Elizabeth Bohls's Women Travel Writers and the Language of Aesthetics, 1716-1818 is the thirteenth in the Cambridge Studies in Romanticism series, which has Marilyn Butler and James Chandler as its General Editors and a distinguished editorial board of British and American Cultural Materialists and New Historicists. The series represents this span of critical interests and Bohls's contribution represents what might be called California New Historicism.
Bohls's book is an invigorating study of the social politics of landscape and aesthetic response in several British women writers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. These include Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Janet Schaw, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Shelley. An introduction first sets out the main terms of the critical argument. Taking aesthetics as an emergent male-dominated discourse in the eighteenth century, Bohls declares that
This study presents a group of women writers who nonetheless broke out of masculine tutelage to make unrecognized contributions during the formative period of modern aesthetic thought. From Montagu in the early eighteenth century to Mary Shelley in the early nineteenth, these women struggled to appropriate the powerful language of aesthetics, written by men from a perspective textually marked as masculine. They certainly aspired to share in aesthetics' authority and prestige, but they also challenged its most basic assumptions.p. 3
They pursued these aims not in "the usual genres of aesthetic theory—the discourse, treatise, or inquiry—but instead chose genres more accessible to women," namely travel writing and the novel. These women wrote as women but also, inevitably, as members of a particular class, race, and nation: "The writers I will discuss are women; they are also aristocratic or middle-class, as well as very British" (p. 6).
Within these structures of alignment and difference, the selected women writers, according to Bohls, challenged three of the "most important founding assumptions" of "modern aesthtices": the "generic perceiver" or universalized subject of aesthetic appreciation; "disinterested contemplation, the paradigm of reception that strips the subject's relation to the aesthetic object of any practical stake in that object's existence"; and "the autonomy of the aesthetic domain from moral, political, or utilitarian concerns and activities" (p. 7). The selected writers are not to be forced into a common scheme: "By calling attention to these writers' diversity, as well as their common concerns, I aim to broaden our sense of the scope of women's endeavours in this period and our means of theorizing the articulation between gender and the other factors that inflect identity and subjectivity" (p. 11). The introduction concludes that the stakes of such an enquiry are more than academic by referring to the United States Senate's attack, in the late 1980s, on funding of controversial artists by the National Endowment for the Arts:
The entire NEA debate exemplifies the continuing tension surrounding the relation between the aesthetic and the practical, artistic activity and political struggle, prominently including struggle over gender and sexuality in the homoerotic photos of Robert Mapplethorpe or Karen Finley's nude, chocolate-smearing performance art. Women writers started this controversy when modern aesthetics was in its formative stage. They initiated a counter-tradition of aesthetic thought especially valuable to those of us concerned to challenge the present-day legacy of this powerful discourse.p. 22
Chapter 1 goes on to examine "Aesthetics and Orientalism in Mary Wortley Montagu's letters," especially the now well known passage describing Montagu's visit to a women's public bath in Turkey. After close reading of this and other passages for the way they try to resist the masculine discourse of aesthetics, Bohls concludes that Montagu's letters provide an "oblique commentary on aesthetics," one that "reads as an even more oblique political comment. The most painful, deeply repressed, inarticulate and virtually inarticulable longings of eighteenth-century British women were, I suspect, not sexual but finally political" (p. 45). The next chapter jumps forward through most of the century to consider an account of a visit to the British West Indies in the mid-1770s by a well-to-do Scotswoman, Janet Schaw. The work circulated in manuscript but was unpublished until 1934. Bohls finds that Schaw's account, while resisting masculine aesthetics and conventions of travel writing, nevertheless resembles other contemporary accounts in using the aesthetic to legitimize racism and plantation slavery (p. 57).
The third chapter considers not an individual text or writer but the general topic of "Landscape aesthetics and the paradox of the female picturesque." Bohls argues that masculine aesthetic theory's pursuit of a universal standard of taste, promotion of the general and denial of the particular, and insistence on disinterestedness associate women with the excluded, namely plebians and "uncivilized" colonial people. Consequently this regime of aesthetics is challenged by women writers through their use of the late eighteenth-century discourse of the picturesque and the culture of sensibility. This chapter is a springboard for those that follow.
The next chapter, for example, considers "Helen Maria Williams' revolutionary landscapes" as found in her series of Letters from France in the early and mid-1790s, which "mobilize aestheticized nature in a sustained if increasingly strained effort to make sense of the historic events in France and naturalize them for British readers" (p. 108):
By representing the Revolution in the language of aesthetics, but doing so from such an emphatically particular, engaged position, [Williams] implicitly rejects the dominant paradigm of the disinterested aesthetic subject. Practicing an aesthetics that is openly interested, in the sense of being politically committed, she maneuvers toward a subject position with a specific gender, class, and political agenda, all of which intensify rather than hinder aesthetic appreciation.pp. 124-5
The passage is typical of Bohls's ability to apply several theoretical discourses together, with great economy and clarity. Bohls concludes that Williams's "Letters from France stages a prolonged textual encounter between aesthetics and politics, categories then in the process of being constituted as mutually exclusive" (p. 138). Two further chapters develop this line of argument by examining "Mary Wollstonecraft's anti-aesthetics", especially in her Letters from Scandinavia, and "Dorothy Wordsworth and the cultural politics of scenic tourism," as seen in her Grasmere journals and especially in her Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland.
