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Georgia Alù. Beyond the Traveller’s Gaze: Expatriate Ladies Writing in Sicily (1848-1910). Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008. ISBN: 9783039110537. Price: US$82.95/£40.00Annemarie McAllister. John Bull’s Italian Snakes and Ladders: English Attitudes to Italy in the mid-nineteenth Century. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. ISBN: 9781847182623. Price: US$52.99/£34.99

  • Carl Lehnen

…more information

  • Carl Lehnen
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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In the study of art and culture, it is easy to feel torn between two levels of analysis: on the one hand, the general view capable of synthesizing broad swaths of data into a memorable picture; on the other, the loving attention to detail characteristic of close readings. These two books present the advantages and drawbacks to each approach. While both concern themselves with Britain’s relation to Italy in the nineteenth century, McAllister aims at an ambitious survey of how Englishness was constructed in relation to representations of Italy in the mid-Victorian period, whereas Alù’s book is more modest, offering case studies of three women from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century who lived in Sicily and wrote about it in letters, memoirs, and histories.

McAllister’s book is wide-ranging in terms of both its archive and its analysis. It covers the high and the low, the canonical and the little known, discussing not only The Woman in White (1859-60), but also Wilkie Collins’s more obscure first novel, Antonina (1850), about the Goths’ invasion of Rome. Of particular interest is her generous attention to illustrations in Punch and the Illustrated London News, which makes the book a valuable supplement to other studies primarily concerned with examples from literature or high art. Its organization is topical, highlighting Italy’s high profile in almost every important aspect of Victorian culture—literature, art, music, history, and politics—and the multiplicity of responses that it elicited. As McAllister writes,

Representations of Italians in the mid-nineteenth century can feature them as cowards yet brave patriots, effeminate yet potent seducers, dirty peasants yet sophisticated artists, simple and childlike yet cunning and manipulative, morally bankrupt yet primally innocent, and inheritors of the glory of Rome and the Renaissance—yet incapable of gaining or ruling their own country.

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McAllister is to be commended for tackling so much in a short study, and for keeping in constant view the sheer variety of these often contradictory views of Italy. Anyone interested in a survey of Italy’s symbolic importance to England would do well to consult this book. At the same time, the book’s organization can occasionally feel a bit loose. For instance, chapter seven begins with a discussion of representations of Italians as dirty or unhygienic, then moves on to a fascinating investigation of illustrations that depict Italian organ grinders as simian or degenerate, before culminating in an analysis of the trope of the Italian villain, particularly as it relates to Count Fosco in Collins’s The Woman in White. All three subjects deserve attention, but beyond their dealing with negative representations, there’s not much to connect these case studies beyond an appeal to certain broad themes, such as othering, projection, and ambivalence.

McAllister attributes the diversity of these representations of Italy to the ambivalence and uncertainty that the English middle-class male felt about his own place in the world. Drawing from the work of John Tosh and Herbert Sussman on Victorian masculinities, McAllister argues that the anxieties surrounding bourgeois masculinity created the “need to maintain or improve one’s standing and to separate oneself from females, foreigners, and ‘lower’ social classes who might be jockeying for one’s rights or position” (29). With clear debts to Edward Said and, to a lesser extent, Homi Bhabha, she argues that the nineteenth-century bourgeois male attempted to bolster his own identities by imagining Italy either as an abjected “other” or, in the wake of the Risorgimento, as a fledgling nation eager to follow Britain’s example.

The wealth of evidence that McAllister provides makes clear that some such relationship existed, but this thesis is not substantially developed beyond the rather familiar themes of othering, projection, and mimicry. This may be due at least in part to the limitations of the book’s central metaphor, John Bull playing a game of snakes and ladders with representations of Italy. Under this model, McAllister posits a characteristic English subject, John Bull, who is continually anxious and defensive because he is so deficient in self-consciousness, intent to claim the highest degree of power and security because his defenses are so flimsy, and always desiring and fearing the unknown because he knows so little. The idea of Italy is important to him, but only insofar as it either inflates or threatens his self-esteem, thus sending him up a ladder or down a snake. For such a figure, any appreciation of Italian art or support for Italian unification must be balanced by denigrating them as primitive or effeminate. This thesis about projection and othering seems persuasive on the whole, but at times one wishes for more attention to figures like the Brownings, John Ruskin, and George Eliot, whose interest in Italy cannot be easily summed up in such dichotomous terms.

McAllister’s analysis is more nuanced and rewarding when she leaves John Bull to one side and focuses on a particular case study, as she does with a reading of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii (1834) as an investigation of the ideal of English gentlemanliness in a chapter on English interest in the Roman Empire, or with a discussion of how illustrators and artists evolved an “equivocal pastoral discourse” (132) by highlighting the peasantry and the picturesque even in depictions of Italy’s cities. One of the most successful chapters examines how “Italy” circulated as a form of cultural capital in the interconnected realms of music, ballet, and the visual arts. Making the most of the “myth of Italian musical superiority” (110), English singers often took Italian names or did their best to highlight connections to the peninsula, however slight. Through reviews, biographies and portraits of performers, and illustrations of major set-pieces, the press made it possible for middle class audiences to display familiarity with Italian music and opera even without ever attending a performance. McAllister writes of the irony that, although English audiences gained cultural and social capital from this familiarity, these benefits were seldom shared by the performers themselves, many of whom were Italian (118). The low status of musicians and the association of the performing arts with foreigners thus further discouraged their being taken seriously as professions for the English, even as others attempted to establish an English opera company, and a critic for the lllustrated London News lamented that London was “the only capital in Europe” without one (122). Chapters like this one, which bring to light the intricate ties between English and Italian culture in a particular realm, and which therefore balance the general with the particular, make this study valuable.

