Does mobility always equal freedom? Traditional travel writing, with its inspirational tales of epic journeys, would have us believe this is the case, but it is not always so. Wandering, moving and travel can also come from a place of forced necessity and difficult circumstances, both today and in the past.
In her new book, Women Wanderers and the Writing of Mobility 1784–1814, Associate Professor Ingrid Horrocks of Massey University’s School of English and Media Studies reveals the significance of representations of women wanderers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly in the work of women writers. It is an exploration of the history of movement, in particular women’s movement, and it shows how paying attention to the figure of the woman wanderer sheds new light on women and travel, and alters assumptions about mobility’s connection with freedom.
Rather than taking the obvious approach of looking at travel writing, the book instead uses the idea of a mobility studies framework, which looks at all kinds of movement, including that forced by insecurity of housing, or mundane movements such as visiting relatives or going to work. ‘I write about what I call reluctant wanderers, people who are on the move, but not by their own choice,’ says Associate Professor Horrocks. ‘I am interested in what that does to subjectivity and life narratives, how stories are told, and what kind of novels and poetry are written.’
The book explores the perils and challenges written about by four British women writers of the Romantic period, who wrote about those who ventured, or were forced, from home to encounter the world at large. Often frowned on socially for stepping out, these women encountered and were influenced by the turbulence of the times, from the effects of the French Revolution to the uncertainties of juggling writing, motherhood, love, debt and the desire for independence.
I write about what I call reluctant wanderers, people who are on the move, but not by their own choice.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR INGRID HORROCKS
One was English Romantic poet and novelist Charlotte Turner Smith (1749–1806), who began writing while in debtor’s prison with her husband. Later, unable to find secure lodging, she was forced to move every year with her nine living children, and she used her writing to support her family. Another is English satirical novelist, diarist and playwright Frances Burney (1776–1828), whose long novel The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties is about a female refugee trying to find work, security and physical safety while homeless.
Also featured is English writer, philosopher and advocate of women’s rights Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797). Her book Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark describes her travels in Scandinavia with her baby, at a time in her life when she was experiencing deep homelessness — literal, political, emotional and aesthetic.
‘This period is when people formulated a lot of the ideas of travel as a great adventure and a realisation of the self, and that is mainly seen in male travel writing and poetry,’ explains Associate Professor Horrocks. ‘The texts I look at are early efforts to think through what it means to move under difficult circumstances. They’re real, early, evocative narratives of uprootedness, quite different to the glossiness of a travel book. This sometimes creates quite messy narratives. Some of these women are quite consciously creating fragmentary texts to develop what they actually want to say about their situations.’
Although historical, Women Wanderers is relevant to the situations of many women today who are facing reluctant movements due to difficult circumstances.
As well as her historical research, Associate Professor Horrocks has a creative practice as a travel writer and essayist. Her most recent project was Gone Swimming, an account of a swimming journey through the New Zealand landscape. Driving from Wellington to Auckland, she swam in as many places as she could, with the aim of using this as a way of thinking about our landscape and the state of our rivers. ‘I swam in some dirty rivers,’ she says, ‘so I wasn’t seeking out tourist destinations. I was exploring how I could use writing about travel to communicate to a wider audience. I also got sick while I did it, which wasn’t part of the plan, but maybe was inevitable. Mary Wollstonecraft says travel is a branch of the art of thinking, and I think in a way that’s what joins all my work.’