by rebecca butler
Rebecca Butler is a Research Assistant at CTWS. She recently obtained her PhD from the School of English Literature at Bangor University, where she was supervised by (the late) Dr Stephen Colclough and Prof. Andrew Hiscock. Her thesis focusses on questions of political advocacy and literary authority in Victorian women’s travel writing surrounding the Risorgimento in Italy.
Despite the prevailing gender ideology that politics was beyond their proper sphere, British middle-class women were conspicuous in their advocacy for the Risorgimento. In fact, Pamela Gerrish Nunn argues that Victorian women’s discourses surrounding the Italian question provide an index of their shifting role and representation in British society in the decades leading up to the suffragist campaigns.
Travel writing is an apposite genre through which to examine the extent of this discursive engagement. The greater accessibility of the Continent made it easier for upper and middle-class women to travel, albeit under male protection. If purportedly journeying in pursuit of health or cultural enlightenment, Victorian women also enjoyed unprecedented political authority as eye-witnesses to the Risorgimento. Many female tourists brought material in their luggage to supply General Garibaldi and his army with their famed “red shirts”. Small wonder that customs officers ransacked tourists’ suitcases “as if […] a Mazzini would be found hidden in every carpet-bag”, as one traveller August Ludwig von Rochau complained. A few women travellers even acted as political messengers for the revolutionary exile. More frequently (and more legitimately), however, female tourists acted as emissaries for the Risorgimento through their travel accounts.
It was with the particular aim of raising money for the revolutionary exile Ferdinando Gatteschi that Mary Shelley published her travel book Rambles in Germany and Italy […] (1844). Significantly, however, Shelley did not discuss her revolutionary fundraising efforts with her publisher Edward Moxon. Instead, she pitched Rambles in conventionally feminine terms as “light” and “amusing”, avoiding mention of politics. Although often transgressed in actuality, the Victorian middle-class gender ideology of separate spheres nonetheless affected the critical reception of women’s travel writing, impacting on women's political engagement in print.
The etymology of the word Risorgimento, which means a resurgence, rebirth or resurrection, lent itself well to feminine mythologies of the movement. The allegorical representation of Italy as Italia – a woman in chains – further accommodated proto-feminist interpretations of Italian nationalism. One book in particular, Madame de Staël’s Corinne, ou Italie (1807), solidified the imaginative association of Italy with a woman’s country, as a space where women could (paradoxically) enjoy greater freedoms than at home. A bestseller into the 1870s, Corinne offered a flattering model for later women travel writers to adapt by imagining Italy as the home of female creative genius. Declared “[T]he image of our beautiful Italy”, the eponymous heroine also provided a modern allegory for Italy’s political situation, imbricating the woman question with the Italian question.
Women travel writers typically approached the Italian question through domestic discourses. Some – like Shelley – emphasised women’s role in the rebirth of the young nation as civic mothers. This strategy was also used by Mazzini to rally Englishwomen in support of the cause. Others, such as Florence Nightingale, framed their political inquiries as spiritual pilgrimages with Italy’s moral regeneration or resurrection at the bourn. However, as the Risorgimento took a violent turn with the 1848 revolutions, it became more difficult to accommodate Italian politics to conventionally feminine discourses. Accordingly, the didactic travel writer Selina Bunbury asserted her literary authority against Italian revolutionism. Others like Margaret Dunbar grew strangely quiet about the Italian question, focussing instead on a picturesque Italy, sanitized of revolutionary violence.
The relationship between the campaign for female suffrage and Italian independence was therefore much more complicated than the Corinne myth might suggest. Victorian women’s Italianate travel writing may provide an index of their changing role in British society. However, it also evidences women writers’ strategic engagement with the Risorgimento according to its shifting political capital in Britain. Rather than propelling a mutually reinforcing, proto-feminist narrative of women’s liberal engagement with the Risorgimento, Victorian women's travel accounts more often reveal these two campaigns as competing sites of authority.
- Bunbury, Selina, A Visit to the Catacombs, or First Christian Cemeteries at Rome: and a Midnight Visit to Mount Vesuvius (London: W.W. Robinson, 1849)
- Chapman, Alison, ‘On Il Risorgimento’, BRANCH <http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=alison-chapman-on-il-risorgimento> [accessed 30 June 2014]
- De Staël, Madame, Corinne, or, Italy, trans. by Isabel Hill (London: Richard Bentley, 1833)
- Foster, Shirley, Across New Worlds: Nineteenth-Century Women Travellers and their Writings (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990)
- Moskal, Jeanne, ‘Gender and Italian Nationalism in Mary Shelley’s Rambles in Germany and Italy’, Romanticism, 5 (1999), 188-201
- Nightingale, Florence, Florence Nightingale in Rome: Letters Written by Florence Nightingale in Rome in the Winter of 1847-1848, ed. by Mary Keele (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1981)
- Nunn, Pamela G., ‘Liberty, Equality and Sorority: Women’s Representations of the Unification in Italy’, in Unfolding the South: Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers and Artists in Italy, ed. by Alison Chapman and Jane Stabler (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), pp. 110-36
- O’Connor, Maura, The Romance of Italy and the English Imagination (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998)
- Shelley, Mary, Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843, 2 vols (London: Edward Moxon, 1844)
- Von Rochau, A[ugust] L[udwig], Wanderings through the Cities of Italy in 1850 and 1851, trans. by Mrs Percy Sinnett, 2 vols (London: Richard Bentley, 1853)