“Worlds of Knowledge in Women’s Travel Writing”, edited by James Uden


I was reading Worlds of Knowledge in Women’s Travel Writing on an airplane when the pilot suddenly announced that we would be returning to our airport of origin due to a possible issue with the plane’s de-icing system. It was only my third flight since the onset of the pandemic and things were not going smoothly. As my plane banked sharply, my mind turned to the words of the volume’s editor, James Uden, who references the hurdles of COVID-era travel in the introduction. 


With an eye to history … we might say that travel is not unprecedentedly difficult. It is difficult again. Only in the twentieth century did societies normalize the expectation that people could travel vast distances without the threat of personal danger, the hassles of overburdened infrastructure, and the perils of contagious disease.


I eventually arrived at my destination many hours late, but compared to Rose de Freycinet, who endured the slow sinking of her ship Uranie off the Falkland Islands in 1820, I had scant reason for complaint.


Worlds of Knowledge in Women’s Travel Writing, James Uden (trans) (Harvard University Press, February 2022)
Worlds of Knowledge in Women’s Travel Writing, James Uden (trans) (Harvard University Press, February 2022)

Worlds of Knowledge in Women’s Travel Writing is the third publication of Boston University’s Travel Studies Research Group and the first to focus on women travelers and authors. The Research Group has an “aim to avoid the tendency to focus predominantly on English-language texts in studies of travel literature.” Worlds of Knowledge does not fully realize this aim, as five of the contributions focus on 18th and 19th century British authors, including Jane Austen, George Sand, and Isabella Bird. Elizabeth C Goldsmith examines the 1817 travel journal of the aforementioned Rose de Freycinet, a Frenchwoman. Only the final contribution (not counting a brief afterword) focusses on a non-European traveler.

The destinations of the book’s travelers are somewhat more diverse. Lady Elizabeth Craven’s travels in the Ottoman Empire and Crimea from 1785 to 1786 is the subject of a study by Roberta Micallef. As a woman, Craven had access to harems and she used this access to disabuse her readers of their Orientalist images of sexually alluring harem woman. She did so, Micallef argues, out of a competitive impulse, not a sense of female solidarity, for Craven’s solidarities were those of race and class. In “Speaking Without Language: Nineteenth-Century British Women Travelers in Iran and India”, Sunil Sharma presents a more sympathetic portrayal of British women’s attempts at cross-cultural exchange across the barriers of language and colonial power hierarchies. Sarah Frederick tracks the well-known traveler Isabella Bird to Meiji period Kobe and Kyoto, Japan, where she visited a missionary school and the Christian Doshisa University, had an hours long discussion with the Buddhist priest Akamatsu Renjō, and fashioned her persona as a knowledgeable cosmopolitan through her travel record.

Daniel Majchrowicz’s “Begum Hasrat Mohani and Her Journey to Iraq” is the highlight of the book. Unlike other chapters, it is a translation preceded by a substantive introduction rather than a scholarly analysis. The translation is of a series of Urdu letters written in 1936 by an Indian Muslim on pilgrimage to Mecca via Iraq, finally giving us the perspective of an Asian traveler. Majchrowicz breaks the mold of the book, and while the earlier chapters are engaging and insightful, these translations are a vital contribution to the project as a whole.

Nishat un-Nisa, also known as Begum Hasrat Mohani, was a deeply religious Sunni Muslim from northern India, a devoted wife and mother, and an anti-colonial activist. Her letters, addressed to her daughter during her pilgrimage, are full of the familiar minutia of travel, from the frustration of sharing a train car with distinctly unfriendly occupants to the availability, diversity, and cost of foods; from run-ins with bureaucratic regimes of passport control to fears of being cheated. From Baghdad she writes:


There are lots of meat and fruit shops … Turnips, carrots, sweet lemons, sour lemons, bananas – everything, in fact, is available here. The kampat stores are massive and filled with countless varieties of chocolates and biscuits … There’s also lots of beef available. And buffalo too. The cream is made from buffalo milk … You can get paneer and khoya, and every sort of vegetable.


Intriguingly, she also notes the availability of “plenty of goods from Japan” in Baghdad markets, as well as “Japanese rubber shoes” made locally.

Alongside such descriptions of local color are accounts of worship. Her main destinations in Iraq are Shia shrines and at one point she shares her physical reaction— “I felt sick to my stomach”—upon witnessing in Karbala the “exact spot where Imam Husain was killed.” With great ease, un-Nisa goes from describing electrified homes, the cinema, and ships laden with petroleum, to referencing her religious reverence. In an easily missed but remarkable detail, she also moves with ease from dating her third letter “Wednesday, February 5th, ’36” to dating her fourth letter “Friday, 12 Zi Qa’dah 1356,” “a reflection of her shift from a Western to an Islamic context” according to Majchrowicz’s note.


Travel is, of course, about traversing space. It is also about encountering and sometimes inventing difference. The experiences and words of travelers are shaped by prior accounts and literary conventions, which are then overwritten by new accounts in a largely linear process, as with a palimpsest.

We see all this throughout the book. But the letters of Nishat un-Nisa’s offers something further: a woman who traversed time and who also occupied multiple temporalities, not as an exercise in marking the Other as stuck in the past, but as a commonplace reality of her own lived experience. It is her voice that makes the generalized title Women’s Travel Writing defensible for a book that narrowly centers European authors, and it is Majchrowicz’s published and forthcoming works on Urdu travel writing that appear poised to push studies of travel writing in exciting and necessary directions.

Elizabeth Lawrence is Assistant Professor of History at Augustana College.