Bohls concudes her consideration of these three writers by declaring that their travel accounts "constitute a collective rethinking of the foundations of modern easthetics," not by means of the masculine genre of the treatise "but through meaningful deviations from convention in the ways they apply aesthetic discourse." Such a conclusion has been made possible, Bohls asserts, thanks to "the massive paradigm shift commonly known as postmodernism" (p. 206), which has proved especially useful for feminism:
Both feminism and postmodernism urge us to question modes of perceiving that claim universality or disinterestedness and to uncover the structures of dominance that make them possible. My interested readings of women travel writers' critiques of aesthetics have thus taken shape in an intellectual climate receptive to just such challenges. Acknowledging this should not invalidate my work as less than objective, but rather make clear the timeliness of rereading these prescient achievements of aesthetic thought.p. 207
The resoundingness of this passage and its return to the political issues of the Introduction make it sound like a conclusion.
In fact, however, Bohls turns to consider the novel, invoking M. M. Bakhtin's argument that the novel has a unique capacity to relativize social and cultural hierarchies of discourse. Bohls seeks to exemplify this argument with chapters on "The picturesque and the female sublime in Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho ; and "Aesthetics, gender, and empire in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein ." Bohls's treatment of Radcliffe is somewhat disparaging, referring, for example, to "the reams of scenic description that ornament the first two volumes" of The Mysteries of Udolpho . Finally, she finds that Radcliffe deploys the sublime and picturesque in unreconciled ways: "While Radcliffe's female sublime explores the structure and consequences of gendered oppression, her treatment of the picturesque suggests the seductions of privilege that reconcile women to patriarchy" (p. 226). Shelley is treated more positively, as one who "carries forward Wollstonecraft's and her fellow women travelers' subversive insistence on representing the voices and subjectivities of those normally objectified by aesthetic discourse" (p. 230), including colonial subjects.
Many of the strengths of Bohls's book, like its limits and limitations, are those of the form of American new Historicism that it practises so well. There are assimilation and application of a broad range of social and critical theory; deft and discriminating use of contemporary critical and scholarly work in several fields; effective use of research from a broad range of political, cultural, and literary historiography; powerful close readings of selected texts; an open and scrupulous political motive; a strong sense of considered and consistent professional practice. There are also, at times, a simplistic representation of such movements as the Enlightenment, of historic social class or rank, and of formalism; the unexamined substitution of tropism for the condemned formalism; engagement with a series of passages at the expense of considering generic fields, textual structures, and authors' careers; the tendency to turn reference notes into a running discussion with other critics; the dismissal of "grand narratives" and unifying interpretative codes while nevertheless implying a certain developmental and teleological process; not so much a dialogue with as an appropriation or construction of the past for today's issues; a tendency to universalize to other jurisdictions issues that are current, in the form Bohl deals with them, within United States society, culture, politics, and education.
In addition, Bohls's book has some limitations of its own. It evinces fault-lines after the chapter on Schaw and the chapter on Wordsworth, leaving somewhat fragile the continuity claimed between the earlier, middle, and later writers. The category "travel writing," as applied to the writers covered here, seems similarly fragile, though this problem is addressed in part. Certain important kinds of travel writing are ignored, especially the travel of modernizing Enlightenment critique, along with important female practitioners of it such as Jemima Kindersley. Here topography could usefully be contrasted with landscape as text. The use of travel writing for female self-construction and self-assertion, in such instances as Elizabeth Craven and Hester Piozzi, is also ignored. So, too, are examples of female reworking of the otherwise masculine Grand Tour travelogue of connoisseurship and courtliness, seen in the works of Piozzi and Lady Anne Miller. Then there are women writers of guidebooks, such as J. Henrietta Pye and Ellis Cornelia Knight, who similarly challenge, burlesque, rework, or otherwise feminize this male-dominated form of travel writing. These various forms of travel writing, too, like those covered by Bohls, had their novelistic extensions. It seems odd that Williams's Letters from France are examined as travel writing but her Tour of Switzerland is ignored. The discussion of Radcliffe's representation of landscape and its relevance to the character of the novel's heroine neglects to consider Radcliffe's substantial deployment of free indirect discourse in this representation.
Some of the strengths of Bohls's book are clearly her own, too, and make the book an important contribution and stimulus to current research and criticism in several directions. These strengths include a style at once economical and clear, with numerous cases of memorable but not flashy statement of complex issues; a fine sense of tact in close reading; a strong line of argument; a respect for diversity in materials and contexts; and a sharp and energetic exercise of disciplined critical thought to texts, issues, and ideological, cultural, political, and discursive relations.