Giorgia Alu’s Beyond the Traveller’s Gaze attempts a similar balance, but instead of starting with a general thesis and working down to examples, she begins with three case studies of women who settled in Italy, and works upward, in the process searching for points of comparison which establish the typicality or peculiarity of her key figures. The topic of travel writing and Italy has been the subject of numerous books, such as John Pemble’s The Mediterranean Passion: Victorians and Edwardians in the South (1997) and James Buzard’s The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to “Culture,” 1800-1918 (1993). In addition, Nelson Moe’s The View from Vesuvius: Italian Culture and the Southern Question (2002) and John Dickie’s Darkest Italy: The Nation and Stereotypes of the Mezzogiorno, 1860-1900 (1999) take on the position of southern Italy in particular. However, with her close attention to her case studies, Giorgia Alù reminds us of the seemingly inexhaustible wealth of writing about Italy that the Victorians produced and the opportunities it presents for theorizing the interrelated questions of gender, authorship, ethnography, and politics. Her study makes a particular contribution in focusing on the writing of three women who actually lived in Sicily, often marrying an Italian or a member of the expatriate British community there. Whereas most literature on travel writing and Italy “tends to analyse travel texts without distinguishing between works written during a brief visit to Italy and those produced during a longer sojourn or even permanent residence” (15), Alù uses these works by women with more intimate ties to the island to rethink questions of otherness, identification, and cultural and linguistic translation.

The subject of the first case study is Mary Charlton Pasqualino, a woman from Northumberland who at age thirty married a Sicilian marquis. In the year before her marriage, in 1849, she wrote a series of letters to her brother with the intent of explaining the current social and political situation (especially important at the time because of the recent uprising against the Bourbon monarchy), which were edited by him for publication in 1850. The second case study concerns Louise Hamilton Caico, who was born in Nice in 1859 to an Irish father and a French mother, was educated in England and France, and lived most of her life in Italy. In 1910, she published Sicilian Ways and Days, an ethnographic account of Sicilian traditions and culture. Finally, the third discusses Tina Whitaker Scalia, who was born in London in 1858 to expatriate Italian parents. After Unification, the family returned to their home in Sicily, and Tina, who had been baptized an Anglican, married into a prominent British commercial family on the island. In 1907, she published Sicily and England, at once a memoir, a family history, and a political history of the Risorgimento.

Alù continually stresses how these women sought to construct a self through their writings that would make sense of, and capitalize on, their outsider status and multiple sites of belonging. The focus then, is not their perspective on Sicily, or what that perspective has to say about the construction of Englishness, but what it has to say about them as writers and as women in transition from one place to another. Because they all chose to write in fields dominated by men—history, politics, and ethnography—they had to take pains to establish their authority as women writers. They did so by writing themselves into these national and regional histories by means of their own personal histories. Thus, Pasqualino claims the authority to write about politics and revolution based on her position as an eyewitness, and couches her history in the often feminized genre of the letter. Similarly, Caico adopts the scientific language of an ethnography to write about Sicilian culture, but makes her gender a qualification by writing on domestic matters and the position of women. Whitaker, like Pasqualino, also writes about the struggle for Italian nationhood, but couches it in terms of the history of her own family and her parents’ connections to Italian writers, artists, and intellectuals who supported the Risorgimento.

As Alù’s title implies, these women also base their authority on the fact that, although they are all to some extent outsiders on the island, their knowledge of it comes “off the beaten track,” from a long-term residence there. On the other hand, as women with varying degrees of identification with Britain and with the British audiences for whom they primarily wrote, their sympathy and concern for the Italians was often “imbued with assumptions of Northern superiority” (88). For instance, Pasqualino argued passionately on behalf of the rebellious Sicilians, thus laying claim to her own nascent Italian identity, but did so with the clear hope that Sicilian independence from the Bourbon monarchy would bring closer associations to England and an English-style constitution (90). Similarly, as the daughter of Sicilians writing a history of her family, Whitaker clearly identifies with them, but she also saw the island through the eyes of the upper-class British colony there, attributing many of Italy’s contemporary problems to the Italian aristocracy’s lack of power and position, and in particular to the absence of any equivalent to Britain’s House of Lords (216). Caico also demonstrated a sincere interest in documenting the peculiarities of Sicilian culture in the years after Unification, but she depicts it “as a microcosm separated from any other Italian reality,” a supposedly archaic and “orientalized” place, “rendered temporally and spatially distant from her target reader” (168). Thus, each writer played “a game of identification and non-identification,” strategically adopting the status of insider participant or outsider observer as the case suited them (201)

Alù’s study may not do much to redraw the boundaries of its field or to retheorize the relationships among gender, travel, nationality, and writing; indeed, at one point she acknowledges as much, and argues for the value of reading broadly as well as deeply, since attention to these less known figures “give the modern reader the certainty that cases like [Margaret] Fuller Ossoli, [Elizabeth] Barrett Browning or [Theodosia] Trollope are not isolated” and make it possible for “foreign women’s interest in the Italian cause” to be “more widely historicized” (106). Such a task may not be glamorous, but it is vital to the ongoing work of literary and cultural analysis, and it is one that Alù accomplishes with admirable care and patience.

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