the farmhouse. Yet these terms also point towards a recurrent Lawrencian concern, which is the modern woman's loss of femininity. So, how does Lawrence reconcile his criticism of Western patriarchal societies with his theory of maleness and femaleness, based as it is on conventional conceptions of gender?

11In a review of Hugh and Pauline Massingham's collection of travel letters, The Englishman Abroad, the Times Literary Supplement wrote : 

The most noticeable thing is that English women travelling seem much more ready to be pleased than the men. Queen Victoria in Paris in August, in 1855, “delighted, enchanted, amused,” set the tone for them before and after her. There is Elisabeth Barrett Browning enchanted with her Italian home, “its dust, its cobwebs, its spiders” ; Fanny Burney with the civility and gentleness of the people of Calais ; Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with the cleanliness of Rotterdam where she “walked everywhere in her slippers without receiving one spot of dirt."

12While acknowledging the stark contrast between the enthusiasm these famous female travellers expressed in their letters regarding the foreign places and people they discovered, and the men's invariable dissatisfaction, the review also – perhaps unintentionally – restricts their experience of foreignness to domestic and trivial appraisals. In Lawrence's travel fiction, the enthusiasm of the female characters is ambiguously dealt with, as it is presented as a feminine shortcoming on the one hand, and a token of propensity towards creative alteration on the other. For instance, the narrator of "The Woman Who Rode Away" dismisses the heroine's eagerness and curiosity towards the Chilchuis as "foolish romanticism more unreal than a girl's" (WWRA 42). Similarly, Harriett Somers's repeated exhibitions of delight, whether conveyed through direct or indirect speech, are systematically undermined by either Richard Somers or a narratorial voice which sounds suspiciously like Richard Somers, in comments like "And sure enough, in a few minutes came Harriett's gushing cries of joy and admiration" (K 18) or "Harriett of course was enraptured" (K 25) – hedges such as "and sure enough" or "of course" being frequent devices to demean her joyful responses.

13Harriett's exultation actually stems from her escape from European social conventions and her relish in the freedom Australian society has to offer her as a woman. Interestingly, it is not until the final chapter of Kangaroo that her enthusiasm is explicitly linked to her liberation, in the midst of an analysis of her ultimate disenchantment with Australia. A series of animal similes serves to illustrate the illusion of freedom and the destructive power it holds over the female traveller : "Out of all her bird-like elation at this new-found freedom, freedom for her, the female, suddenly, without warning, dark revulsions struck her […] She had sudden mad loathings of Australia. And these made her all the more frenzied because of her former great, radiant hopes" (K 350-1). Lawrence's message here is clear : "The freedom, like everything else, had two sides to it." (K 350), and although he allows Harriett to enjoy it for a time, his final depiction of her as a sick tiger in a cage (K 351) indicates that a woman with excessive freedom is a danger to herself and to men.

14Harriett’s and Richard's contrasting attitudes to foreignness find an echo in several other novels in which the woman shows much more curiosity towards the foreign other than the man and is more readily disposed to be altered by the encounter. Conversely, male characters betray a fear of contamination or annihilation of the self by the foreigner, especially the non-European foreigner, as when Rawdon Lilly declares in Aaron's Rod : "I can't do with folk who teem by the billion, like Chinese and Japs and Orientals altogether. Only vermin teem by the billion." (AR 97). Aaron himself displays an analogous response to the pervasive influence of the Italian passengers who surround him in a train carriage: unable to flee the threat of their altering power upon his English self in the enclosed space of the carriage, "Aaron stared out of the window, and played the one single British role left to him, that of ignoring his neighbours, isolating himself in their midst, and minding his own business. [...] Yes, they might look at him. They might think him a servant or what they liked. But he was inaccessible to them. He isolated himself upon himself, and there remained." (AR 198). Aaron's interior monologue stages a confrontation between "they" and "him," with the Italians on the offensive and himself resisting their silent attacks against his integrity. When compared with another train carriage scene from The Lost Girl, the difference between men and women's disposition towards what is foreign is drawn into sharp relief: 

She loved being in Italy. She loved the lounging carelessness of the train, she liked having Italian money, hearing the Italians round her – though they were neither as beautiful nor as melodious as she expected. She loved watching the glowing, antique landscape. She read and read again: "E pericoloso sporgersi," and "E vietato fumare," and other little magical notices on the carriages. Ciccio told her what they meant, and how to say them. (LG 299)

15The self-centred repetition of "himself" in the previous extract is here replaced by the anaphora "she loved" followed by verbs of perception or complements describing Alvina's experience of Italy. The whole syntax of those two scenes transcribes the diverging attitudes of the two travellers, since Aaron's withdrawal is mirrored by complements always referring to himself, whereas in the second extract the sentences start with Alvina as subject and open up onto the foreign elements around her, thus highlighting the outward and creative quality of her approach.

