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Elizabeth Bohls, Women Travel Writers, Landscape and the Language of Aesthetics, 1716-1818. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0 521 47458 2 (hardback). Price: £ 35.00 (US$49.95)[Notice]

  • Gary Kelly

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  • Gary Kelly
    University of Alberta

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 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: 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 …