Megan Norcia’s book is a well-researched and highly informative study of geography primers written by women writers in the span of the long nineteenth century. The authors she features, such as Priscilla Wakefield, Barbara Hofland, Mary Anne Venning, Favell Lee Mortimer or Mary Helena Cornwall Legh, include names most scholars of nineteenth-century literature will not recognize, but Norcia’s arguments for why their works deserve attention are compelling.
Whether one wishes to gain knowledge about one of the few socially acceptable outlets available to nineteenth-century women passionate about social sciences such as geography but discouraged from scientific careers, or whether one aspires to get a better understanding of the process through which imperial dogmas were popularized, the geography primers Norcia has recovered constitute a rich, even if hitherto overlooked, field for study. Norcia does a fine job showcasing the various uses to which these textbooks can be put by both scholars of nineteenth-century Britain and feminist geographers.
Sharing the fate of many women-authored popular texts, the primers featured in this monograph are long out of circulation, and many of them have barely survived in national library collections. At the time of their original appearance, however, many of these works generated considerable attention, going through numerous reprints and decades of considerable sales. For instance, E[lizabeth] R[oberts]’ Geography and History, Selected by a Lady, for the Use of Her Own Children (1790), went through twenty-two editions and continued to be reprinted and sold until 1859. According to Norcia, the reasons behind these books’ disappearance from historical notice include, 1) the disdain, still prevailing to this day, for didactic literature, initiated by the male Romantics resentful of the commercial success of their female counterparts; 2) the general academic disregard of children’s literature; and 3) the conventional view of geography as a masculine and male domain. It is characteristic of the recent changes disciplines like geography have been undergoing, and is also a tribute to the increasing interdisciplinary scope of literary studies, that monographs like Norcia’s are appearing. The publication of these interdisciplinary studies contributes new knowledge to a range of academic fields.
In her book, Norcia reminds us that ideologies such as imperialism do not become hegemonic overnight; before they come to be viewed as natural and taken for granted, substantial political and pedagogical work is required. Reading and analyzing nineteenth-century novels, essays and periodicals, scholars have gleaned much about the process of dissemination of the ideas of imperialism among the Victorian adult populations. But unless Victorianists turn their attention also to texts written for children, including textbooks, a substantial piece will remain missing from our understanding of how the machinery of British imperialism was buttressed and sustained. Here, Norcia’s monograph has much to offer by focusing on the rhetorical strategies nineteenth-century geography primers employed to plant the seeds of ideas such as Anglo-Saxon racial supremacy or the need for a British civilizing mission in the minds of the Victorian youth. By using familial figures like the “Family of Man” or the “Imperial Dinner Party,” the writers of these books were able both to explain complex, abstract concepts such as the nation and the empire in familiar terms, and to represent unequal power relations among different nations, with Britain at the top, of course. Furthermore, adding to our understanding of the gendered dimensions of British imperialism, Norcia notes that employing these kinds of domestic metaphors helped the primers’ women authors to legitimate their roles as writers in this field.
While, perhaps predictably, the nineteenth-century primers’ overall message was supportive of the British imperial mission, and while these texts disseminated appropriately gendered lessons about the different roles for women and men in the British Empire, Norcia finds some interesting subterranean fissures in these official messages. After all, most of these authors, however much they might have been eager to travel and experience foreign geography first-hand, were kept from travels by their gender. In writing textbooks for their own and other people’s children, they had to rely on travelogues by their more fortunate male counterparts. While publishing geography primers provided a socially acceptable outlet for these women’s passion for geography, some of these texts bear marks of their authors’ discontent, including signs of resentment toward boy readers who will have opportunities to travel that the authors themselves were less able to enjoy.
Equally interesting are the marks of indigenous peoples’ resistance which are inscribed into these texts (likely without the authors’ intention). For example, Norcia highlights a South African’s gloss of Europeans as “white animals” (160) as well as a Chinese character’s description of the English as “sea devils” (185). She convincingly reads such moments as containing potentially thought-provoking, alternative messages for the Victorian reader about the discursive strategies and mechanics of Othering. Finally, Norcia’s reading of the metaphor of the Family of Man against the context of nineteenth-century debates between monogenesists and polygenesists complicates our understanding of the term. While the family metaphor could provide a patronizing depiction on non-Europeans as children in need of supervision by the presumably benevolent, parental Britain, when contrasted with the polygenesists’ arguments of different origins for different peoples, the trope of one Family of Man comes across as surprisingly progressive in its insistence on the shared origin and humanity of all.
Among the strengths of Megan Norcia’s monograph is its long span, which enables the author to make generalizations about the developments in the geography primers’ rhetorical strategies from one generation to the next. The author, for instance, notes an increased ease with alternative, indigenous perspectives in the primers written after mid-nineteenth century, and she historicizes and contextualizes these changes and developments. A good balance between archival work and theoretical analysis is among the other strengths of the study. Being equally comfortable with original primary sources and current-day theoretical discourses, Norcia not only unearths interesting texts for Victorian scholars to consider but also does significant innovative work analyzing and discussing these texts in the light of contemporary feminist and post-colonial theoretical agendas. X Marks the Spot is thus a valuable addition to the nineteenth-century scholarship.
Iveta Jusova teaches at Antioch University, where she is the director of Women’s and Gender Studies in Europe program. She is the author of The New Woman and the Empire (2005), as well as of numerous articles on nineteenth-century British and Continental women writers and actresses.