16Despite the dissatisfaction it invariably brings, the travelling heroines' quest for a true and life-changing encounter with foreignness is presented as laudable, particularly when opposed to the men's deliberate isolation or superficial experience, like that of the two Americans who accompany Kate in the first few chapters of The Plumed Serpent. Contrary to other female characters, Kate shows little enthusiasm for Mexico and the roles appear to be reversed in this novel, with Owen Rhys and Villiers demonstrating the excitement usually attributed to the women. Yet unlike them, Kate seeks to discover "the real Mexico" (PS 82) and travels deeper into the unknown, unaccompanied. Here Lawrence brushes up against the problematic representation of a modern, independent woman travelling abroad, whose femininity is called into question because the curiosity and determination she displays are commonly perceived as male attributes. Gender boundaries are challenged by travel and travel writing, with famous women travellers like Jeanne Baré, Lady Hester Stanhope and Isabelle Erberhart dressing up in men's clothes to travel more freely, and fictional women like Kate endorsing a masculine role. But Lawrence fails to subvert the male-female stereotypes entirely, when a formerly strong and independent Kate, whom the Mexicans admired and scorned for "talk[ing] as cleverly as a man" (PS 411), is finally married off and subjected to Cipriano and his aggressive masculinity, after having discovered "her greater womanhood" (PS 132) thanks to the Men of Quetzalcoatl.

17What the example of Kate shows is that Lawrence is capable of challenging conventional representations of race in colonial literature by inverting the established pattern of romantic relationships between male European travellers and indigenous women (Doyle 1). Most of his travelling heroines have love affairs with native men (Kate, Alvina, Dollie in "The Princess" and potentially Tansy), while the male characters fail in their romantic pursuits with native women – Richard abandons the idea of seducing the Australian Victoria and Aaron's Marchesa is in fact American. Thus it seems as though only relationships between a British woman and a native man offer the prospect of a creative union, thanks to which she is awakened to blood-consciousness.

18Unfortunately the relationships themselves conform to gender conventions, as I have mentioned, since Kate and Alvina finally take on the roles of housewives and subscribe to the traditional view of women as sources of stability and shelter : "Ciccio and Pancrazio clung to her, essentially, as if she saved them also from extinction. It needed all her courage. Truly, she had to support the souls of the two men" (LG 314). Beyond the merely domestic support expected of them, Lawrence's female protagonists are required to play a central part in the building of a new political and religious order in the foreign communities they have joined. But rather than making them active participants in this collective enterprise, Lawrence restricts Kate and "the Woman" to the passive role of instruments used by the male leaders of those communities. By embodying the Indian goddess Malintzi, Kate only becomes the spiritual wife of Cipriano's Huitzilopochtli and the stabilising female entity in the Quetzalcoatl trinity. Likewise, "the Woman" is essential to the spiritual renewal of the Chilchuis, yet she is kept isolated from the rest of the tribe and plays the most submissive of parts in the final sacrificial ritual, which again subverts Western ideas of white domination but complies with patriarchal conceptions.

19In fact, Lawrence's whole understanding of the male and female essences and the relationship between the two relies largely upon patriarchal notions of male activity and female passivity, as he explains in Study of Thomas Hardy: "The goal of the male impulse is the announcement of motion, endless motion, endless diversity, endless change. The goal of the female impulse is the announcement of infinite oneness, of infinite stability." (STH 69). This analysis seems to partly contradict his use of female travellers, who, as I have shown, are more inclined towards the outside world and its altering influence, than their male counterparts, but the key notion here is once again female stability, upon which male creative activity depends. By staging female travellers who become indispensable to the renewal of foreign societies, Lawrence draws an allegorical picture of the renewal he advocates for English society and the underlying, supportive role women should play in its creation. Meanwhile, Lawrencian women's natural openness to a potential alteration of the self and greater sensitivity to blood-consciousness make them ideal embodiments of Lawrence's metaphysical principles, transferred onto a foreign scene.

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Doyle Mark, Race, Romance and Imperialism : Interracial Relationships in Victorian Literature, Bloomington, Indiana University, 2011.

Lawrence D. H., Aaron’s Rod. Ed. Mara Kalnins, The Cambridge edition of the letters and works of D. H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

– Kangaroo. Ed. Bruce Steele, The Cambridge edition of the letters and works of D. H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

– The Lost Girl. Ed. John Worthen, The Cambridge edition of the letters and works of D. H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 1981.

– The Plumed Serpent. Ed. L. D. Clark, The Cambridge edition of the letters and works of D. H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

– The Rainbow. Ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes, The Cambridge edition of the letters and works of D. H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

– Sea and Sardinia. Ed. Mara Kalnins, The Cambridge edition of the letters and works of D. H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

– St Mawr and other stories. Ed. Brian Finney, The Cambridge edition of the letters and works of D. H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

– Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays. Ed. Bruce Steele, The Cambridge edition of the letters and works of D. H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

– Twilight in Italy, Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

– The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories. Ed. Dieter Mehl, Christina Jansohn, The Cambridge edition of the letters and works of D. H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Lawrence Karen R., Penelope Voyages : Women and Travel in the British Literary Tradition, Cornell University Press, 1994.

Millett Kate, Sexual Politics, London, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1970.

The Times Literary Supplement, 2 November 1962, about Massingham Hugh and Pauline, The Englishman Abroad, London, Phoenix House, 1962.

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Electronic reference

Fiona Fleming, « Lawrence's Female Travellers »Études Lawrenciennes [Online], 49 | 2019, Online since 01 April 2019, connection on 28 November 2020. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Fiona Fleming

Fiona Fleming has a PhD from Paris Nanterre University which she prepared under the supervision of Professor Crowley. She studied the use of Nature in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the genesis of Lady Chatterley’s Lover for her Master’s Degree and worked on foreigners and foreignness in D.H.Lawrence’s work for her thesis.


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Études lawrenciennes est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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